Where Wheat Grows
Growing wheat was a colonial exercise, both for agricultural trade and economic gain, and also to imprint personal and cultural identity onto colonial spaces. Abbas Asaria asks questions about how wheat has shaped East Africa, how migration plays into that and his personal relationship with these spaces.
I’m not usually a breakfast nor a morning person, but there’s one dish that definitely gets me out of bed on a weekend, Mahamri (coconut and cardamom beignets), barazi (gungo peas cooked in a creamy coconut sauce), and spicy masala tea - a very popular breakfast in parts of East Africa such as Kenya and Uganda where my grandparents are from. It brings back happy memories of Eid breakfasts at my grandmother's house, and family visits in more recent years. Despite the hundreds of mahamris I’ve eaten, and the kilos of flour I’ve kneaded in trying to reproduce them at home, it wasn’t until recently that I became aware of the history of wheat in East Africa and it's colonial legacy - with its introduction to the region in the early 20th century by the colonialist Hugh Cholmondeley, known as Lord Delamere.
It's an act that perfectly embodied the imperialist mindset. “I started to grow wheat in East Africa to prove that though I lived on the equator, I was not in any equatorial country," Delamere said; a quote that Chris Alden and Ward Anseew perfectly describe as a “denial of place [that] was the supreme act of colonialism” in their book Land, Liberation and Compromise in Southern Africa.
His early efforts were plagued by rust, a fungal parasite that affects wheat crops, and it wasn’t until almost ten years later - after having contracted professional wheat breeders and scientists - that he was able to turn a profit and fulfil his original mission. He's left a very visible legacy on Kenya’s agricultural landscape, economy and diet. The Unga Limited Company, a flour mill he set up to encourage other settlers to grow wheat, still exists today as part of the £100m+ Unga Group. Wheat is Kenya’s second most important food crop behind maize, but the demand is so high that the country actually needs to import double what it produces to meet it.
Having researched about wheat through the lens of my Khoja East African & Indian heritage and cuisine, there are some observations I would love to see as a launchpad for further investigation into the relationship of East Africa with wheat:
When I think of East African dishes that are made with wheat flour - they tend to be dishes imported from other cuisines over the last couple of centuries that have become East African staples over time. Sarah Obama famously made chapos (chapatis) to celebrate her grandson’s election victory in 2008, and I personally prefer the Kenyan style of samosa that’s developed over the years since it was brought over from India, with its thinner, crunchier dough. Kaimati, fried sweet dumplings covered in a sugary syrup, are a beloved Ramadhan snack in East Africa and is inspired by the Arab world, where it’s known as luqiamat or luqma. Not to say this trend is set in stone, however. My beloved mahamri being an exception to this is an additional thing that makes it special to me.
I typically see the opposite trend when I think of East African carbohydrate based foods made without wheat - in that they’re predominantly dishes developed on the continent. Ugali, for example, is one of the main staples of the area that accompanies stews and curries, which is mostly made from boiled cornmeal. I adore the Tanzanian light and fluffy coconut cakes (mkate wa sinia) and pancakes (vitumbua) with a cup of masala tea, though instead of flour these are made by soaking rice overnight in water and then blending, before adding yeast. It gives a very special texture and flavour, which combined with the coconut and cardamom create one of the more unique pastries I've had the pleasure of enjoying. Further inland in Uganda we have matoke: raw green bananas (not too dissimilar to plantain) which are usually mashed and served with groundnut stew (binyebwa), or made into katogo for breakfast - where it's often cooked in a sauce with various combinations of onions, groundnut, tomatoes, tripe and beans. It's a crop that unfortunately shines a light on the persevering colonial mindset that goes all the way up to the top - with the only mention of matoke in a mainstream UK publication I can recall being a Spectator article from 2002 seeking to defend the impact of British Colonialism. "If left to their own devices," PM Boris Johnson writes, "The natives would rely on nothing but the instant carbohydrate gratification of the plantain," a comment as disgusting as it is ahistorical.
There are further points of interest to look for within these non-wheat staples, and how they came to have the roles they have today. Cassava has been an East African staple in many forms since it was introduced by the Portuguese in the 17th Century, who also brought over maize a century earlier, and it would be incredibly interesting to understand and compare the relationship that East Africa has with its respective imperial projects and culinary legacies. Finally, it’s important to consider other perspectives on the relationship East Africa has with wheat.
My Indian background brings its own relationship with wheat, and our presence in East Africa is a direct result of the British Empire. There will be communities for whom staple crops such as sorghum and millet, that predate colonialism in the region by millenia, have played a larger role and created various dishes and culinary traditions - such as ajon, a millet beer that is often drunk from a communal calabash gourd with long straws during ceremonies and special events.
What are their stories, and how have wheat and other colonial endeavours affected them?
This image is is Mahamri that Abbas made accompanied by a cup of coffee; top image is one that he ordered for delivery (with bharazi and chai).
Abbas Asaria is a Madrid based supper club host and food writer. You can follow his work at @talkfoodwithabbas