By James Cole and Alvin Mutebi
A Rolex for 2000 might not sound an unreasonable price. After all, the name is associated with the ultimate Swiss watch brand, conjuring up images of luxury and affluence.
Yet in Uganda, the title takes on a slightly different meaning, especially when 2000 is a price quoted in shillings and roughly converts to 50p. No, not a tacky fake with ‘gold’ straps and ‘diamond’ numbers that might temporarily convince the undiscerning eye. We’re talking about a far better bargain – Kampala’s number one selling street food.
Literally a composite of the phrase “rolled eggs” – you won’t be able to spend long in the capital without sampling this local delicacy. Let me briefly explain: A concoction of fried eggs mixed with onion, cabbage and tomato are cooked fresh and wrapped in a chapatti providing the ultimate cure to any hunger fix.
The simple street food concept has taken Kampala by a storm and is developing into one of the city’s major tourists attractions. Starting out as a humble snack which budget-conscious students at Makerere University could afford to sustain themselves during their long working days, the mighty Rolex is now consumed in vast quantities across Kampala morning, noon and night. It has become so popular that in 2016, the city even hosted the first international Rolex Festival.
I first became acquainted with the Rolex after a lengthy exercise session. Nobody can deny it contains the perfect body building combination, packed with protein and carbohydrates. For only modest multiples of 500 shillings, more eggs and chapattis can be added to the mix until you’re left with a meal even Chuck Norris would be proud of. Without too much consideration I selected my local stand manned by the ever smiling Tom. Within seconds of placing an order, the red hot pan was cleared of any distant traces of salmonella with a dirty rag and the cooking was underway. Before long I juggled in my hands my first steaming hot Rolex – fresh from the pan and the best I’d ever tasted.
It may seem shameful to confess to my Rolex addiction but my visits to Tom’s stand (- a brightly lit wooden cabinet adjoined to a smoking charcoal stove) have become ever more frequent. Whilst over a thousand calories of deeply fried bread and egg may be a struggle to justify after a day sat at the office, I often compromise with just a lone chapatti available at just half the price.
I’m by no means the only customer to frequent Tom’s stand – business for a Rolex vendor in Kisaasi appears to be booming. The days are long. I have never seen him away from his workstation. His reward, however, is a phenomenal turnover. Whilst the actual Rolex itself might not be such a hit in this neighbourhood with only 10 being sold per day, the trade in chapattis is where the real money is to be made. Over 90 of these are sold throughout the day, both as a snack for hungry passersby like myself or as an accompaniment to the main meal. Although the costs of ingredients, charcoal and electricity are high, taking in 110,000 a day is a tidy sum in this neck of the woods. From a rough calculation, over 70,000 profits can be generated each day, more than people working in low-skilled professions such as maids and security guards might earn in a month.
Managing times of peak demand is a particular challenge. Cooking each individual chapatti to order makes customer waiting times excessively long yet nobody wants to be provided with the stale disc of bread that has been cooked hours before. Demand surges occur during ‘rush hour’ as people undertake their work commutes, at which time Tom must have his dough rolled and ready to hit the pan. Being only a small outfit, the business is mostly a one man operation with family members and even customers lending a helping hand in the production process if the stand gets busy. Whilst larger stalls in Kampala’s busy markets of Nakawa or Wasafi might make use of the specialisation of labour, Tom is required to undertake all parts of the production process himself, limiting the speed at which food can be turned out. Competition is stiff in these parts, with at least 5 other stands on the same street (one even promising to be well acquainted with Jesus), meaning Tom must cook fast and to a high standard to maintain his loyal following of customers.
Yet my Rolex cooking friend’s greatest threat of all remains the law. According to the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), Tom’s profession is illegal. Whilst street vending is prolific throughout the city with Police often turning a blind eye, any of the city’s 10,000 Rolex vendors operating an unlicensed stand can be arrested without warning. The penalties are severe. At a minimum, a Shs.100,000 can be imposed and Tom’s stand and all his stock is confiscated. Yet if Tom is unable to pay on the spot, he may be arrested and detained by a mountain of bureaucracy.
Whilst it is possible to pay up to Shs.350, 000 to be released on bail, the complications of being released and charged can seem endless. Whilst about 150 street vendors may be taken into custody each day, the KCCA processes less than 25 of these every 24 hours. It doesn’t take a maths genius to spot the enormous backlog. There is little alternative other than to pay up and play the waiting game but the business impacts can prove catastrophic.
Although Tom does operate his business with this risk, a new series of street vending alternatives are becoming available. And guess what? They’re legal. One such company looking to overcome the lack of regulation in Kampala’s informal street food sector is Musana carts; a San Francisco based start-up supplying solar powered ‘Rolex’ stands. Aside from the firm’s objective to promote cleaner cooking methods, Musana has been able to formalise the business of street vending through a partnership with the KCCA. By ensuring that vendors adhere to certain standards including a food safety inspection, their work can eventually become legitimate. Whilst customers benefit from a more hygienic and cleaner culinary experience, the advantages for vendors such as Tom are enormous. The carts may not be as cheap as their makeshift alternative. Most are issued on a finance scheme paid off at a rate of $3 per day. Their quality, however, is far superior. Carts are equipped with solar power providing them with better nighttime lighting to increase the hour’s vendors can work as well as phone charging capabilities to offer more services to customers.
