The Ugandan Chef Introducing the Rolex to the World
How the beloved food from the streets of Kampala made its international entrance in an unlikely place.
Chapatis, eggs and vegetables—these are the three humble ingredients needed to make Uganda's ubiquitous snack food, the Rolex. A play of words on 'rolled eggs,'—no relation to the watch— the Rolex is said to be traced back to a single chapati-maker in the eastern town of Busoga but it gained popularity at Makerere University in Kampala. No wonder the students loved it; it's fast, cheap and delicious. The Rolex is now found all over the country and there's even a Rolex festival, which celebrated its third year this August. This year the festival drew chefs from Kenya, Mexico and India who wanted to show off their take on the dish. Safe to say, this poor man's snack has morphed into a source of national pride.
Unlike other country's national dishes, it can be hard to find abroad. The one exception is in the tiny country of Denmark where in 2015, Sylvester Bbaale opened UGood—the world's first Rolex joint outside Uganda. He even has an award from the King of Buganda certifying it.
UGood had somewhat funny beginnings. Bbaale, also a musician, used to put on monthly music events in Refshaløen, a part of Copenhagen that was nothing but warehouses. It was a great place for loud parties, but a terrible place to make sure event-goers were fed. So, in order to make sure people stayed, he outfitted a cargo bicycle and started making Rolexes on site. People liked it, word spread and that makeshift kitchen on a bike evolved into a food truck and, today, a brick and mortar location in Denmark's second biggest city of Aarhus.
Sylvester happens to be a friend of mine. Over messages and Facebook video chat, we talked about the story behind UGood, being the first to do something and the experience of opening up an African business in a time when the whole world seems to be freaking out over foreigners. Denmark, like the rest of Europe, is experiencing a wave of nationalism and anti-immigration. Yet, UGood prospers. Read on for Bbaale to shed a little light on African life in Scandinavia and the power of good grub.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Image via UGood's Instagram
Nereya Otieno for OkayAfrica: So, why the Rolex?
The Rolex is what I consider the most common street food in Uganda. It's easy, it's fast and it's good. I'm not a chef so I was trying to figure out what I could make. I grew up making chapatis and I figured anyone can make an omelet – so I was already halfway there and thought 'I might be able to pull this off.' It was something I could actually do while still giving people something special.
Did you ever want to do other stuff?
Yeah, I wrote down a bunch of foods I wanted to do. I wanted to make Pilau, Matoke, Kaunga (fufu) – a lot of different dishes. My friend's mother kind of stepped in as my mentor and told me to focus on one thing, a simple thing. With the Rolex, it's cheaper and easier to get a hold of the ingredients. For instance, Denmark doesn't have plantains and the ones they ship in are usually horrible, so how can I make Matoke with bad plantains?
The Rolex doesn't need a big kitchen or an oven. I could make it on the spot when people were ordering. As I started making and serving out of my bike, it was just more practical. I'm planning on expanding into a full scale restaurant in Copenhagen in the future, then I'll make more dishes but, for now the Rolex is good.
Image via UGood's Instagram.
You just kind of thought, well this is what I can do…so this is what I'm going to do?
Pretty much. I remember telling my family and friends in Uganda about it the December before I opened up the food truck. Everyone was laughing at me, because it is one of the cheapest foods you can get in Uganda. 'The mzungus will not like this,' they said. 'Don't go and embarrass us with the Rolex, this is not mzungu food.' [Laughs] But the thing is, my sister got married in Uganda and invited like 70 Danes who ended up coming. After the wedding, all of them were talking about the Rolex. Sure, they liked the traditional dishes, but there was something about the Rolex they really liked. So – between them and my events – I felt like I'd already tested the product enough at this point.
It obviously worked out or else we wouldn't be having this conversation, but how did it go in the beginning? The Danish idea of exotic flavor is basically mustard.
Danish people can be very afraid of new stuff. But the advantage of the Rolex is that it's simple to understand. It is like a durum or a burrito – which is something they know. So it's safe. And they know an omelet. But as a whole it was something completely new. No formal restaurant or food business had ever made it before. Like, for real. I even got an award from the King of Buganda for being the first to take the Rolex outside of Uganda – for introducing it to the western world. I'm sure people had made it before, but no one had it registered with a government. So I have this award from the King.
Whoa. Dope. Isn't it kind of weird to be the first of anything in 2015? In my head, I feel like it should have happened already.
It is kinda…strange. But, for me it just happened so fast that I didn't have time to think about it. When I started, I was only thinking about what was possible for me to do. Even with a food truck, I had limited space, no oven, you know? So I couldn't do matoke and all that wild stuff—which would also have been a first for Denmark. I think the thoughts about it being the first come afterwards, when you start getting awards and recognition for being something new. Then it starts getting bigger than yourself.
In the beginning though, it's hard because you're afraid that you will fail, so you don't give it that much thought. Because if I go out hyping myself up and it ends up that people don't like it…[laughs] you feel like you've ruined it for everyone. First you just want to make it work and then you can be like 'Ah yeah, I was the first one to do it.'
Though, when I was awarded the single seller's spot at a popular square called Christians Torv, I did write 'this could be like the shawarma when it came in the 90s.' I beat out about 140 applicants, the government chose me.
