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By Alex Balimwikungu

Some beatings are self-motivated.  When I turned on the TV and watched fish processors asking the Government to stop Ugandans from consuming Nile perch (empuuta), my heart stopped. How? Who in their right frame of mind can even think of that?  The love affair Ugandans have with Nile perch is immense!  It has overtaken pork and grasshoppers (my experience).  It is Uganda’s most delicious fish. Whether you want it fried or grilled, fresh or frozen, stewed or steamed, it remains unmatched in taste.

Since it was introduced to Lake Victoria in 1950, Nile perch has had more converts than some religious denominations.  And some exporter comes up and asks Parliament to reserve empuuta for the European and Asian markets, so we are consoled with tilapia, mudfish and silver cyprinid (mukene)!  Crap!

Growing up near the Lake Victoria shores in Entebbe, many frowned upon Nile perch.  It is smelly, they often quipped.  It was a delicacy for poor homesteads. True to form, it was never eaten in the open. Ardent lovers often sneaked to the mpuuta stalls after sunset.  Slouched and hiding from sight, they devoured the reddish mounds of deep fried mpuuta with relish. The hardest part was erasing the evidence.  Water, soap, paraffin or jelly came in handy.  We cleaned up for hours on end and sometimes, you had to lose your shirt.  Many people enjoyed mpuuta shirtless. It was cheap. It is the opposite today.

Empuuta is expensive today. It is eaten in the open. It doesn’t segregate between classes. It is very normal for a middle-class Ugandan driving a 2021 Mercedes Benz E-Class to park by the roadside, and huddle with low and no income fellows to place their order. Forget that garnished and marinated stuff you read on five-star hotel menus.  Empuuta from the roadside kikalayi is the best.  It is tastier when eaten alone. Just ask Bobi Wine’s diehard, Eddie Mutwe.  He once cleared a platter of five kilos alone and detailed the story in pictures.

Those who still think that eating and dating sometimes don’t mix are wrong.  As long as it is empuuta, I have no qualms gazing into my date’s eyes as she dismantles the head of Nile perch.  It could even be sealed with a kiss because with mpuuta, nothing is off limits!

Presently, Nile perch trades between sh15,000 and sh20,000 a kilo, depending on how far you are from a landing site, but one thing is constant – the demand is inelastic.  Just like we popularised the Rolex Festival, we need to have a mpuuta festival.

It is a very delicious dish that has also inspired songs.  An upcoming singer, Layita Lighter, in his song Empuuta ya Suupu, extols the virtues of his lover, singing that she is only comparable to the thick soup from Nile perch. There is an age old song of the 1970s by Ecklas Kawalya with the AGS Boys called Empuuta Kawomera.  He, too, sings that it is incomparable in taste.  Singer Winnie Nwagi and Free Boy still sing about it in the song, Kwata Essimu.

Having mpuuta on a date?  Why not? I don’t smell something fishy here.  Visit places like Mulungu landing site and you will get the feeling of “love is in the air”; the pungent smell of fish notwithstanding.

Those who still think that eating and dating sometimes don’t mix are wrong.  As long as it is empuuta, I have no qualms gazing into my date’s eyes as she dismantles the head of Nile perch.  It could even be sealed with a kiss because with mpuuta, nothing is off limits!

It is as well the Government has realised what is at stake. The Government has asked Ugandans to ignore reports on plans to ban local consumption of Nile perch in the country. According to fisheries state minister Hellen Adoa, the Government is actually pushing for a reduction of exportation of Nile perch from 28% to 20%.

“Currently, our consumption is 72% and export is at 28%. Our aim is to consume 80% and export 20% by 2030. There shouldn’t be cause for alarm,” Adoa said in a Twitter post.

Fisheries state minister Hellen Adoa
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