Food from Kikuyu and Kisii

When I first tasted Mukimo (featured photo) it was a completely new dish to me. I tried a little by itself: starchy, with the flavours of the vegetables and beans mashed into it. It was clear that it was supposed to accompany something. I added a little grilled meat, and the combination tasted good. I’d just recreated a Kikuyu dish, but don’t give me too much credit. I’ve had enough meat and potato in parts of the world not to recognize what a starchy mash would go well with. The servers were not too helpful, since they would say “Kenyan” to every question about the provenance of the food. I later found that Mukimo probably started with the Kikuyu people near Mount Kenya and has now spread pretty much across Kenya.

When you travel your enjoyment of food can improve tremendously if you learn to take new food on its own terms. In Kenya it is not new flavours that you need to appreciate, it is the degree of wetness of the food. In Kenya one has to learn to appreciate the dryness of Mukimo with Nyama Choma (roasted meat) or Ugali (cornmeal porridge) with Sukuma Wiki (kale).

Another new thing I came across in the same spread was a green I first unthinkingly identified as Sukuma Wiki. It wasn’t. The pleasantly bitter leaf was labelled Managu. I piled more on my plate. Every time that she would see the same three or four varieties of leaves in a shopping basket, my grandmother used to reminisce about fourtenn varieties of leaves which could be bought in the market in what she called “my days.” I guess some of those stories have influenced my habit of trying out every kind of edible leaf I see.

This one comes from the Solanum family and is eaten right across sub-Saharan Africa. I would have hesitated to buy Solanum, since some of the deadly poisons that one knows come from this genus. But this iron-rich variety is considered to be so nutritious that pregnant women are advised to eat it in quantity. I guess this was a local Kisii preparation, not only because we were close to the Kisii homeland, but also because it was named in the Gusii language. Interestingly, it was cooked with another edible Solanum mixed into it: tomato.

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A light lunch?

Nairobi is a good place to eat out in. There is food from everywhere in the extended neighbourhood, even as far afield as France and Italy. MONT and The Family planned a day of shopping, and I tagged along. There is wonderful stuff from local artists is various shops: Nani Croze has mentored many through Kitangela Hot Glass, and the artists’ cooperative of Kazuri makes beads and pottery which looks totally different from what I’ve seen before. But the high point of my discovery of Nairobi’s shopping that day was to be the lunch. Sure enough, we found a wonderful cafe. The lentil soup, the falafal, a small chicken salad, certainly. Would that be enough? No, maybe I should add a burger with fries. You would prefer a kabab? Maybe both then. A smoothie will go well with it, don’t you think? Before we knew we had over ordered. Who realized that the pita bread would be so large? Maybe a little dessert? Let’s finish with an espresso. You want a Kenyan tea instead? It wasn’t a light lunch, but it was good: fresh and flavourful ingredients made well.

An East African specialty

One thousand and five hundred years ago the ancestor of the matoke were brought from Asia to Africa. They took root, in a manner of speaking, grew, and flourished, quite separately from their cousins. They became something very special: the East African Highland banana, a staple of food in Eastern Africa. On the flight to Nairobi I’d watched a potboiler of a movie about two people whose love life is thrown (temporarily) off the rails because the girl can’t cook matoke to the liking of the mother of the boy. One should not read too much into a movie, but this must say something about how basic the matoke is to the daily life of East Africa.

So I was very happy to find a dish of matoke, looking roughly like what I’d seen in the movie. They are a very flavourful starch, which explains their centrality to many East African kitchens. This dish was entirely vegetarian, but there is a famous beef stew with matoke. I liked the flavour and the spicing; not so different from Indian food. Typical recipes call for the banana to be cut into thick disks and boiled. The whole banana must be hard to cook that way; I thought from its taste that it could have been partly baked before being cooked into the curry. No matter how it was prepared, this was something I wouldn’t mind eating again.

