It is mid-December and I'm visiting family in Uganda's cattle capital Mbarara, 170 km south of the Equator. Five years had passed since we spent our last Christmas there. Back then, despite being in the region famous for its Ankole longhorn cows, I had stubbornly insisted on cooking the traditional Norwegian Christmas dish of pork belly for 25 guests. I must have done something right because upon our arrival Auntie Miriam instructed me to prepare pork for dinner the following day.
Warnings about consuming pork in hot Third World countries are plentiful. Tapeworm is the major cause for concern, and with good reason. In Uganda local butchers generally hang their meat on display at room temperature. Aging is out of the question, so most meat is fresh and tough as leather. Butchers tend to sell goat and beef. They rarely offer pork for fear of losing business due to the growing Muslim population, but in most Ugandan cities there are still places for people with that particular craving. Aptly called "pork joints", they sell raw or cooked pork and are usually tucked away in a back alley.
In Mbarara we revisited the same pork joint I had found some five years ago, the Nyarushanje Pub. The place is nothing like a conventional pub. It is a run-down establishment with a handful of worn-out chairs, paint peeling on the ceiling and a humming fridge packed with bottles of beer, such as Nile, Tusker and Bell. It’s a far cry from the New York twenty-draught craft-beer pubs I have grown so fond of.
To get to the meat I had to go through the pub and into a courtyard. The floor inside is made of the packed red dirt typical for the region. Out back is a small adobe building with a single window and a narrow entrance. The walls are blackened by the smoke pouring out of the window. I peek inside and glimpse large pink slabs of meat hanging from the ceiling. The smoke comes from a looming fire inside the room. This is a preservation method that dries and seals the skin of the pork, preventing flies from laying eggs. The adobe is about 5-10°C warmer than outside, bringing the room temperature up to a sweltering 35°C.
The butcher greets me with a big smile while keeping a firm grip on the large knife in his right hand. I ask him for a shoulder joint. He reaches into the adobe and hauls out a joint with ribs and all, a solid 15-kilo slab of animal. I rephrase and request a shoulder joint of about 4 kilos. He grins and disappears back into the adobe. This time he comes out with a smallish shoulder piece weighing exactly 4 kg. Perfect. I ask how fresh it is. He assures me, waving both hands, still holding the knife, that the animal died this morning. The butcher wants 36,000 Uganda shillings for the meat. I give him 35,000. He flashes a smile and bags the joint, leaving the amputated stump sticking out.