‘Cow Grease’, Meat and Pâtes – Traditional Burundian Cuisine

The wooden pots in back of the woman would be used for clabbered milk, also for butter. Upcountry Burundi, c.1918

Piecing together information on the traditional cuisines of an area – in this case, upcountry Burundi – requires many hours and days of chit-chat about, and observation of crops, processing and cooking procedures, and possible ceremonial or status links.

Getting to know people well enough that they feel comfortable about discussing these topics can also be a challenge.  There is always the danger of an idealized view, “this is how everyone always did it when I was young,” or “according to my grandparents.”  Memories are slippery.

Over the last weeks I spent some time with several people from upcountry whom I know quite well, talking about crops and dishes that no longer are grown or made – or, not made very often.

We began by talking about sorghum, traditionally an extremely important crop both in diet and ritually. We discussed the different kinds and how they are used.  Even up to today three varieties are grown:

Sorghum ready for harvest

1.  AMASAKA Y/UMBUERI – for making pate
2   AMASAKA Y’INZOGA – for making sorghum beer
3.  AMASAKA Y’IMBRERO – for fermenting banana beer – small quantities being used per batch

The third is now rarely grown, and the second is used by women in making traditional sorghum beer, of which there are a variety of strengths – the weaker and thicker have traditionally served as a food.

Women offering sorghum beer to visitors. c.1900

Jean-Pierre Chretien remarked that in 1981:

 “…The comparison with the manner in which beers were appreciated, especially sorghum beer, is also enlightening. To pay respect to a dignitary, a quality beer called umubaya was offered [to guests], [which was] marked by … [a] bitter taste. The old man who told us this in northern Burundi in August 1981 compared it to the salt water enjoyed by cows, the very picture of happiness!”

Source: Jean-Pierre Chretien – The Historical Dimension of Alimentary Practices in Africa

In 1866, David Livingstone describes a similar practice that he came across during his explorations of central Africa.  He was about a month south of Lake Tanganyika and on entering a village and giving greetings to the chief, the chief in turn greeted him by offering him, with both hands and a bow, a container of sorghum beer.  Livingstone remarked that this was the ‘old style’ of greeting – as seen in the picture, above.

Source:  David Livingstone, The Last Journals of David Livingstone, vol. 1 of 2.

About 30 years ago, when conducting an assessment of indigenous agroforestry practices used by the Chagga, a group who live at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, I was similarly greeted by a local chief who offered me, with both hands, a bowl of sorghum beer.

So, apparently a wide-spread manner of greeting across tropical Africa – but one that seems to have been ‘lost’.

Until recently, sorghum has been the traditional carbohydrate of all strata, found throughout the highlands but not around Lake Tanganyika, where bananas and some maize prevailed .  Sorghum was made into a pâte (stiff porridge) and eaten with a little vegetable – and sometimes meat relish.  Now, maize meal and also manioc meal have largely replaced sorghum meal throughout the country.  Manioc meal is the cheapest and is now very commonly used, although it is the least nutritious.

Back to my discussions with several folk in the village:  “What I really liked to have with my pâte,” exclaimed O., “was cow grease and meat!”

This stopped me cold.  In no language did ‘cow grease’ seem to make sense to me.  Ah, it is what butter is called!  And to the making of butter I was given a graphic demonstration, of vigorously shaking back and forth  a container filled with good cream until the butter was ‘made’.

For this dish, the churned butter is put in a large, clay pot and then pieces of sun-dried meat, without any fat, are mixed up in it.  The meat is dried also around a fire on sticks, or over a fire in the smoke.  Here is the recipe in Kirundi:


The meat-butter thus stored  is called INKINDI and can last many months, the flavor improves with age. The meat could be cow or goat meat.

Small quantities are eaten with sorghum pâte – a dish that was reserved for special occasions and for guests.  It is still occasionally made, but ‘not often’.  One of the benefits of the dish is that once made and stored, it is ‘instant’ – and can be instantly served with some pâte.

A BaTwa (pigmy) girl with one of the pots that she has made for us. It is the kind of pot that would have been used in making INKINDI. Pot-making is a traditional production of BaTwa groups in Burund.

I was fascinated, because the same technique is used also (or was) in West Africa as a way of preserving meat, especially useful during caravan travel.  As stated by Shabeeny, in Jackson:

Food of the Desert:
The people, whose interest induces them to cross the desert, (for there are no travellers from curiosity in this country,) obviate the objection to salt provisions, which increases the propensity to drink water, by taking with them melted butter, called smin; this is prepared without salt.

They also cut beef into long pieces, about six inches long, and one inch square, without fat; these are called el kuddeed, which are hung on a line, exposed to the air till dry; they then cut them into pieces, two inches long; these are put into (buckul) an earthen pot; they then pour the smin into the buckul till it is covered. This meat and butter, besides being palatable, is comprised in a small compass, and feeds many.

When this butter has been thus prepared and kept twelve or fifteen years, it is called budrâ, and is supposed to contain penetrating active medicinal qualities. I have seen some thirty years old.

Source – Shabeeni and Jackson, An Account of Timbuctoo and Housa Territories in the Interior of Africa  1820.

This method of preserving meat is related by several other West African explorers.  It is most interesting that the same dish, as explained to me (above), was used in rural, upcountry Burundi – whether introduced from West Africa or independently devised, is not clear.  It is not a dish of the poor, who generally lack the cream and meat for making such a luxurious dish.  .

The dish, I was told, became less made after the 1972 massacres when several 100,000 psudo-ethnic Hutu either fled the country or were massacred.  This date seems to represent a kind of watershed, after which many customary practices were abandoned or truncated.  Many of the Hutu staying in the country were moved into camps where they could be better ‘protected’ – looting and rampaging during the nights was common and families often slept in the bush with their few possessions and livestock, returning to their homes and fields in the mornings.

During this period of fighting, and then again during the fighting of the 80s and 90s, ongoing unrest has been associated with major changes both in farming and cuisine, a topic I will cover in another blog.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-Central, Africa-East, Agriculture, Cuisine, Explorers & exploration, Food and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to ‘Cow Grease’, Meat and Pâtes – Traditional Burundian Cuisine

  1. Pingback: Republic of Burundi «

  2. Pingback: Nibbles: Agroforestry, Maize breeding, Sorghum diversity, Wine sustainability, Soybean diversity, Permaculture - FarmIQ

  3. Pingback: Nibbles: Agroforestry, Maize breeding, Sorghum diversity, Wine sustainability, Soybean diversity, Permaculture

  4. Jeremy says:

    “Potting” under butter was also common as a method of preserving meat and shrimps in England.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s