Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ugali Na Dagaa: A Contemplation.

Who knew that something as docile as ugali could be a cultural conversation? While I don't really pay it much mind, I am vaguely aware that folks who haven't grown up on the continent find it difficult to embrace. Ugali is not a taste that is easily acquired as an adult :) Apparently adding dagaa as the relish makes it particularly heinous. I have heard quite a number of people express their puzzlement over this apparent delicacy.

I can kind of understand how a sub-par lump of ugali made from over-refined flour that has been sitting in a silo half the year coupled with a watery mishandled dagaa stew might fail to convert a newbie to the delights of the ugali-and-preserved-fish combination. I hope this essay goes some way to convincing you to try again.

Ugali na dagaa is definitely one of my very favorite comfort foods. I love it in almost all of its iterations: strong, stiff Sukuma ugali with larger Lake Tanganyika dagaa, Zanzibari Ugali wa Mhogo with Dagaa "wabichi", sauce on the side, Ghanaian Kenkey with a tin of sardines and fresh tomato-onion-chili relish, flaky pap with pilchards in spicy chakalaka... I would even go so far as admitting that my favorite version is rough-grained cornmeal crispy-skin ugali with a side of steam/fried cabbage and crispy fried mackerel, for sentimental reasons, although that might be stretching the "dagaa" criteria a little. But then I would have to consider the magical combination of oversized Lake Tanganyike fried sato so fresh that their eyes (the best part) drip with unctuous richness over ugali steamed so long that it separates softly without leaving sticky residue on your fingers...

If you want to adventure down the road of ugali-na-dagaa cuisine, here is a list of tips and opinions that I have accrued over many years spent in pursuit of the ultimate ugali experience:

1. Know your ugali: there are lots of different grains and roots that ugali can be made from. The concept is simple: flour, water, mix, cook until desired consistency is reached and starch is cooked through. This simple formula hides a complex world of ingredient selection and techniques that can turn an unpromising ugly sister of a dish into a real cinderella for the palate. For the more adventurous, I would recommend trying cassava flour ugali with a bit of cornmeal (dona) thrown in for textural integrity. Also good: wholemeal corn ugali, sorghum ugali, millet ugali and combinations thereof with cornmeal. I have yet to try mixing in groundnuts with the starch but it is on the To Try list. Some South African restaurants offer interesting mixes where the pap is flavored with things like cheese or chilli or whatever. Lovely innovation, I am sure, but as a purist I am admittedly skeptical.

2. Know your texture: all the ugali I have eaten in Zanzibar has been cooked to a soft consistency, while the ugali I have eaten in the lake zone is usually stiff enough to be used as a weapon. There are regional variations in preferences for texture, and it is generally wise to know what works for you. For example, I can't really abide the southern African flaky ugali technique, and definitely have a great respect for cooks who can put a crust on their (medium-stiff) ugali. crunchy crust is always good in my books!

3. Know your cook: Ugali-making is a skill that not every cook has mastered. First up: ugali served in local restaurants in Dar have to balance the expectations of clients who come from all over the country, so it is generally the blandest version there is: medium, white flour, nothing interesting going on. However, if you are lucky enough to travel around, then you have to try the regional variations at the local 'hoteli'. Tips on where to find truly good stuff: find where the men hang out to eat and drink (i.e. where they go to escape from their domestic arrangements). Usually that's where the local brew is the nicest, and the cook has mastered the art of serving an ugali that meets the local critics' approval.

Of course, the ultimate ugali is the homecook's ugali. It is like the curry test: you can eat them in restaurants, sure, but if you eat a homecooked curry the improvement in quality is dramatic. The 'home table' is where an eater can truly experience pinnacles of ugali cookery. My best ugali experience in Zanzibar was the result of asking a rather indulgent waiter at my hotel to personally cook me some ugali wa muhogo and dagaa wabichi with a side of greens for my evening meal. Zanzibari hospitality can really be quite fantastic. Which brings me to another tip: for some reason, I have generally been served better ugali by male cooks than female cooks although this is not always the case. I suspect it has to do with the muscle-power required to stir an ugali into consistent smoothness and cookedness. So beware: if the cook looks a little runty and underfed you might be gambling on his or her ability to produce an ugali that has been properly subdued.

3. Know your fishy relish: okay, so obviously dagaa are a traditional accompaniment because they keep well and so can travel the huge distances between oceans and lakes across the region without the aid of refrigeration. Same with the smoked and dried larger fish that are now hard to source as tastes change. While it is easy to get Mwanza contacts to source you a bucketful of fresh sato that arrive dripping with condensation off the Precision Air flights, getting a proper-good butterflied smoked fish isn't so simple. But I digress. There are many different dagaa to be had: Lake Tanganyika produces premium large ones that are sweet-fleshed and easy to clean before cooking and also don't remain impossibly hard when cooked. Then there is the range of products you get from Lake Victoria in a variety of sizes and quality. Finally there is the ocean fished dagaa where they dry those little fishies that you can spot jumping with joy, usually at sunset, if you are having a sundowner anywhere along the bay in Dar. In-between might be local variations of dagaa fished from ponds and lakes dotting the countryside.

Generally speaking, the larger the dagaa, the better. This is because it is easier to get the guts off the fish which prevents the bitter taste. It is virtually impossible to gut a small dagaa and have anything left over worth keeping which makes for bitter stews. Also, the bigger ones don't dry as hard as the smaller fish, so they absorb liquids better when cooked and soften up considerably. On the coast, the dagaa 'wabichi' are only sundried for a short time before being sold to prevent the overdrying that results in tough fishlets.