Receiving a licence from the KCCA isn’t easy, but legalisation is certainly the best alternative to enable street vending in Kampala. The company has a waiting list of over 100 potential customers demonstrating the popularity of the concept yet backlogs in the supply chain and KCCA bureaucracy is, unfortunately, halting progress. Whilst Tom may remain sweating away behind his unregulated stand in Kisaasi for some, a legalised Musana cart may provide a solar light at the end of the tunnel.
Guide to creating a Rolex
Tom’s relaxed manner when making a Rolex makes the process look incredibly simple. After an hour long ordeal, I held utmost admiration for my friend’s profession.
Measuring out the Ingredients
Combine approximately two cups of water and two spoons of salt per 1kg bag of flour into your favourite mixing bowl (most street vendors vessel of choice is a large plastic washing up bowl). This can prove harder than it sounds when pouring from a 20-litre can of water – remember to tilt not lift!
Mixing the dough
Now it’s time to get your hands dirty. I was charged with making industrial quantities of dough and therefore was required to bury my arms wrist deep into the mixture (removing watches and jewellery first is highly advisable). The mixing process at first doesn’t require too much technique. If the contents feel a little dry, top up with half a cup more water.
Kneading the dough
Once the flour and water start to combine into the dough the real work begins. Making your hands into fists, you must attack the dough in a slow motion punch. This may not seem challenging at first but as the mixture becomes sticker, more and more force is required. As the dough develops, oil is sprinkled on and kneaded into the mixture and flour can be added to stop it from sticking Chapatti making is certainly an endurance sport. After 20 minutes of this inelegant procedure, I was exhausted and left with aching arms. I quickly realised exercising before eating a Rolex was no longer necessary, making it provided a more than adequate workout.
Rolling the Chapatti
The dough mixture can then be split into small fist sized balls. Tom’s chapattis are a little bit larger and denser than those of his competitors’ so the dimensions of these really depend on the size of chapatti you require. Take each ball and press it out into a round disc with your thumbs. On a floured surface, this can be rolled out, taking care to rotate the disk at regular intervals to try and maintain its round shape. The thinner the chapatti, the better so be patient and wait until the disk is about 2mm thick and is flexible in your hands.
Frying the Chapatti
For best results, make sure your pan is as hot as possible. Tom cooks on a charcoal stove so moments before the chapatti is fried, a brick is removed from an air inlet so oxygenate the glowing embers. Add a drizzle of oil to the pan and then carefully lay down the chapatti, making sure to spread the dough outwards with your hands to keep the disk round and thin. After less than thirty seconds, slide a knife underneath the sizzling disk and gently lift the corner to check underneath until the downwards facing side is golden brown. As we were making a bulk order, the process now became a little more complicated. Each disk was lightly fried like this individually then 2-3 can be stacked and cooked together and flipped in a rotation so each side gets cooked. To make sure the disks don’t stick, they are constantly spun like a roulette wheel. This can at first be done by hand but the fried dough gets hot rapidly which is when a ‘heatproof’ flour bag comes in handy.
Mixing the Omelette
The most common Rolex combination in Kampala comes with a two egg omelette mixed with onions, tomato and cabbage and a pinch of salt. These can be whisked together with any metal implement of your choice in a fairly dirty looking cup. The vegetable additions must be cut as small as possible to stop the cooked omelette from falling apart. This is where I confess my skills are limited. Cupping the onion in his hand, Tom takes his knife and dices it at lightning speed, the blade stopping only inches from his fingers. Although this does produce the finest onion segments known to mankind, I wouldn’t recommend trying this at home!
Frying the Omelette
This process doesn’t require as much heat as used for the chapattis so the brick can be repositioned in the stove or the gas turned down. Again, after drizzling yet more oil onto the stove, the egg can be poured on. As the omelette is inevitably rolled, it’s best to make it as thin as possible so before the egg starts to solidify, spread it out as much as possible with the blade of a knife. Similar to frying the chapattis, it is also necessary to slide the knife around the edge to check the egg is cooked and prevent the mixture from sticking. When the downwards facing side is lightly charred, carefully slide the knife all the way underneath to flip the omelette. Once turned over, lay a chapatti over the top and firmly press it down onto the mixture so that the egg almost combines with the warm dough. Once you think the omelette is cooked, using the knife, lift the Rolex off the pan and lay it onto a flat surface
Now all that remains is to roll your Rolex and serve it to your hungry customer – if they have watched you prepare it from start to finish they really will be desperate for their first bite. A thinner roll is always best so take care to make the turns as tight as possible. As your Rolex is fresh from the pan, it is still piping hot so it must then be wrapped in at least two plastic bags to prevent it from burning your hands. Redeem your modest financial reward and send your smiling customer on their way.
Fancy trying a Rolex for yourself?
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