Foodie Fix

Finally, A Fantastic Isombe Recipe!

About 2 years ago, while I was studying abroad, there was an international food festival organized by one of the universities in the city that I lived in.

We had a few Rwandans studying in that particular university, so they registered to showcase the delicacies of our country. Those friends invited all the Rwandans that lived in the city to be part of the event, and that’s how I ended up there.

Just like every Rwandan diaspora, we decided that isombe (pounded cassava leaves) was going to be among the foods that we were to make, so we made arrangements and got it in from Gabon (we couldn’t get anyone coming from Rwanda ), a few days prior to the Big Day.

The night before, we came together and cooked most of the foods. We boiled the isombe almost all night – but something seemed off.

We tried all we could to make it taste similar to something that we had tasted back in our homeland but with little success… it just tasted really bitter!! I don’t know if it was the type of cassava leaves they had blended, or it was our lack of the proper spices, or maybe we didn’t know how to make it. Perhaps it was a combination of all those factors.

We were determined to make it work, so one of us did a few tricks and reduced the bitterness. On the festival day, our stand was packed – a long line of eager faces from all over the world waiting to taste ‘something from Africa’, as they like to say.

With a huge smile I would say, “Please have a bit of these greens made from cassava leaves, it’s one of the things that we love eating back home”, and I would go on to explain to the curious individuals  about what cassava is, and how we serve it etc. Some loved it, and others sighed with, “hmmm it tastes healthy!” (This is usually not a compliment). 

  • Snapshot: Making friends through food – sharing isombe and other favorite Rwandan dishes

That experience left me on a quest to find a recipe of isombe that would mesmerize everyone.

So once I returned to Kigali I asked around, but most people cook without a recipe and it’s almost impossible to follow their instructions unless you follow them while they are cooking. 

This week I was so privileged to get someone who was willing to go through the process with me, and we made the best and easy  isombe! (Thank you Mama!)

Mama Jaqueline Muganga lived in DRC during the tough times in Rwanda. Lucky for us that’s where isombe originated from, so she surely is the right person to share her recipe. I will return the favor and pass it on to you.

As I sat with her at her dining table, she graciously went through the process to let me know what was to be expected.

Her face lit up brightly as she talked about all the memories that the dish holds from her childhood; she proudly managed to recreate the same sentimental experience for her own kids and all her family, and it remains their comfort and most-loved staple even as adults.

One of the things I loved about her recipe is that it’s not time consuming: only 2 hours of cooking and a few minutes of preparation and you are ready to eat, so bye-bye to a full day isombe cooking! The other thing is she relies on other greens to elevate the overall taste, not meat bones as we often see in many recipes. So this could be economical and a great way for the vegans/vegetarians to also enjoy this delicacy.

She doesn’t have any known measurements but I tried my best to note down as much as I can to make some kind of recipe, so here it goes.

[Tip: If you are not up for the cooking, Kijami Table restaurant located on the Gishushu road heading to Nyarutarama has a really authentic isombe that is served with Ubugari at only 2000 frw.]


Isombe Recipe 

Ingredients 

1 kg cassava leaves (Pounded) 

1 package spinach

4 green onions or leak, chopped 

2 green peppers 

¼ litre palm oil (high-quality)

4-5 serving spoons ground nuts 

3 Magi cubes 

3 beef spice cubes 

Salt – to taste 

2 litres water  

Instructions 

1) In a pot, cover the cassava leaves with cold water and bring to a boil. Then strain the water out, and bring it back to the pot and boil for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

2) Prepare the other vegetables, cutting them in small pieces and add to the pot. Mix and boil for another 15 minutes.

3) Add the palm oil and the ground nuts and keep stirring to avoid it sticking on the pot which will lead it to burn.

4) Season with salt and the other spices.

5) Reduce the heat to minimum and simmer for 30 min to 1 hour.

6) Serve over rice, ubugari or your preferred main dish.

NOTES

Prepare isombe properly : Eating raw or incorrectly prepared cassava can lead to severe side effects, due to the naturally-occurring cyanide present in raw cassava leaves.

The leaves matter: Be sure of the quality buy from Carrefour super market in Kisimenti, or the ‘Akeza’ brand if you can access it. Market isombe sometimes adds some rough parts of the leaves that make it time-consuming to cook. 

Spinach is key: It balances out the bitterness, do not skip this at whatever cost!

Buy quality palm oil and shake it to make sure you don’t only use the upper oil – Mama Muganga recommends you get one from Burundi or Congo.

Do not rush the first hour of boiling, this is where you get rid of the grassy unpleasant taste.

If you would like, add some captain fish fillet: to add this, boil it in another pot with some spices, and add it to the isombe during the last 20 minutes; mackerel fish is another wonderful alternative. 

Recreate this incredible delicacy that is not only delicious but also full of proteins, fiber and tons of vitamins like iron and calcium needed for your body.

Bon appétit!

Watch: Making isombe at home

{Music courtesy of Jack White}

For more food, tips and recipes, follow Phiona every Friday on #FoodieFix!


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