Steamed goat meat. Doesn’t sound like the most appealing dish in the world, but it is Burundi’s specialty. They call it muchopo, and the best versions of it can be found in the Asian Quarter and in Bwiza, the Congolese/Senegalese Quarter of Bujumbura.
As a thank you for taking me to the tailor on the weekend to check on my dress order, I told my Burundian co-worker that I would treat him to muchopo—but he had to pick the place. I had wanted to experience Bwiza, which is widely considered to be the liveliest neighborhood in town, but he insisted on the Asian Quarter (“There are too many fights in Bwiza,” he said).
We ambled into the neighborhood, rolling over potholes and unpaved roads. This area looks vastly different from the rest of the city. There are compounds, square buildings, small empty porches that become bars at some point in the evening. Men loitered here and there, and minarets of green and white rose over the rooftops. There are many Muslims in this area.
It’s called the Asian Quarter because of the businessmen. There is a significant population of Indians here, and I’ve seen a few Arabs as well. Since it’s near the port, they set up shop here, with little warehouses and distribution centers. My friend tells me it’s possible to find whatever you need in this area—he walked into a crowded little shop and asked if they had Tahini sauce; after digging around a bit and brushing off a layer of dust, a jar of sauce was produced.
We pulled into a courtyard with straw huts and tables. The place was called Chez Terrence, and was well known for its muchopo. After greeting literally everyone in the cabaret (my coworker seems to know everyone), we sat down at a little wooden table and ordered some muchopo and Amstel.
While we were waiting, a huge SUV rolled into the parking lot. Music was blaring from the open windows, and everyone was looking at the people who had just arrived. They jumped down from the car, laughing and talking much louder than necessary. The men wore camouflage shorts and flip flops and the women were prancing about in strapless tops. They popped open the back, where they sat and tailgated, drinking massive beers and being obnoxious.
“Rwandans,” my coworker sighed. I nearly passed out laughing. In any other country, people would have thought they were American. Camouflage shorts? I have never seen a Rwandan man wearing shorts. Only schoolboys wear shorts. But apparently Rwandan men wear them when they come here. It was only too funny to see from this other perspective.
The muchopo emerged, on a wide plate, covered with thinly sliced and somewhat pickled onions, and served with a side of umurobe, which is a cassava-based starchy dough. It’s more dense than ugali, and I have been told that it keeps for a month on the counter (this is very questionable). Eating umurobe is like eating a brick—it just sits in your stomach, feeling heavy and unhealthy and with little nutritive value. I expected the steamed meat to be gray and soggy, but for some reason, its exterior was crispy and the interior was as tender as goat meat can be. It was chopped in finger-food sized pieces, and you had to pay attention as you were eating, as some of them still had a couple of goat hairs attached. Some of the chunks I picked up were stained dark blue, which makes me think they used blue twine in the cooking process…so I didn’t eat those bits, but beyond that, it was surprisingly delicious. Apparently it takes seven hours for muchopo to cook (when steaming meat like that, it doesn’t surprise me that it takes so long).
My coworker insisted that we also try their goat brochettes, since I still hadn’t had a particularly good one here in Burundi. He ordered me one, despite the fact that I was full of umurobe. As we sat in the dark, chatting with some of his friends that joined us at our table, I took several bites. The brochettes were…surprising. The first bite was tough. The second was too soft and tasted a bit weird—that turned out to be goat liver, and I couldn’t manage to spit it out without looking crass, so I just chewed it as much as I needed to before swallowing it in a big chunk. Blech. The next morsel was a huge chunk of fat, which was as soft as the liver, but was so chewy that I realized what I was eating and held it solemnly in my mouth until everyone turned to the server to order more beer. I then managed to throw it over my shoulder, and no one was the wiser.
The verdict: Burundi muchopo good, Burundi brochettes…not so much.