4. How do you feel about fermented animal proteins? Part of the flavor profile of ugali and dagaa is whatever bacterial and yeast action happens during the preservation process. This means that dagaa is a strong taste. It packs an umami punch complete with its fermented funk, and that's is part of it's status as a delicacy. If you like things like cheese, kimchi, caviar, canned mackerel, greek yogurt, liver/kidneys, soy sauce, pickled herring etc. then dagaa might just work for you. If most of the above items make you recoil in fear and loathing, skip the dagaa and go for another side dish.

5. The cook angle, again: listen, don't eat ugali and dagaa in certain parts of the country. Like, say, if you are on retreat on some gorgeous hill in the Kilimanjaro region. Or doing fieldwork deep in Mpwapwa in Dodoma. Dagaa make sense in regions surrounding freshwater lakes, in areas with lots of estuaries, places that border the ocean. So naturally that is where the best dagaa handling is likely to happen. With a bit of research and savoir-faire, it is entirely possible to wangle invitations from the right kind of home tables in pursuit of a good ugali-na-dagaa.

6. The devil is in the details: When that steaming hot ugali comes, there are a number of things to consider. First is the accompaniments- I strongly recommend using whatever variation of pilipili is offered to highlight the flavor profile of the dagaa. Also, as this is fish, a squeeze of lemon somewhere in the process brings a little pep to the party. Finally, a side of greens is a good mediator between the intensity of the dagaa and the subtleties of the ugali. Cabbage works, but really some bitter greens cooked simply really pop- chards, kales, mchicha, kisamvu, sweet potato leaves... the options are endless.

If you are new to the game, one final caution: only ever the right hand can be used to eat ugali truly authentically, and yes this does affect how you taste the dish. Especially in shared plate situations. Knowing how to pinch off a piece of steaming ugali, scoop up the sauce/greens/pili pili and pop that in your mouth, chew, swallow without burning your tongue is part of the experience. This requires as much practice as learning how to use chopsticks correctly, or any other utensil. In some areas it is alright to roll the ball of ugali in your palm first, put in a dimple with your thumb and use that to scoop up the relishes. In others, using anything more than the first two knuckles of your fingers is a sign of complete heathenness, and uncouth scooping is especially horrifying. Learning how to navigate the variations in style is a huge part of the fun of ugali cuisine.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that I simply do not cook my own ugali and dagaa. I have learned through years of kitchen disasters that I lack the touch with flour-based cookery. Can't bake, can't make chapatis worth eating, can't cook an ugali worth serving. I suspect this will have a depressing effect on my brideprice ;) I am quite content to outsource the preparation to experts, which is how I know a good ugali when I eat one.

Since it is Saturday and I am home, The World's Best Housekeeper is currently preparing the treat that we both enjoy immensely. She has just ground some dried muhogo in the coffee mill fixture of the blender, special stock that she brings me from the family farm in Mtwara every year from her annual holiday. I hoard those little dry sticks like the finest beluga, and only ever share them with My Lady of the Refined Smiles.

Our special flour will be carefully mixed with a robo or nusu of the duka's freshest cornmeal since we are out of dona, and then transformed into a medium stiff ugali. Which we will have with dagaa, naturally, of which we keep a stock of various types and sizes in the freezer. The hard part is going to be deciding: should we cook the dagaa with okra, or with nyanya chungu? And which green this time? I think I am leaning towards steamed mchicha with a hint of onion, but it depends on what TWBH is feeling. I forgot to ask her to bring some morning-tapped Mnazi to wash it all down and give a pleasant buzz to the afternoon as we gossip and nap. To properly respect the ugali is to know that sometimes a little lie-down after the meal is a natural outcome of the process.

If you consider yourself a connoiseur of things ugali, I would love to hear from you about any lessons, techniques etc. that I should investigate. And if you have ever wondered what the heck there might be to appreciate about the unpromising lump that has just landed on your plate with a side of sauce and some smelly little fish, I hope I have convinced you not to run off screaming. As for me, I am waiting for the day I make it over to West Africa to sample their iterations although to be honest I am just jonesing for some Kenkey. Ghanaian in Dar es Salaam? Hello! We could be friends... ;)

Happy eating.


  1. This is wonderful. One of the best blog posts I've ever read about Tanzanian cuisine. Thanks, Nick

  2. could you send some with the girls? and remember the amazing fried ndagala in buja? so good!

  3. I don't have any expert knowledge to share but reading your post I totally rembered the time my friend taught me how to cook ugali. I was amazed how many muscles that needed and never managed to properly stir the stuff until ready. Never thought that my thin dada would have that much power. But she had and her ugali was great, albeit without dagaa (since it was near Kilimanjaro).
    I also smiled when reading the sentence about that it's not easy to get used to the taste of ugali at adult age. It did take me very long to get used to it but until today I cannot understand how people love to eat this (or any other food) day after day after day without getting tired of it.
    Thanks, great post!

  4. what a fantastic, funny, colorful, and convincing piece! hongera.

  5. I've said it privately and I'll say it here. Great post. You mention the morning tapped mnazi - the day after first reading this the wagema across the road asked me to join them for lunch - ugali dagaa. And sweet it was too.


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