Cooking in Rwanda: From Chocolate Chip Cookies To An Herb Called “Shannon”
One of the perks of extensive travel is meeting unique and interesting people who become friends for life. Last year, I traveled to Rwanda and met many Rwandans who were eager for me to return to teach them how to cook better. The Rwandan people have recovered incredibly after the horrific genocide in 1994, but few of them have the skills to cook the abundance of food they grow in every part of the country. When I first visited the local markets, I couldn’t believe how many different fruits, vegetables, herbs, and honeys were available. But I experienced very few tasty meals, and I met many people who admitted that most Rwandans cannot cook well.
Early this year I was given the opportunity to return to Rwanda to visit a Christian primary school named Hope Haven. It was founded by an American, Susan Hollern, and is located on the outskirts of the capital city of Kigali. About 350 children from the local township attend the school, and the parents pay a small fee for their children to attend. If the parents are unable to pay, they can work on the school grounds where there are seven acres of vegetable and fruit gardens designed and tended by an American couple, Nate and Fonda Kempton. They live on the campus, and have devoted their lives to the school and the gardens. Much of the produce from the gardens is sold to restaurants and hotels in the area, but some is cooked into the beans that the children are served forlunch. There are also dormitories where people can come and stay if they want to visit the school, bring mission groups, or attend planning meetings. There is a kitchen near the dormitories where a Rwandan cook, David, works each day to feed the Kemptons, caretakers and visitors.
A year ago, I met Hope Haven board member Christine Bess while we were in Rwanda. She contacted me a few months ago, and asked me to go to Hope Haven to teach the cooks to prepare meals for the Americans and local leaders who visit the campus. When I arrived, I was completely impressed with the entire operation, including the school buildings, enthusiastic teachers, laughing children, and smiling parents who work in the fields. The gardens of abundant food were quite impressive, and I couldn’t wait to start harvesting so I could begin creating in the kitchen.
I was taken to a large grocery store in Kigali where I purchased ingredients necessary to make the dishes I had organized in a cookbook the previous week. Fortunately, the store was very modern and supplied everything I needed. A local German butchery shop was well-stocked with fresh beef, pork, and chicken. I brought two suitcases filled with kitchen equipment and spices from the U.S. to help me with my five days of cooking at Hope Haven.
The day after I arrived, I was told that 40 Rwandan students from the organization Bridge2Rwanda were coming to Hope Haven to stay the night, and would be served dinner and breakfast. This organization selects the top academic high school students in Rwanda (and a few surrounding countries) to train for one year in order to take the ACT and SAT exams and hopefully be chosen by an American university to study in the U.S. The requirement is that these students must return to Rwanda after they receive their college degree in the U.S. Bridge2Rwanda also teaches these students American culture so they are better able to adapt when they arrive. My job was to serve them hamburgers and side dishes they would soon eat in America. David and I recruited some of the students and busily prepared 60 beef patties, potato salad, coleslaw, fruit salad, french fries, and chocolate chip cookies for 60 people. Fortunately, Nate cooked the hamburgers over a charcoal grill on the patio. The students are taught that when they are offered food that is not familiar, they should try a bite. The pickles were not well-received, but the chocolate chip cookies were a hit! The following morning, David and I prepared 250 pancakes with jam (maple syrup is too expensive in Rwanda), scrambled eggs, and bacon from the butcher. By that time, I had quite a few of the Rwandan students in the kitchen asking questions about how to prepare the food they had eaten.
The following four days were extremely busy as I tried to teach as much as I could. Some days I would have six people in the kitchen assisting and learning. Most of them didn’t speak English, but I usually had at least one person in the kitchen who could interpret. David spoke very good English, and did a good job of explaining to the others. There was one woman who really made an impact on me, though. Her name is Alena, and she works at Hope Haven in the gardens and housekeeping. I was told that she was a very quick learner, and would be a good person to train in the kitchen. She is single and has a daughter who lives at a school outside Kigali, so she is eager to work each day for many hours since she lives alone.
Alena and I became great friends even though she speaks no English. Each morning she was cleaning or gardening, and I would call her into the kitchen to cook. David didn’t arrive until later in the day, so many times Alena and I cooked before he came to work. Four other women who worked in the gardens washed dishes while we cooked, and I saw them watching us carefully to see what we were doing. Of course, they were our taste testers, too! The third day of my stay, another woman named Royce came to cook with us. She was the friend of the director of the school, and had heard about the cooking lessons. She spoke English, and was a huge help to me as she interpreted and assisted. She took many notes in her notebook that she brought, and she also became friends with Alena. Before I left, I asked Royce to stay in contact with Alena and help her when she had questions in the kitchen. My favorite moments were the times I passed out spoons for everyone to taste what we had made. The looks and smiles on everyone’s faces were my greatest reward.!
One of my goals while at Hope Haven was to prepare dishes using as many of the foods from the garden as possible. Each day I took my basket and walked the grounds collecting lettuces, basil, celery, radishes, mint, cabbage, pumpkin, and peppers. The avocado, mangos and bananas weren’t quite ready to harvest so we bought them at the local market. There was one herb that was growing wild, and no one knew its name. Its aroma was similar to mint and basil, but different from anything I had seen before. Since Nate didn’t know what it was called, he named it Shannon Herb. Each day we asked the women to go collect Shannon Herb for our salad, and they knew exactly where to go. I used it for pesto, salad dressing, fruit smoothies, and soups.!
Every day, I made a pot of chicken stock to use for soups. I took several plastic freezer containers from the U.S., and emphasized the convenience of freezing stock for future cooking. David was thrilled with this idea. We also boiled pumpkins on two occasion, and made pumpkin muffins. They were definitely one of the favorite dishes we made since they had never had pumpkin served as a sweet dish. We also made pumpkin soup using the homemade chicken stock and other vegetables from the garden. Other dishes we made were banana muffins, egg and sausage custard cups (made in muffin tins), bolognese sauce with pasta, focaccia bread, apple galette, cornbread, taco salad, taco soup, orange scones, vegetable omelets, herb potatoes, fried potato cakes, guacamole, mango salsa, coconut banana bread, cucumber salsa, and roasted pumpkin chips. The final dish we made before my departure was chicken and dumplings. It turned out perfectly, and we decided it would be a great dish for them to make over the open fire for outside events.!
At the end of my fifth day of teaching, we had tearful farewells, and the women presented me with a Rwandan apron and beaded necklace. Alena delivered a beautiful speech to me, which Royce interpreted. After many hugs, I packed my much lighter luggage and left Hope Haven knowing I would return with more to teach and learn. The Rwandan people work so hard to provide for their families and communities. They are eager to learn and so thankful for anyone willing to teach them. I’ve taken notes of how I can improve my teaching, and hopefully this knowledge will help me in other countries where I’m called to teach.