Street food of Nairobi

Nairobi is a great place for restaurants: a wide variety, extremely fresh ingredients, and imaginative chefs. But the biggest fun in eating when you are in a completely new place is street food. It always gives you a wonderful introduction to local ingredients, used in ways that attract local palates. For me the high point of discover was street side mogo chips. I’m sure every East African will groan at my predictability, but a paper bag of these fresh thin wafers of cassava (mogo), fried to a crispy gold, covered with flakes of chili, with a whole lime squeezed over the bagful, was a fabulous discovery. It is not an unfamiliar taste, but the flavour of cassava is very different from that of potato, and that touch of the exotic made my day. The young man in the featured photo was one of a line of vendors who had brought traffic to a standstill with this single item.

Not quite a single item. There were also vendors selling grilled corn (exactly like back home in Mumbai) with lime and chili to flavour it. I’d missed the fact that the stall that you see in the photo above also featured banana flowers. I’ll have to wait till my next trip to Nairobi to figure out how banana flowers are used in local fast food.

The freshest of food

A wonderful thing about eating in Kenya was the freshness of the ingredients. Two decades ago a person I used to meet often on wildlife trips in India was involved in setting up cold chains across the country. He was starry-eyed about the potential to bring fresh fruits and vegetables into the city. Now, when I see tasteless one-year-old tomatoes on sale in a supermarket in Mumbai, his words sound to me like the shattered dreams of internet pioneers. Kenya is not linked together by cold chains. The food is brought into markets as quickly as possible by those who grow them. The outcome is fresh and flavourful.

Neighbourhoods vendors in Nairobi have fresh produce, and even out on highways you pass long lines of green grocers. The one you see in the photo above is a typical shop. We bought a bag of oranges, like those you see hanging from the roof, and they turned out to be immensely juicy, sweet, but with the tartness of a citrus. We were looking for something to eat on the move, so we weren’t interested in the potatoes and onions , although they looked pretty good. I eyed the tomatoes longingly, I knew how good they were here, but the rest of the party was not interested.

The watermelon is great is Kenya, and it is possible to buy just a slice. Anthony had one while we dithered. The pumpkin caught my eye. I hadn’t tasted the pumpkin in Kenya yet. MONT made some at home later, and they were as nice as I could imagine they would be. I didn’t see pumpkin flowers on sale; that’s a great delicacy, but one that seems to be unknown here.

It was curious that there were no interesting new things to discover. Potatoes, onions, and tomatoes exhausted the list of vegetables on display. I’d expected to find lots of leafy vegetables: amaranth (lidodo in Swahili), cow pea (likhubi), even jute and pumpkin leaves, but they weren’t visible. Maybe there is some degree of specialization, and we needed to look for a different shop for those. But that was for another time. Now we’d found enough fruits for the journey.

What to drink in Kenya

Anything but the tap water, if I’m to believe travelers’ tales. Sounds strange that accepted opinion in so many countries in the world is that you do not drink tap water. Things have really gone down since the fall of the Roman empire, it seems! The Family had water from our taps tested in a lab for several years and it always came out clean, although people around us mistrusted the same tap water. So I’m forced to believe that the burgeoning distrust of water available freely from taps is a marketing idea which has gone viral (Yes, I know. My choice of words is deliberate). Persistence of such beliefs also lets local governments get away with a deterioration of water supply. Fortunately Mother of Niece Tatu had more than a decade of experience that it was safe to use tap water for tea. We took this as a fair indication that municipal water in Kenya is safe to drink, but adopted a policy of using bottled drinking water while on the road.

Kenya has, reputedly, a huge variety of beer. I did a little web search and figured that there are at least five different large breweries, each with multiple labels. But the fact of the matter is that one brewery dominates the market. I did not have much time for bar hopping, and most of my beer drinking was done between safaris. In these restricted conditions, I found only beers by a single brewery. I asked about the bocks, pilsners, and red ales made by other breweries, but the lodges in Amboseli and Masai Mara did not stock them. It will be interesting to track them down the next time I’m in Kenya. The two labels I managed to drink were Tusker and the less common White Cap, both owned by East Africa Breweries. Tusker lager is said to be fully local, made with barley from the Mara region, water from Aberdare, and locally sourced yeast. I liked the taste of this lager more than White Cap. The Tusker malt was also rather good.

