Former nutrition professor uses soybeans to expand traditional Ugandan cuisine

In June, Dorothy Blair, a retired assistant professor of nutrition at Penn State, spent a month in Masindi, Uganda, as a nutritionist, helping soy farmers and farm educators realize the cooking possibilities for soybeans. Blair went at the request of the Masindi Seed and Grain Growers Ltd., a friendly, small-scale cooperative that stores and grinds the region’s major crop — maize — mostly for the U.N. Food Program. Blair’s work with them was supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Farmer-to-Farmer program of CNFA, an international development agency based in Washington, D.C.

Soybeans had been introduced to the Masindi area just two years earlier as an oil seed and as a rotational crop for maize to help maintain soil fertility. The beans grew well, but came without cooking instructions.

Upon arrival, Blair learned from Solomon Kahuma, the marketing manager at the co-op, that two, four-day cooking workshops had already been scheduled, each with 20 women farmers and farming educators.

There was nothing in place for the workshop. They fashioned a rudimentary kitchen: water in jerry cans, basins with soap and dented aluminum pots brought from home by participants. Their stoves were three stones on dirt, fired with wood. If lucky, they had a table (or a door on two chairs) on which to place groceries, demonstrate cooking techniques and display the finished soybean dishes.

When available, Blair used a PowerPoint presentation powered by a generator. Otherwise she used flipcharts and a translator to teach her class. Used pages from the flipchart became ground cloths for the cooking ingredients.

Blair went prepared with knowledge of traditional Ugandan foods and a cookbook of recipes she had devised of traditional bean dishes, converted for soybeans. “I chose the most promising recipes based on seasonally appropriate vegetables, and developed a four-day, soybean immersion,” said Blair.     

“The evening before the first day, I picked over 5 kilograms of poorly-stored soybeans and gave them a 12-hour soak. The next day we cooked them for 3½ hours over our wood fire,” Blair explained. “We added the traditional sautéed onions, tomatoes and curry powder to the beans and voila! Rich, delicious, and chewable soybeans, served with stiff maize porridge and matooke — green bananas wrapped in banana leaves — and cooked to stiff porridge consistency. The farmers were delighted with the taste of well-cooked soybeans.”

The rest of the workshop was dedicated to refining soybean dishes that incorporated the familiar vegetables growing in gardens, and experimenting with the use of soy flour as a supplement in the low-protein, staple porridges. Local farmers, in groups of four or five, cooked two recipes each day. Blair started by reviewing the ingredients for each recipe and discussing an appropriate local name. After cooking and tasting, they reviewed each recipe, revising if necessary to make it closer to their tastes and traditions.

“The two workshops generated a local soybean cookbook, farmer-focus group tested and approved,” Blair said. “I also gave two soy workshops to townspeople, worked with the co-op managers on drying techniques for presoaked and half-cooked soybeans destined to be roasted as soy nuts and promoted the possibilities for local production of soy milk.”

“Initially I had reservations about promoting soybeans in Uganda,” explained Blair. “Displacing traditional beans that cook with less wood fuel was one concern, though I did teach the farmers what every cook should know: how to lightly boil and thus use less fuel.”

Four days and 21 kilograms of beans later, Blair helped the local farmers and farming educators realize the cooking potential for soybeans. “It was a pleasure to work with Ugandans – an outgoing, forthright, ambitious people with a very positive attitude,” said Blair.

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Last Updated October 29, 2013