One of my most horrific memories of the days immediately before my departure from Uganda is that of a ‘halvai’ or community chef who used to come to peoples’ homes to cook on site during weddings or religious events. One such halvai was arrested by the military police on Jinja Road. When they asked him to open the boot of his car to show what he was carrying, they found cooking oil, sugar and flour- all ‘essential commodities’ in an economy that was experiencing shortages.. The man must have been hit by the army because his forehead was bleeding and he was standing in utter fear by the roadside and carrying his turban in his hand, a most demeaning position for a Sikh.
I looked into the boot of his car and it had all the items that the police would have desperately needed to build case against him. No one in the convoy that we were traveling in had the courage to stop and to rescue the man. Everyone was concerned with their own safety – in Idi Amin’s Uganda you did not negotiate with the trigger happy military police. I have never found out whether he was allowed to leave the site without further punishment. But I also did not hear about his death and so I can only assume that he must have survived. The very people that he had been cooking for, that is- us, passed by without helping him.
The story goes that the man had excellent skills for estimating the vegetables, materials and ingredients required for cooking food for any number of guests for weddings, religious events and parties. He expected all contents for example the masalla to be prepared for cooking, vegetables to be washed and lentils to be cleaned and made free of stones and grit. He would then arrive on the day prior to the wedding, set up his kitchen and recruit his volunteers and helpers. Given to the use of the occasional foul language, he preferred to have no women around. And also, if he was cooking for a wedding, he would make a hushed request,” Mere goli maro” using crude Punjabi language; which translates as “Shoot me”. What he actually meant that he wanted his bottle of whiskey to be brought in discreetly with cold water as a mixer. I cannot recall how often he asked for more but empty bottle was discarded when the area was cleaned upon the completion of the food that could be cooked on a day prior to the event. He would then return the next day and yes, you have guessed it, ask for more goli. The quality of food was always good and as hundreds of people had eaten his food, he did not have to advertise. On the contrary, people had to book him well in advance or go to his competitors, who also charged more.
A new breed of well managed and highly prized community cooks has emerged in the UK during the last twenty years. More recently catering companies have established businesses with excellent credentials.It would not surprise me if they have websites with 360 degree video shows of the catering on display.