Culture

Food, Self and Identity with Sandrine Ndahiro 

Photo credit: Desmond Umebeh
Photo credit: Desmond Umebeh

As part of the Tell Your Own Story Project, which promotes inclusivity and diversity in the media, University Teacher Florence Le Baron-Earle devised the TYOS Food, Self and Identity Questionnaire. The aim is to reveal the ‘true’ nature of its respondents through the theme of food.

This month, find out about multitasker and inspirational PhD candidate Sandrine Ndahiro. She is the co-founder and co-editor of the Unapologetic magazine by day, an activist by heart, and a film director in the making.

Interview by Dr Florence Le Baron-Earle for the Limerick Voice

  1. What is your name and occupation? 

My name is Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro. I am a PhD student and activist. In 2020, I was watching what was happening around the world with Black Lives Matter. I saw how people, especially in my own circle, were reacting to it. When George Floyd died, it was like: “Oh, it’s awful! But it’s an American issue”. I was really upset.

So, myself and my friend Osikoya, we did the documentary UNSILENCING BLACK VOICES. My activism is expressed through different forms of expression. I found that the documentary was a way to centralise black and mixed-race voices in Ireland, but then I realised that maybe not everyone wants to talk. That’s when I created UNAPOLOGETIC.

Where you can write, you can do anything. I am really interested in different forms of expressions but also, it is for people’s voices, people who are not the norm in Ireland. I give them a platform. I pass on the mic. So, that’s kind of my activism. I am also currently an artist in residence in VISUAL Carlow. That’s where I grew up and where I’ll do my directorial debut over the summer. I’ll be directing a new documentary.

2. Describe yourself in a couple of words or sentences. 

Stubborn, creative and emotive. If you were to ask my parents, they would tell you that I have always been a child who questioned things. When I did not understand something, I challenged it. I went to an all-girls Catholic school in Carlow, and I remember a new family: a Rohingya family. This was the first time that I saw Muslims. People who were wearing the hijab.

I remember, the policy in our school was you could not wear the headscarf. You had to take it off. So, I asked lots of questions. I kind of struck a mini protest in school when I was very young. Also, I think that every single project I have approached had a personal meaning to me. I think it adds more nuance and more pressure to preserve it because there is an emotional attachment. So, these are the three words I would go for.

3. Where do you come from? 

This is the hardest question!  I feel I just come from different places. My parents are from Rwanda but I was born in Tanzania because of the genocide. I was actually born in a refugee camp. I would have been there for two years and moved to Rwanda, then moved to Kenya, then Ireland. I think, ‘til this day, when someone asks me where I’m from, I’m like: “I don’t know” because I am from so many places. I always say Rwanda because that’s where my parents are from. But I also say Kenya because that’s the place I remember as a child. That’s where I learned English. I have a sense of identity there. It always changes. 

4. What food or dishes represent where you grew up? 

Ugali and brochettes. Ugali is the first thing that I smell when I go home to my parents. It is a type of a maize. We just put water to it. My parents usually eat it with meat or soup or fish, anything like that. It is a very distinctive Rwandese food. And there is this picture of me in a refugee camp… I think I was about one and a half and I had my brochettes. This is something that every year, for my birthday, no matter what – I’ll be 27 this year – my parents make for me. Brochettes are meat on a stick that you grill. 

Sandrine eating Brochette. Photographer: Unknown. Photo from Sandrine’s private collection.

5. Is there a scent, spice, or dish that brings you back to your childhood? 

Definitely brochettes because we have that picture. I remember for my 21st birthday, that picture was my birthday cake. It is something that we do every time I go home or for my birthday. It’s a kind of tradition. The shop owner who lives next door knows when I am coming home just because my parents buy the ingredients.

6. Has anyone influenced you in your cooking? If yes, who?

My little sister. She’s four years younger than me. I’ve never seen someone so happy cooking. She can spend the whole day just making everything from scratch. Homemade. She puts so much attention to detail. We always joke about how patient she is. She’s not a patient person, but when it comes to food, she is. That’s when she follows the recipe. For Christmas, it is usually my mam and her who would cook. I just enjoy sitting there, watching. She is my biggest inspiration when it comes to food.

7.What is the most exotic food you have ever tried? 

I am a very picky eater so if I had to pick it would be sushi. I am not sure if it is that exotic… When I was on Erasmus in France, I tried frog. It tastes like chicken.

8. What do you consider your greatest cooking achievement? 

I don’t know if you’ve had Boojum, I’ve kind of mastered my own homemade one. It’s with chicken, loads of vegetables, rice and everything like that. That’s when I feel: “I got it!” It’s healthy and I am trying to eat healthier. For me cooking is such an inconvenience. I usually just order. But why not make it at home? I’ve been very proud of doing it. I mix everything with spices like chilli, pepper, some paprika, Piri Piri. Whatever I have in the house, I just mix it in… And salt. I improvise with what I find. I watch a lot of cooking shows, especially baking shows like the Great British Bake Off. I am always very jealous to see how precise they are. That’s just not me.

