DUBAI // Along the busy streets of Deira, several restaurants cater to the tastes of African traders.
Among the most popular is the literally named African Restaurant at Pacific Hotel.
It serves up popular East African dishes such as matooke (a staple dish of Uganda, made from mashed bananas), ugali (maize meal), millet, cassava and sweet potatoes, alongside goat, chicken and beef stews or freshwater tilapia.
Mukyala Jamilla, friendly with the customers and serious with the staff, opened the restaurant in 2000. "It was my first business and I am grateful it was a success," she said.
"I still take some time to supervise it when I'm in Dubai and co-ordinate its supplies while in Kampala."
The African Restaurant gets all its food from Uganda, thanks to the five daily flights connecting Dubai to Kampala.
"It's only a six- to seven-hour flight," said Mohammed Salim, manager of the restaurant.
"That's enough to collect all the food supplies when they are still fresh."
The restaurant has a large refrigerator where it stores a few supplies, but fresh shipments are collected every day from Dubai International Airport.
"Our restaurant is best known for serving fresh matooke," said Immy Kemihingo, 32, from Kenya, who works as the receptionist. "Visiting traders and expatriates from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi all come here for matooke."
In East Africa, there are hundreds of different varieties of bananas and related dishes and each region has its own recipes. Matooke is the most popular variety in Uganda.
"Some Ugandan tribes believe the ownership of a matooke plantation is symbolic of a man's passage to manhood and thus his capacity to marry," Ms Kemihingo said.
Joseph Ssegendo, the head chef, does most of the matooke preparation.
He peels a bunch of bananas, still on the stalk, then ties up the peeled fingers in a bundle of banana leaves. The entire parcel is put in a cooking pan with just enough water to steam the leaves.
Strips and chunks cut from the banana tree stem are used to build a platform at the bottom of the cooking pan so the boiling water does not touch the matooke bundle.
"When properly ready and tender, the bundle is removed and squeezed to get a smooth soft and golden yellow mash," he said.
"Most people would prefer it to be served hot, so we often leave it covered in leaves until its serving time."
"This method of cooking preserves all the flavours and cooks up food like a pressure cooker."
Matooke can be served with an assortment of dishes. The most popular accompaniments are meat, or dried fish with a ground peanut sauce.
Millet is another East African favourite on the menu.
Ms Keminhigiro explains that the milled flour is mixed with cassava in different proportions and cooked to form a heavy paste.
Like ugali, it is one of the easiest dishes to prepare, she said.
African businessmen say the availability of staples such as these is what keeps them coming back to Dubai.
"I come to Dubai more than 10 times in a year and do all my business shopping here," said Samuel Baker Bakalumba, a retired magistrate from Kampala.
"In Dubai, you have no worries of getting our African food - it's like home."
A meal at African Restaurant costs Dh20 to Dh30. Drinks, including the fresh orange and mango juice from Kampala, cost Dh10 a glass.
The simple maize meal porridge that fans say it is the secret to African bravery.
In Kenya and Tanzania it is called ugali, but it is posho in Uganda, sudza in Zimbabwe, nshima in Malawi and Zambia and pap in South Africa.
Whatever name you choose to call it, it is the basis of most African meals and a staple on the African Restaurant menu.
“It is made mostly from maize flour, cooked with water to a porridge or dough-like consistency,” said the head chef, Joseph Ssegendo.
“There is only one challenge in cooking ugali,” he joked. “The flour used sticks to the cooking pot and it takes a lot of scrubbing to get it clean.”
Abbas Bukenya, a customer from Kenya, explained: “Ugali is the secret of Africa’s bravery and strength. The best way to eat ugali is to roll a lump into a ball with the right hand, and then dip it into a sauce or stew of vegetables or meat.”
Omar Kikungwe, a 40-year-old regular from Uganda, agrees. “There is no African meal complete without ugali,” said. “Every time I come to this restaurant and eat ugali I feel more African.”
* Yasin Kakande