My first encounter with this celebrated dish (luwombo = steamed or casserole, in banana leaves) happened about 24yrs ago. What I actually mean by this, is that it was the very first time an opportunity presented to me to actually participate in preparing such a revered dish within the tribe I hail from in Uganda.If I may say, the end product is one whereby the banana leaves intensely flavour everything, no other seasoning is necessary. The beef is soft and pliable, but still chewy, not a stew, but a steamed meat with peanut sauce dish.
I had flown to Uganda to mark the wedding of my then to be sister-in-law. I have to say I didn’t take in much of the preparation tutorial – simply because I was more excited by all other traditional ceremonies taking place and ended up leaving it to my elderly tutor to finish off my task. This dish I recall in vague recollection of my early childhood at the two big gathering I attended was mostly served to elders and mostly men, the females tended to have the vegetarian version of it if served. My mum (adoptive) did away with tradition on most things as it were and on occasion had this dish prepared for her in all dietary takes whilst we still resided in Uganda. I only learnt later on in my teens whilst here in London that it was initially a dish for men mainly.
It wasn’t until I returned to Uganda much later on in 2006 that I actually was put through the ropes of preparing this dish by my brother’s wife at our ancestral home. My brother’s wife is simply amazing and hopefully I will share more stories of what I have learnt from her. First of all she took me through to the banana plantation to obtain the banana leaf I would need. Then showed me how to prepare this leaf (usually a smaller of the larger leaves) ahead of placing the mixture inside it. As with most things, practice makes perfect and preparation of most traditional dishes I found took more than just throwing stuff in a pan, tossing it around whilst adding various ingredients before adding stock and letting it simmer… Did I mention, we prepared all this on an open fire which had to be lit from scratch?
To simplify this is what luwombo is about.
Oluwombo or Luwombo is a traditional dish from Uganda. It is both a classic dish of royal dinners and a dish popular throughout Uganda, especially at holiday time.
It is often said that oluwombo dates to 1887 when, during the reign of Kabaka Mwanga, the dish was introduced by his chief cook, Kawunta. The basic banana-leaf cooking method has been common across tropical Africa for centuries and is also much used wherever bananas or plantains are grown.
It can be made with beef, chicken, goat, pork, or mushrooms.
What you need
- cooking oil
- beef, chicken, goat, or pork (any one or two or more in combination), cut into serving-sized pieces
- peanuts/groundnut paste (roasted, shells and skins removed) or peanut butter (natural, unsweetened), about a half-cup per serving (optional)
- onion, chopped (half an onion per serving)
- tomatoes, peeled if desired, chopped (one tomato per serving)
- tomato paste (one tablespoon per serving)
- one chicken or beef bouillon cube (optional)
- salt (to taste)
- black pepper (to taste)
- banana leaves (one per serving)
- mushrooms, cleaned (optional)
- smoked fish or meat (optional)
- plantains (one per serving)
What you do
- In a hot, lightly-oiled skillet or on a hot outdoor grill, briefly cook meat until it is browned but not done. Remove from heat and set aside.
- If you are using peanuts:
Crush or grind the peanuts with a potato-masher, rolling pin or with a mortar and pestle.
- Heat a spoonful of oil in a saucepan. Add the onion and cook for a minute. Then add the tomatoes, tomato paste, bouillon cube, salt, pepper (or other spices) and crushed peanuts or peanut butter. If necessary, add water to make a smooth sauce. Cook briefly until it is heated completely.
- Briefly heat the banana leaves over the grill or in a hot oven. (Heating the banana leaves makes them more flexible.) Remove some of the fibers from the central rib of the each leaf — these will be used to tie the leaf-packets closed (or use kitchen string).
- Place a portion of meat and some of the tomato-onion sauce (and mushrooms and smoked meat or fish, if desired) in the center of a leaf. Fold the leaf in from the sides, drawing all the sides together, being careful not to break the leaf. Tie tightly closed at the top. Cut off any extra leaf above the tie. Repeat until all the leaves have been filled. Use any extra leaf to double wrap the packets.
- Place a wire rack (or similar) in the bottom of a large Dutch oven or similar cooking pot. Add water to fill the pot up to the bottom of the rack. Place the banana-leaf packets on the rack. Cover and bring to a boil on the stove (or better yet) over the grill or an open fire. Steam the packets for an hour or longer. Add water to the cooking pot as necessary to prevent it from becoming dry.
- To serve: Remove the plantains from their packets and lightly mash with a fork. Top with the meat and sauce. This can be done before serving, at the table, or each diner can be provided with a both a plantain packet and a meat packet.
Plantains cooked unpeeled are a popular staple dish in Uganda.
Mushrooms and peanuts (without meat) can be cooked together luwombo style. Unfortunately the full flavour is lost when conventional cooking is used over the electric hob or gas cooker – firewood would appear to encompass the whole process of building the overall character of the dish as well as flavour.
Oluwombo can also be made without pre-cooking the meat and sauce before they are wrapped. The steaming time should increased to well over two hours.