9. Do you have a cooking disaster anecdote to share? 

I do. This is a running joke in my family. When I was in first or second year of my undergrad, I was trying to make some rice. The rice process that my mum does probably takes 9 hours. She has a very particular style. I remember when I tried to cook the rice, I kept pouring it into the water. I thought it was so small. I never knew that water gets absorbed in the rice. I remember spending a whole week in college eating rice. I was selling it to my housemates, whoever was around! My mum would be very particular: “Oh, it’s a half of a tablespoon or this or this”.  So, even ‘til this day, I am traumatised from the first time I cooked rice.

I don’t like eating the same food twice so, the fact that I had to live off rice for a whole week was very traumatising. Now, my solution is buying the small bag of rice you boil for 8 minutes or put in the microwave for 2 minutes. It was my biggest disaster. Even now, I cannot get it right. When I go home, and I say “I’ll make someone dinner”, they always say: “ Make sure it’s not rice.” They remember how painful that experience was.

10. What do we always find in your fridge? 

Cheese, eggs and avocado. Those are my go-to. I am obsessed with cheese. Different types of cheese. I tend to do a lot of wine and cheese. That’s like just my most comfort food. That was the only contribution I did over Christmas. I got different types of cheese while everyone one else was cooking for like 10 hours. I was just there with cheese – goat cheese, brie, also this apricot and cheese from Aldi that I am obsessed with. You either like it or you don’t because it is very sweet. 

11. What is the cooking utensil or gadget you cannot live without? 

A can opener. Especially when I am recreating the Boojum. I need one for the kidney beans and different things. That’s the one thing I definitely cannot live without. 

12. Do you have a ritual in preparing and/or serving food? 

I cook and clean at the same time. My biggest pet peeve is that I always have a food coma. I eat so much! I just want to go to sleep. So, I don’t like having to get up and clean up. While my boyfriend uses the whole kitchen when he cooks and there is a mountain of dishes everywhere.

13. What is your favourite herb? 

Rosemary. My mum always uses it when cooking lamb during the period of Easter. It’s a smell that even if I am in a random place and smell it, I am immediately transported to my parents’ house. 

14. Do you have a go-to food or dish when you need comfort, e.g. when sick or feeling low? 

Pizza. It’s a food I have when I am happy or sad. I could eat it for the rest of my life. I love pizza. I am obsessed! It’s really funny because in my house back in Carlow, my mom and dad do not like pizza or pasta, anything like that. They are very healthy. So, when I go home I always request a pizza in the freezer. Depending on my mood, I’ll have pepperoni or ham and pineapple.

15. Do you prefer supermarkets or farmer’s markets? 

I prefer the supermarket just because it is the most convenient thing. You just always know something is there. But to be fair, if we are in town, I like the market for the cheese. Coffee and cheese. The market is for the weekend. As a student, out of practicality, I go to Aldi. It is very good value for students. 

16. Do you prefer eating in or out? 

I prefer eating out because I am a social bee. But it would be on an occasion. The one advice I got when I started my PhD was to celebrate every small thing. So, if I submit a chapter or my boyfriend finishes his last exam, we just go out. It is always to celebrate and to socialise. Any excuse to socialise and I’ll be there.

17. What is the best way to cook an egg? 

Mine is very strange. I don’t like the yolk. I just cook it until you cannot even tell if it is there. Other people like the yolk to be runny. I just cook it to death. The last time, we were in Hook and Ladder, I ordered an Irish breakfast. I was like: “Kill that egg!”. I cannot stand the goo. I tried hard-boiled, but I always take it out too soon. I’m too impatient. I check it out and it is still runny. I like it with salt, avocado and chilli flakes. I don’t know where my obsession to have it dead comes from. 

18. Do you have a food pet peeve? 

People eating very fast. Well, actually, I figured out that I’m just really slow at eating.  At home, we always have our meals together. My parents’ rule is “No one leaves the table until the last person has finished”.  But I am a talker. I talk through the whole meal and everyone has finished before me. So, my parents gave up on that rule. They have it for everyone else except me. I always feel like everyone is rushing me. They tell me: “You sat there for an hour. You ate this little thing, and you told your whole life story!” 

19. What time do you usually eat the main meal of your day? 

I usually eat around 9pm or 10pm. That’s when I come back from the library. If it’s on a weekend, then it probably would be eight. I eat a lot throughout the day, so I am not hungry when it comes to 6pm, like my boyfriend or most people I know in Ireland. If I eat earlier, I am really hungry by 9pm or 10pm again. I used to have more set times: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Since Covid, my habits changed because I am sitting down for long periods of time. My whole sense of time is disrupted. Now, I eat snacks throughout the day. If you look at my desk, you’ll see wrappers everywhere. I might have brown bread, apricot cheese, biscuits, pasta, sliced chorizo that I eat throughout the day.

20. What did you have as a main meal yesterday? 

I had chicken Kiev, chips and avocados on the side with chilli flakes. It was a very easy meal. I just left it in the oven, had my shower and when I came down it was ready. It was very convenient. 

21. Please, share with us one of your favourite recipes.

My sister Mireille does a great vegetarian lasagna:

Ingredients:

1 red onion

Carrots

Celery

1/2 cup of green lentils

1 cup of potatoes

1 can of chickpeas

1 can of kidney beans

1 Vegetables stock

Spinach

You can add your favourite vegetables in there so whatever vegetables you have around

White sauce

One vegetable stock

Mixed herbs (Salt and pepper Chilli flakes or paprika)

You can add your favourite seasonings

And you can add your own milk substitute like coconut and almond milk

Flora butter

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