In 1972, after coming to power via a coup the year before, Idi Amin decided to expel Asians  from Uganda and repossess their property.  Those lucky enough to have the right to get the necessary papers to go to England, after having come to Uganda under British imperial rule, ended up facing life as exotic strangers in a new country that perhaps did not live up to expectation. Already the fact that there was a sizable population of people of Indian heritage and origin living in Uganda hints at the potential complexities of the culinary history of the region.

We have entered the era of  the  foodoir – the  combination of memoirs and recipes, a term I only just spotted in the latest review of food books by The New York Times, is fast becoming a literary staple of sorts and there are any amount of them out there often the result of a successful blog or a wonderfully international childhood. They’re more often then not a good read as well as a source of quirky recipes and a little food history.

The Settler’s Cookbook was written by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Born in Uganda in the fifties, the author refers many times in the book to her memories of the country as lush, green and “openly sensuous” bringing back to me my own memories of a brief visit to southern Uganda a few years ago for a weekend on a lake in a small eco-lodge where we were served “Irish potatoes” and roast chicken and the people were as open as the endless colourful flowers around us.  It reminds me too, why it is important to always be ready to go to the ends of the earth if only for the weekend. It’s always worth it, it feels like a lifetime and what you learn in that weekend will remain with you.

This book is much more then a foodoir; it’s a great snapshot of a woman’s life, her perceptions, her life as a Wahindi growing up in the sixties and seventies in Uganda, obliged to go and live in the UK in the seventies and the realities of being a young Asian in Thatcherite England. Interspersed with stories of her family, a candid account of her marriage, its breakdown and her career are her family recipes – often written in such a way as to make it clear as to what kind of mood one may be in when one would tackle a particular dish. the ingredients range from the curious to the exotic to the ordinary.  Each one seems to be the result of an incident be it international or familial and the anecdotes surrounding them are often inextricably linked to the food eaten at the time.

Many recipes reveal the influence of the British over their colonies and the resulting dishes that often led to a Victoria sponge enlivened with saffron and lime juice or the promise of a Cadbury’s chocolate bar after school. The insipid nature of British cooking fascinated many of those  who came into contact with it in Uganda and so these personalized recipes themselves reveal a lot about the imbalances of relationships between the nation that was still seen as imperial and superior, the Asian merchant class and the Ugandans themselves.

What I’m most curious about is getting my hands on a copy of St. Andrew’s Church Woman’s Guild. The Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book and Household Guide (Nairobi, 1928). Mentioned in The Settler’s Cookbook as being of use during their home economics classes at school where the girls  learned how to cook British food that to them tasted like “milky newspaper”, there apparently was an intriguing back page of “useful Swahili phrases” such as how to say “You have stolen the sugar” and ” You are free every day from 2 to 4…” which is wonderfully revealing and I’m off now to search for more colonial cookbooks….