January 15, 2009

Speke's million-shilling spinach

I've been cooking chicken tikka masala a lot lately. I take a jar of Patak's tikka masala curry sauce, a can each of drained chick peas and spinach, and mix those into chicken breast chunks sauteed in olive oil. Everyone goes back for seconds (which is why I've recently begun doubling the recipe).

Indian is one of my two favorite cuisines. (Mexican.) And because of the centuries of Indian emigration to places around the globe, you can get it just about anywhere, Uganda included.

Dana and I ate lots of Indian food in Kampala, and our favorite restaurant was the Khyber Pass at the Speke Hotel on Nile Avenue in the city center. The Speke is Uganda's oldest hotel, built in the 1920s and named for 19th-century British explorer John Hannington Speke, who poked around Africa with Richard Burton and "discovered" Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile. The hotel has a colonial look and feel and reminds me of the Norfolk in Nairobi.

One evening we sat on the outside terrace under the lights, watching the bustle along Nile Avenue as we ate our dinner. I'd ordered a saag dish, which contains spinach. Saag dishes by definition contain spinach. The description of my dish on the Khyber Pass's menu, right next to the price, listed spinach.

After we'd enjoyed our meal and the soft yellow lights and the warm Kampala night, I asked for the check, which, according to the menu, should have been 68,000 Uganda shillings (USH), about $35.oo US. The waiter brought the bill.

The figure 68,000 was, indeed, written on the bill, but the waiter pointed to another number written at the bottom of the slip: 830,000 shillings -- $420 US dollars. I checked my wine to make sure I hadn't inadvertently ordered a bottle of vintage Dom Perignon and then laughed up at the waiter and asked what he was expecting me to pay. He did not point at the 68,000, but at the 830,000, which my brain had already rounded up to a million.

"But that says eight hundred and thirty thousand!"

"Yes, madam. Because of the spinach."

"Eight hundred and thirty thousand?"

"Yes, madam. It is the spinach."

So I'd be paying more for my saag than the amount printed on the menu. Was there a spinach shortage in Kampala? Was there a tourists-only spinach levy? Maybe there was a spinach disclaimer somewhere in the menu's fine print.

When you're traveling and don't have home field advantage you pick your battles carefully. I wasn't going to argue over some easy-to-swallow spinach surcharge, fake or otherwise, but an extra 385 bucks? What was this, truffle-infused spinach?

I went at it again: "Eight HUNDRED and thirty THOUSAND?"

"Yes, madam. For the spinach."

"How is that possible?"

"Yes, it is the spinach." Dana by this point was giggling wildly into her tea cup.

I pointed to the first two digits of the original bill amount. "Sixty-eight."

"Yes, madam."

Then I pointed to the other number. "Eight hundred thirty. How does spinach get me from sixty-eight to EIGHT HUNDRED THIRTY?" Surely, when expressed that way the absurd distance between the two figures would register and the waiter would apologize and tender a revised and more reasonable amount.

"Yes, madam. It is for spinach." Dana spit tea on the terrace.

"Perhaps you mean eighty-three?"

"Yes, madam," said the waiter, nodding placidly. "Eighty-three."

"So it's eighty-three thousand, not eight hundred and thirty thousand?" At 83,000 USH the bill would clock in at about $42 US, meaning a seven dollar spinach tax, which, at the moment, sounded like a bargain.


"So, the comma is in the wrong place!" (I said this with a little "Gotcha!" tone in my voice. Vindicated.)

"Yes, madam."

"And there's an extra digit."

"Yes, madam."

I paid the 83,000 shillings, and we left the terrace for Nile Avenue, replaying the million-shilling spinach conversation all the way back to our hotel. Through the night, one of us would whisper, "Yes, madam," and we'd both crack up.