Food & Drink

Sambaza Secrets: Where to Eat

In many cultures around the world, eating an entire fish with its head, bones and tail intact is considered a delicacy.

Usually these fish are small and of the salty-water variety, which are easy to dry, deep fry or simmer: anchovies, smelt, whiting or baby sardines. But Rwanda has its own fish to fry: the delicious and delicate sambaza.

Although fish consumption in Rwanda is relatively low compared to other countries, most Rwandans, especially in the Lake Kivu area, grew up with the taste of sambaza. Kids love sambaza, and together with potato fries they make a mouth-watering Rwandan happy meal.  

isambaza courtesy @collectiverw (IG)

Sambaza look like tiny sardines but they are caught in the fresh waters of Lake Kivu.

At the end of each day, just before sunset, fishermen along the Lake Kivu shores leave their villages and set out on their boats onto the lake to catch sambaza. They maneuver their triple-hulled wooden boats with poles, as they paddle onto the vast dark lake. It is not without danger. The waters of Lake Kivu hold methane and carbon dioxide. An earthquake or storm could potentially release the gas and make the lake pop like a bottle of champagne. But as long as the sambaza are able to survive the gas, the fishermen will continue to fish.

Fishermen on Lake Kivu | bChris Schwagga

The fishermen cast their nets and use lamps and torches to attract the fish. They stay on the lake throughout the night and return in the morning, when the women set out to the markets selling the fishes, dried or fresh.

Every morning, the tiny fish are delivered in Kigali and many restaurants offer sambaza on their menu as a starter or as a snack, served on a large sharing plate. They are sprinkled with lemon, dusted in flour, fried and served hot with wedges of lemon, a dipping sauce or even a dash of pili pili.  So let’s take a look at our favorite places.

“Crépuscule au bord du lac” | Chris Schwagga

Repub Lounge

In this up-scale, trendy African restaurant in Kimihurura, the sambaza are, without question, the most popular dish on the menu. They are especially proud of their secret ingredient which keeps the fish extra crisp and the fish are served with lemon and a delicious house-made tartar sauce.

L‘Epicurien

Although this is a French restaurant, sambaza are offered on the starter menu and they don’t disappoint. This Kimihurura establishment serves the crispy fishes on lettuce leaves with a tangy lemon-mayonnaise dip.

Tam Tam

This popular, mid-size establishment near the Mosque in Nyamirambo is popular among Congolese, Burundian and local residents for its food fusion of Great lakes cuisines, of which their sambaza is particularly renown.  A plate goes for between 2500 – 3000 RwF.  Tip: Get there early! It gets crowded in the evenings, weekends and lunchtime.

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