Would you eat a whole fish, head, bones tails and all? Lots of people from many cultures do and it is often considered a delicacy. Usually the fish are small and of the salty-water variety, which are easy to dry, deep fry or simmer: anchovies, smelt, whiting or baby sardines. But Rwanda has other fish to fry: the delicious and delicate sambaza.
Sambaza look like tiny sardines but they are caught in the fresh waters of Lake Kivu, the lake which marks the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and lies at the foot of the Virunga volcano chain.
At the end of each day, just before sunset, fishermen along the Lake Kivu shores leave their villages and set out on their boats onto the lake to catch sambaza. They maneuver their triple-hulled wooden boats with poles, as they paddle onto the vast dark lake. It is not without danger. The waters of Lake Kivu hold methane and carbon dioxide. An earthquake or storm could potentially release the gas and make the lake pop like a bottle of champagne. But as long as the sambaza are able to survive the gas, the fishermen will continue to fish.
The fishermen cast their nets and use lamps and torches to attract the fish. They stay on the lake throughout the night and return in the morning, when the women set out to the markets selling the fishes, dried or fresh.
Although fish consumption in Rwanda is relatively low compared to other countries, most Rwandans, especially in the Lake Kivu area, grew up with the taste of sambaza,. Children love sambaza, and together with potato fries they make a mouth-watering Rwandan happy meal.
Of the many excellent restaurants in Kigali that offer sambaza on their menu, Repub Lounge, an up-scale, trendy African restaurant in Kimihurura is the best known. According to manager Solange Katarebe, sambazaare without question the most popular dish and almost every table will order it a starter or as a snack, served on a large sharing plate, accompanied by lemon wedges and their own house tartar sauce. They can also be enjoyed with a simple lemon mayonnaise, or even a dash of pili pili.
The tiny fish are delivered fresh every morning to the restaurant and when asked about the recipe, Solange hesitates as Chef Gerard is very protective of what he calls his secret ingredient. But she is willing to share the general recipe without the little touch that make sambazaat Repub Lounge so special. “People will just have to come to the restaurant to figure it out”, she laughs. “It seems like such a simple recipe, but the trick is to keep the fish crisp and not soggy. And to prepare and serve them with plenty of love.”
Use only fresh sambaza from the market. Rinse and pat dry and sprinkle with lemon juice. Dust the tiny fish in a mixture of wheat flour, salt (and the secret ingredient) and pan-fry. Serve hot on a large sharing plate, with wedges of lemon and tartar sauce.
This article appeared in Inzozi Magazine Sept 2018
Photos by author and Illume Creative Studio