China’s food has long been one of the country’s chief cultural exports. From the famous chifas of South America to the ubiquitous ‘Manchurian-style’ dishes that dot menus throughout India, the global Chinese diaspora has always brought their hometown flavors with them.
Africa is no exception and, in cities across the continent, Chinese cooking is fast becoming a fixture of the culinary landscape.
The Nanjing Hotel in Kampala is home to one of Uganda’s most popular Chinese restaurants, catering to the palettes of both homesick visitors and curious locals.
The diversity in backgrounds is not limited to the clientele. Within eatery’s steamy kitchens flavors and languages alike mingle as Chinese and Ugandan staff work tirelessly to craft the restaurant’s more than 150 distinct menu options.
Redbush Enos is among the most experienced of the local hires. The Kasese native left school in Uganda’s far west and came to the capital in search of opportunity, finding work as a cleaner at his first Chinese restaurant.
“I came step-by-step,” Enos tells us, “I found myself becoming a chef, cooking each and everything the Chinese are making.”
His powers of observation served him well. The energetic chef is now proficient in a range of regional Chinese cuisines and helps pass his skills and knowledge on as a trainer – not only to new recruits but to members of his household as well.
“I have two wives,” Enos says, “one of them stays in Kasese, in my homeland, one of them stays with me here.
Sometimes I leave here very late, when I’m very tired. So, I try very hard to teach my wives to make sure that they make for me the good food, the way I am making here. So that when I reach home, I taste the food the same what I am making.”
Ding Tingting experiences the cultural divide from a slightly different perspective. She came to Kampala from Anhui province, looking to join family members already employed at Nanjing.
She quickly settled into her role as a floor manager for the restaurant’s dining room, but readily admits that the new environment took some getting used to.
“When I first got here it wasn’t anything like what I expected,” Ding tells us.“Now I’m already accustomed to it.
What I miss most about life back in China are the night markets. Here, once it’s nighttime everything closes and the streets are quite dark. But back in China with all the night markets, the streets are bright and lively.”
The Festival Enthusiast
Raechel Nagawa is a relatively recent addition to the Nanjing team, having joined as a waitress 18 months ago. With an easy smile she proudly shares the Chinese phrases she’s picked up along the way.
We find her hard at work folding boxes for one of the establishment’s more unique offerings: mooncakes. The rich, flaky pastries are stuffed with a variety of sweet, nutty fillings and form an indispensable part of annual Mid-autumn Festival celebrations around the world.
In the lead-up to the festivities, Rachel and her colleagues churn out over a hundred of these handmade treats a day, which in turn are sold to Uganda’s swelling Chinese diaspora community.
And it’s not the only traditional Chinese holiday that Nagawa’s work has exposed her to.
“I was so surprised when they went to celebrate the New Year in February,” she tells us, recounting a Spring Festival celebration of the restaurant organized for its staff. “We had just finished celebrating our own New Year the month before.”