Malewa is obtained from crushing and drying special bamboo shoots that are obtained from the area of Mt. Elgon, found along Uganda’s border with Kenya. Malewa is harvested throughout the year, but especially during the dry season. The bamboo shoots are traditionally air-dried under mountainside caves, and can also be smoked to give a particular, burnt flavor when used in preparing food. Malewa can easily be confused in appearance for banana fibers, but the easiest way to distinguish these bamboo shoots is from the sweet smell and the visibile joints that characterized the short pieces of malewa.
Regardless of differences in the preparation method, malewa has a taste reminiscent of forest mushrooms. It is said that the best traditional taste of malewa emerges when it is mixed with groundnut paste to make a paste or sauce that can be eaten with millet, banana or sweet potatoes. Malewa sauces or soups are compatible with many other local and traditional dishes in Uganda.
Malewa is the traditional food for the Gishu people in eastern Uganda, and it has been in the area since the Gishu occupied the slopes of Mt. Masaba, also known as Mt. Elgon. It is served widely in the region during the traditional circumcision rites that are performed in each even numbered calendar year. Mothers would serve the product to their sons to give them bravery before embarking on a week-long journey to travel through the community and receive blessings before the actual circumcision (imbalu).
Malewa may be collected by individuals for personal use, but it is also sold in local markets, mainly by boys of the Gishu communities; however the quantities that can be found at local markets are declining. This is due to encroachment on the mountainside habitats for settlements and agricultural land as a result of growing populations in the area.