As much as people from the Northern, Eastern and Western regions of Uganda may differ culturally, when it comes to the dining table where millet bread is served, they all become united as one. For many years, millet bread has been the main food of the day for people in these regions.
[Ed.: This is the first contribution by our Uganda correspondent Emily Kembabazi. We look forward to more articles. We welcome submissions on topics of mutual trans-Atlantic interest.]
This delicious meal has a variety of names in the different tribes and regions. For instance among the Bakiga, Banyankole, Batooro and Banyoro in the western region, it’s called akaro /oburo whereas among the Bacholi and the Luo in the Northern region, they call it kal. In the Eastern region, the Bateso tribe calls it atap and obwiita among the Basoga.
The Baganda in the central region also call it akaro and this is the only region in the whole of Uganda where millet bread is rarely the meal of the day.
Some researchers have it that millet bread originated from the tribes of northern Uganda during the Gipiiri and Labongo Luo migration before spreading southwards. The akaro is extracted from dried millet grains by using either the traditional grinding stones or modern ways of grain milling.
According to Fellydath Bagamba from western Uganda, millet flour is often not considered suitable for a meal unless cassava flour is added to it. The difference in taste, aroma and appearance of this dish is determined by the proportions in which the flours are mixed. The cassava flour element brings both a sticky and a soft texture making the mixture relatively easy to prepare.
Culturally, the special pot (enyungu) and the mingling stick (orwiiko) that is used to prepare akaro are not supposed to be washed with water, but just wiped with a dry banana leaf. However, this no longer holds due to modernity. Many people today, wash the pot and mingling stick and others use saucepans to prepare akaro instead of the pot.
On how akaro is prepared, she said that it starts with the boiling of water in a pot and the amount of water used depends on the quantity of akaro you intend to cook. Usually, it is three litres of water per kilo of flour. With the water boiling, a handful of millet flour is sprinkled into the water to create an initial reaction between the water and the flour.
After the initial reaction, the water is then reduced by half to create space for the flour. The deducted water is put into a separate container. Of course, the flour swallows up the remaining water so over and over again, more water is added. Just in 2 to 3 minutes, the flour forms a single bulging ball as you mingle. While mingling, it is not advisable to use cold water because the flour will become stiff and go bad. That is reason why some hot water is deducted and reserved separately for additional purposes in case more water is needed during the mingling process.
When the millet bread is ready, it is then put it in a special cultural basket (endiiro) and the endiiro is shaken so as to prevent the akaro from sticking to the walls but rather stay in the middle from where it is eaten. Endiiro’s are small in size and as a tradition, the head of the family (husband) has his own basket different from that of children so when serving this delicious meal, the head of the family gets his own endiiro and the rest of the family members share their own endiiro.
In some settings, sliced pieces of akaro are held in one hand and one keeps pulling off a small piece, molding it and using the thumb to make a hole to accommodate the sauce and then dipping it into the sauce. Some people will even pass it over their head before chewing it. Other people say that when eating this meal, it tastes well when you swallow it directly without chewing.
It is believed that the sweetest millet is that one of the first harvest commonly known as omweeza. It is a cultural practice that no one can eat of the first harvest before the head of the family. Also when a girl gets married, before the husband tastes on the omweeza, she must prepare it with good sauce and take it to her father in law or mother in law for blessings. This is termed as okuganura.
This usually creates pressure on the newlywed bride’s side because if you do not mingle the akaro well, then the elders will say that your husband has married a woman who does not know how to cook. In the past, brides who didn’t know how to prepare akaro well would be sent back to their homes.
In some cultures especially in western region, the dish is a must for many traditional ceremonies such as Child naming, Introduction and Give away as well as the wedding. Millet bread is usually eaten with many sauces such as beans, ground nuts, mushroom soup, meat, chicken, fish and eshabwe which is made from ghee.
Many studies have been done on millet to identify its benefits for your health. The findings show that millet contains magnesium which helps reduce the effects of migraines and heart attacks. Also the magnesium in millet Niacin (vitamin B3) can help lower cholesterol levels.
Additionally, millet contains phosphorus, which helps with fat metabolism, body tissue repair and creating energy in your body. It also helps lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. Fibre from whole grains has been shown to protect against breast cancer and whole grains have been proven to protect against childhood asthma.
All in all, millet bread is a delicious way to start or end your day. Try some today and experience the benefits of millet that have made it the most prized grain of so many ancient cultures!
(Ed.: American readers, look for an African or even Ugandan food shop in your city and see if these items are available. Dietary diversity has many positive health benefits.)