By Ange Theonastine Ashimwe

Given that  barbecue first took place in Africa, this is a continent that can claim to have invented cooking as it should be; but African food – especially the cuisine East Africa – is still drastically underrated on the world culinary scene.

From cassava flour Ugali made from cassava flour and grilled meat brochette that you can find anywhere in the region whether at the side of the road, in a high-end restaurant, or in front of a nightclub at 3 AM with leering drunks seeking to soak the booze, to aromatic recipes manioc leaf isombe.

Perhaps the most underrated of all of the region is Rwanda; which has become a hub for foodies wanting to taste their way around the best of EA cuisine.

Phiona Ninsiima, a trained Chef, a food blogger, a writer at The News Time Rwanda, and a graduate from the culinary school of South Korea is starting to familiarize people with the dishes and flavors that have been loved in Rwanda for years. Ange Theonastine Ashimwe of EA Scene caught up with her for a chat about food; cooking and the rep of East African food on the world stage.

Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

My name is Phiona Ninsiima, I’m 30 years old, a wife, a mother, and a trained chef. I attained my first degree in economics here in Rwanda and later went and graduated from culinary school in South Korea.

Why do you think East African food is underrepresented in the world culinary scene?

For the most part, East Africans have not been keen on showcasing what we have in terms of food. In turn, there has been a big misconception that our food is rather ‘bland’ and ‘boring’ compared to the other parts of the continent. But with upcoming social media personalities like Chef Raphael from Kenya, we are slowly seeing an increase in interest in our delicacies, and I believe we shall catch up. I would say it is not about the food itself but the lack of exposure.

Can you speak to the challenges you face being a woman in this industry?

Well, women have always been known as the home cooks. However, when it comes to commercial kitchen where it is rough, hot, and you are likely to spend 13 hours a day on your feet, women tend to shy away from that. Part of it is because of the employers. Some only prefer hiring men, and another bit is we tend to want to balance between career and our social lives that is quite hard when you are pregnant or raising a family. Employers prefer one that is stable for their growing business. It is hard, but with determination, one can pursue it on a professional level.

What is your favorite recipe?

It would have to be vegetable rice, I love the way you can turn the boring white rice into something fancy and healthy in just a few minutes, it is so versatile!

Why did you decide to become a chef?

I lost both my parents by the time I was 11 years, and I was taken on by my maternal aunt and her husband who became my legal guardians.  Due to my introverted personality, I locked in my pain from the loss and all the confusion that the teen years bring. I believe as a result my appetite was extremely low and I was the pickiest eater ever. Fast forward when I was 15, my family and I traveled out of the country, and I got exposed to some high-end meals and different cuisines. This got me excited, and I started enjoying eating. But above all cooking started becoming my route of self-expression. Cooking for my family and friends become one of my favorite hobbies because I loved the joy good food brought to everyone, and I always wished I could get a chance to make it my career. 

How do you want your work to impact people? 

I hope that I would stir up the love of cooking into the majority of Rwandan’s hearts  and that one day we will have home cooks coming up with brilliant recipes that can become part of the national cuisine

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

It would have to be my internship in Dubai it gave me a chance to work with such experienced people and celebrity chefs that gave me the firm foundation of the practical side of the career 

In five years where do you see yourself as a chef?

I would want to have my first cookbook out, with a growing production food line, and maybe a restaurant running…too much on my mind huh?

Can you give people a bit of advice on what is considered as “healthy food”?

Well, I believe in holistic approaches to maintaining a balance of proteins, starch, carbs, fruits, and vegetable-based diet is a good idea and if you can always make food taste good for you. And a bit of junk once in a while doesn’t really hurt anyone. 

If you could tell one thing to the world what would it be?

When possible follow your passion, there’s nothing as fulfilling as doing what you love and also be able to earn from it.

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