Image via UGood's Instagram
Do you think so? Do you think the Rolex could be right there next to the shawarmas and hot dogs stands that are part of Danish culture now? Is there room for that in Denmark?
I do. I certainly do. That's also what keeps me going. Not only for Copenhagen but for everywhere we've been - we've been in Sweden as well. The Swedes loved it. And there's been two Germans who opened up a Rolex restaurant. I think in St. Pauli and Hamburg. One of them even wrote me and was like 'you're not alone anymore brother [laughs].'
Whoa. And this was after UGood came out?
Yeah. I think he ate at the food truck and then he started his own thing. He's a white German dude. I think It's called 'Rolled and Soul' and the other one is called 'Rolled Eggs.' But I think it's an easy thing to process. That's why it fits in here, and everywhere. It's just bread, eggs, fresh vegetables. It's simple, honest food. I think people are missing that nowadays. Fresh vegetables without any fancy chemicals – and you can see it getting made.
I would love if the future means I walk down the street and see Steffen's hot dog stand, a shawarma joint and then UGood. I would love that. But, yeah, I guess you're right. No one really knew what sushi was outside of Japan until the 80s and now it's universal.
Image via UGood's Instagram
Exactly. Plus, you know they're saying Africa is the new black. [Laughs]
I don't know though, Denmark is experiencing the same sort of nationalistic, anti-immigrant wave that the rest of the world seems to be having. In 2015, right when UGood opened, a super conservative political party came into power. Did you feel the effects of that?
I definitely feel those effects. But I don't think it was specific to 2015 or the political shift. I was nervous about selling something so different. At festivals outside Copenhagen, the pork sandwiches and burger stands would have a long line, and for me: no one. I'd hear people pass by my truck shaking their heads and saying 'oh no, I don't want to get sick.' I remember once a woman went by with her daughter. The daughter was pointing at my food truck and the mom said 'No, we don't want that ooga booga food.' So that stuff happens. But I honestly don't think it's happening more or less compared to the political climate. Most of Denmark has not been exposed to other things and Danes tend to stick with that they know. So those experiences outside Copenhagen, would've been the same had I opened in 2010 or 2006, I think.
Okay. So for people who do try it, does it change their mind?
It changes their mind 90 percent of the time. Most of them come back and say, 'I honestly didn't know what to expect. But this is one of the best things I've ever tasted.'
After I started UGood, I started winning awards. First, I got that spot at Christianstorv – which was really a big deal. Then, in 2016, I won 'Audience Favorite' & 'Best Street Food' vendor at Streetfood Festival CpH and in 2017 I won 'Best African Project' at the Celebrate Africa Awards. I was one of the most popular food trucks in the city. So from the media and press, people had to pay attention to that. And, for a society that kind of thinks together, getting approval and positive coverage from the media was a big step in the Danish representation of an African business and African food.
It's like you had the Mandela Rolex?
[Laughs] Yeah, plus there were so many African people who said it gave them something. There is no African food, really. There was one Ethiopian restaurant in Copenhagen at the time. So it meant a lot for them and their children to see something representative. A man told me his daughter was so happy to see another Ugandan making Ugandan food in public. You know, I was the only African food truck when I started. I was the first to serve fresh sugar cane juice in all of Denmark. No one had had it before. So it had to build some bridges somehow.
I'm also importing directly from Ugandan farmers. So I can control the quality and I know they're being paid well. It comes full circle. Being a change in the community is a reason I can't stop. When I started, I was doing it for myself and to try something out that could make some money, enough to invest in a creative project back home. But now it's bigger.
Image via UGood's Instagram
With that in mind, do you think there will be more African representation in Denmark? Or do you think you'll be alone for a while still.
I think that there will be more. But I think it will be on a smaller scale and in smaller cities instead of Copenhagen. I've seen families doing event catering but not opening up like a full-time restaurant or street food or anything like that. But I don't know – I think I'll be alone still for a little while.
In Denmark it's just expensive and especially if you also need to ship spices or vegetables from home to make your dish. You really got to be able to handle a lot of stress and pressure – not to glorify myself – but it's a lot easier to just not do it. It's crazy with the taxes and the bureaucracy. But I really hope to see more representing African cuisine.
How do you feel about the Scandinavian-African relationship? Has it evolved from when you were younger?
For me, it has evolved. We were the first African family where I grew up, a town called Nykobing Falster. Seeing how it is now, it's very different. I grew up with mostly white people around me and slowly more and more foreigners came. Back then they thought we were all cannibals living in huts and chasing lions. So there is a different kind of interest and understanding than there was when I grew up. So, like I said before, Africa is the new black. They had a show on the national radio station called that. There was also a show called 'Taste of Africa' where a chef travels around the continent and describes his experiences. And I was interviewed for a radio show called 'Voices from Africa.' So the relationship has changed a lot, for me. I think so for a lot of other Africans here, too. I feel like Africans here are more a part of the conversation now to a certain degree compared to the 90's. With UGood I try to build bridges through food to strengthen that relationship. So we can get to know each other a little better.
Catch Nereya on her Instagram here.