British colonization and the consequential mixing of cultures and cuisines may have led to the creation of the rolex, but now, the rolex aims to take over the world.
If you walk or drive down many of Uganda’s roads, you’re likely to see someone selling a rolex (no, not that type of Rolex). They can be had for as little as UGX 2000 (around $0.50). This rolex is an omelet rolled up inside a chapati (an Indian flatbread), hence the name “rolled eggs” or “rolex.” It is perfect street food: cheap, quick to prepare, handheld, filling, nourishing, and satisfying.
The rolex is thought to have been invented in Jinja, in Eastern Uganda. The popularity of the dish took off in Kampala as a quick and cheap option for university students. It is now found all over the country.
A rolex stall, which is typically comprised of a flat, black, rounded griddle, is a viable option for many Ugandans to make money. The griddle sits above a charcoal stove—called a sigiri—and the smoke from it sends out a signal to hungry wanderers. Oftentimes, the omelet may have vegetables like cabbage, carrot, onion, or tomato mixed into the egg. The vegetables are effortlessly—although somewhat dangerously looking—chopped while being held in the hand of the cook. (As a chef, I am no stranger to finely chopping vegetables, but having tried this specific technique myself, it’s a lot harder than they make it look.) And finally, there’s the chapati, which mustn’t be cooked too thoroughly so that it remains soft enough to be rolled up without cracking. These rolex stalls are popular amongst locals and tourists alike.
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Like many dishes, the history of the rolex is fascinating. Indians introduced chapati to Uganda, and they were thought to have eaten a basic form of the rolex in their Ugandan homes around the time of the end of colonial rule in Uganda. Indian workers had migrated to Uganda to build a train line for the British in the late 19th century, while India was still under British colonial control. The line, which traveled from Mombasa to Lake Victoria, was built so that the British could keep hold of power in the region, bring in British goods, and export materials to the coast. They compelled tens of thousands of Indians to work for them on the construction in perilous conditions. Due to the dangerous nature of the work, scores died—many from malaria and some from the infamous man-eating lions—and the financial cost ballooned, ultimately dubbing the project the “lunatic express.”
Britain’s colonial rule slowly declined during the 20th century, but the ripples from Europe’s imperial past are still felt in Uganda today. After Uganda gained its independence on October 9, 1962, many years of coups, deaths, and the expulsion of Ugandan Asians followed. This period includes the murderous regime of Idi Amin. His brutal reign of terror is on display at Mengo Palace, where you can see the haunting torture-execution chamber he built. Yoweri Museveni, who helped to oust leaders Idi Amin and Milton Obote, became president in 1986. He is still in power today. In January 2021, he was declared the winner in the presidential elections for his sixth term, extending his 35 years in power. His main rival, Bobi Wine (whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu)—a singer turned politician—was violently intimidated throughout his campaign. Crowds supporting Wine were dispersed with tear gas and bullets. An internet blackout was imposed by authorities on either side of the vote. Wine challenged the vote in court, but later withdrew his legal petition saying the courts are not independent and would not deliver a fair result. But the multicultural influence on Uganda food and culture has stayed intact, and now there are even regional varieties of rolex that include chicken, meat, and molewa (bamboo shoot).
These days a rolex is far removed from its complicated and colonialist history. It is part of Ugandan street food culture. The dish has evolved to another level. You will find it filled with sausages, bacon, chicken, beef, different cheeses, avocado, mayonnaise, and even gravy. It is featured on the menu in modern, popular cafes, such as Cafe Javas; in hotels and guesthouses, like The Guineafowl; and even in brick-and-mortar establishments, such as The Rolex Guy.
The Rolex Guy is trying to elevate the dish. Their most popular rolex is called the beast, which is filled with ground beef, chicken, tomato, and cheese. The hope is that one day, Ugandan street food will be as popular as street food from Asia. Other street food favorites you will find in Uganda include fried cassava chips, great for breakfast with some chilli sauce; fried grasshoppers, available during the rainy season; and BBQ or rotisserie chicken. The British Empire and the consequential mixing of cultures and cuisines may have led to the creation of the rolex, but now, the rolex aims to take over the world.