Part of the travel experience for me is eating and drinking. Food is such an intimate part of a region’s culture that I’m happy to try just about anything (I do have some limits).
Most traditional Rwandan food is simple: rice, stews of vegetables, meats are typically goat or beef meat, starches like cassava, potatoes and cooked bananas (similar to plantains). I had a lively discussion with one guide about “bananas”. The fruit banana, the sweeter one, is about half the length of what we call a banana in the US and much more flavorful. But also called bananas are the bigger, green ones only used for cooking. The best I could match this to is the plantain.
One of the best places I ate was Shokola. It was one of our first places visited and it set the bar pretty high. I went out on a limb and tried the goat kabobs (brochettes) – and they were yum. There is a thing here in Rwanda were everything is cooked well done – some of the women I traveled with noted this is actually common in Africa as a whole. While this is great from a bacteria standpoint, it also means many meats are cooked to the point of toughness. At Shokola the kabobs were well done but still tender – that takes some talent! There was avocado salad, couscous, all sorts of side dishes, great coffee and juices.
And that brings me to the Tamarillo or the tree-tomato. We first tried it juiced at Shokola. It was a huge hit with the delegation in both juice and whole fruit form. It has the acidic nature of a tomato but has a berry taste, a bit like strawberry. I am probably not making it sound delicious, but it was. I drank so much of the juice and at the fruit whenever I could it, that I am surprised I didn’t turn a nice shade of dark red from consuming so much. Rumor has it that the fruit is also a “super food” so I didn’t bother limiting myself.
The food at the Hotel des Milles Collines pool bar was average. Pasta and pesto, fried fish sticks (also cooked well done), french fries, etc. I really wouldn’t recommend it except for those times when you just need to eat something and you are staying at that hotel. I also tried the high-end restaurant at the top of the hotel, Le Panorama. Very French in style, the food was creative and everything was good. Amuse-bouches were served on slabs of marble, the three course menu included a glass of white wine after you are seated, and the view out over Kigali was phenomenal. The service was very spot on and attentive.
Heaven Restaurant was a top winner of the week. Their menu is kept limited by using what is currently available at the markets and is ran by two ex-pats from the US. They focus on good cooking standards and excellent customer service. Oervice in Rwanda can be a bit slow and distracted – but not at Heaven. As with every restaurant I visited, the seating is in a covered outdoor area so always, always bug-spray yourself if the bugs find you tasty. Heaven has an interesting story, but their food and cocktails were top-notch. And yes, there was a cocktail with Tamarillo and vodka. And yes, I had one. Maybe two. The food is a mix of traditional East African food, French influences and Californian flair. The pricing is average – not cheap but not too high either. And you should really check out their book – it’s a great story about how they came to Rwanda and how it all happened. This video is also a great snapshot about the restaurant.
A surprise find was Meze Fresh – a burrito bar in Kigali off a small street out away from the ex-pat areas. The food was good, inexpensive and the hot sauce was actually very hot. All good things. We met one of the owners while we were walking out – turns out he is originally from California. Now the burrito concept begins to make some sense….
One place that came highly recommended was Pasha, another Mediterranean influenced restaurant. I was a bit dehydrated that night so I may not be able to give the best report, but I found it to be “okay”. The service was top-notch and the wine selection was good. A dinner for three ran about $75 USD with a bottle of wine – a great value. The layout is very lovely but I was a bit distracted by the TV running in an otherwise tranquil Turkish-feeling outdoor setting. The TV in every bar and restaurant is one US trend I hate to see coming to other places.
As I mentioned, the cocktails at Heaven were superb. Otherwise, in country, I stayed mostly with wine – they have many from Spain, Italy and South Africa. There is a local alcohol that is a beer brewed from bananas – one member of the delegation reported it as “yuck”. (That is an official culinary term!)
Most of this blog was written at Bourbon Coffee at the Kigali airport – my final food stop. They have decent food – mostly along the lines of what you would consider pub food. The tea and coffee are fantastic and the service is phenomenal. Best of all – they have free – and solid – wifi access. In fact, it is one of their marketing points! I brought home a bag of the Akagera region coffee and was sad I only brought back one. However, as it turns out, they are in the US and ship!