What happens when innovative street food meets a production line, asks our Ugandan correspondent Malcolm Bigyemano as he finds himself confronted with a funny way of churning out everyone’s favourite egg rolled in chapati dish.
She laughed and laughed and laughed. It was awkward because I was not being funny on purpose, I just wanted what I wanted. Did they have the ingredients it required to make it happen? Yes. Were they going to make it happen? Well, I had to wait for her to finish laughing to find out.
Rollex, the classic omelette wrapped in chapati, is less than 20 years old but has become as much a symbol of urban life in Kampala as boda-boda motorcycles and the 14 seater white mini-van taxis. Your typical rollex stand will usually be a narrow, high table, with a wooden display case with glass panels to store ready-made chapatis and an elevated charcoal stove; all manned by one or two people doing everything from taking orders to frying, assembling, and receiving payment. Many now include a big pot of boiled beans to accommodate the demand for Kikomando, which is any number of chapattis cut up into small pieces and served mixed up with said beans. I was therefore impressed to find, between Crazy Chicken and Kobil Petrol station on Ggaba Road in Kampala, an evolution of this model: the Rollex factory.
I approached what looked like a line of five stoves on the outskirts of a tent with men frying eggs and chapati and tried to hand one of them the standard note and coin to make an order. But that’s not how this worked. This place had a production line: orders and payments were made at a desk, after which fryers would prepare the eggs and chapati, then pass them on to the assembly point where vegetables and condiments are added before wrapping and returned to the front desk. Without looking up he pointed to the desk inside the tent-like structure. Walking in, I saw a spacious seating area with a desk adjacent, behind which sat a woman I want to call Dora and across from which was a large printed out menu. One item caught my eye: a Rollex with beans.
Now a Rollex with beans can mean any number of things: a) the beans are wrapped in the omelette which is wrapped in the chapati; b) the beans are whisked into the omelette mix, fried together and then wrapped in chapati; or c) The eggs are wrapped in the chapati and served on a bed of beans. When I asked Dora which of the above they served, she mentioned (c), the least convenient of them. When I told her I wanted Option (b), she laughed and laughed and laughed. When she calmed down and I asked her if it was possible, she called a friend and told me to repeat my order, after which they both laughed at me.
Did they have beans? Yes. Did they have eggs? Yes. Did they have chapatis? Yes. Would it require a specialised machine or add an extra cost if they had to whisk the beans into the eggs? No. For one, Dora probably just thought it was a bad idea and wanted to save me from myself. But more importantly, because this place ran according to a strict production line, there was a lack of flexibility I wouldn’t have experienced with a stand-alone Rollex stand. Only when I spoke directly to the fryers themselves did I finally get the Rollex I asked for, which was well worth the wait and the awkwardness.
Rollex, a simple but powerful dish has come a long way and still has an even longer way to go. As the wrap itself evolves and gets gentrified with more ingredients and styles, so do the business models surrounding it. One day we shall find stupendously expensive Rollexes on fine dining menus, or Rollex franchises opening up outlets around the world. What the Rollex factory made clear is that Rollex is going places: formalised, standardized places, full of unimaginative Doras.
Follow Malcolm on Twitter: @mrbigyemano