I’d read about a local wine from grapes grown in the rift valley, a couple of kilometers above sea level. That seems to be the only wine made in Kenya. While searching for wines I found several labels which claim to be from Kenya, but a closer look shows that they are South African wines in disguise. South Africa has wonderful wines, and I’m sure many of these labels would be worth uncorking. But if you are looking for Kenyan wine, then Leleshwa (named after an aromatic camphor bush) seems to be the only choice. I tasted the rose and the white. It is definitely far superior to the plonk you get in cardboard boxes, relegated to the lower shelves of wine dealers in Kenya, but we did not think it was worth the trouble of bringing a few bottles back to India with us. Amazingly, several shops did not know that their stocks include Leleshwa. The winery produces a red, but even after a lot of searching in Nairobi I could not find a bottle.

If I leave you without a word about the Mosquito Killer, I’m sure you’ll not let me hear the end of it. So I’ll end with a couple of words about the drink: worth ordering.

Matbronze gallery and cafe

I’d heard about Nairobi’s cafes from Niece Tatu, “Fabulous.” Reviews I’d seen on the web gave me a similar impression. The Mother of Niece Tatu and the Father of Niece Tatu (I adopt the respectful Swahili way of referring to them) had our day chalked out for us when they picked us up from the airport. After a stop to see giraffes we were whisked off to the nearby Matbronze Gallery.

The bronze pieces are cast in a foundry in the grounds of the gallery by local artists. I’d read that the gallery and foundry were started in 1987 by artist Denis Mathews, but the work has been carried on by younger Kenyan artists after his death in 1997. The huge bronze head of an elephant, balanced on its trunk, which you see at the edge of the parking area is probably one of the pieces by Mathews. The only human bronze I saw was the bust of the conservationist Mervyn Cowie holding a pair of binoculars under a stylized bronze acacia. We walked through the gallery admiring the beautiful pieces. Some of the ones which I liked best were the delicate ones of birds perched on stalks of bronze grass, or pecking at de3lciate bronze flowers. The beautiful texturing of the bronze and the subtle colours imparted by mild oxidizing were wonderful devices. I wish I’d not put off visiting the foundry, because our tight schedule meant that we never went back. One result is that I’ve fallen, inadvertently, into the colonial trap of mentioning only the founder of the gallery and not the artists who sustain it now.

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It was well past our lunch time in Mumbai, but the odd breakfasts (yes, in plural) that we had eaten had left us feeling full. So we agreed with FONT that coffee and cake would be good. The Family’s cappuccino (featured photo) came with the signature lion’s pawprint of the gallery done in cocoa; you can always recognize the lion by its claw. The chocolate brownie was dense and moist, but the cake was taken, so to say, by the oatmeal cookies. I’m afraid I forgot to take a photo of these until I’d polished off half a plate.

The beautifully preserved skull of an immense tusker had caught my eye as we sipped our coffees. When we got up to leave, I threaded my way through the tables on to the lawn where it was placed. That’s the photo you see above. Kenya was the first country to destroy seized stocks of illegal ivory in 1989. It is not illegal to own ivory which was obtained before the 1973 ban on elephant hunting. So I guess this skull predates the ban. We were to hear more about elephant conservation and the ivory ban in the coming days, but for now, we were in the hands of MONT and FONT, who had planned a wonderful day for us.

The last Lokanta

It was our last day in Istanbul and we’d done a long walk through Eminönü. Now, late in the afternoon it was time for a small indulgence with a çay (pronounced chai). Just as I was about to say this to The Family, she indicated a lokanta in front of us. We’d eaten at lokantas before, but hadn’t looked for one after coming to Istanbul. Going into one would be a nice way to say goodbye to our experience of Turkish food.

The food that we’d eaten in lokantas ranged from wholesome to stunning. This one must have been somewhere within this spectrum judging by the number of people who were having a large meal at this odd time, halfway between lunch and dinner. We found our last baklava with the çay. This looked like it was a self-service restaurant, but there were some waiters around. We were told that our order would come to us at the table, and it did very quickly. We looked around the tiled interior, the mirrors on the wall, the interesting lampshades, the railing on the upper floor where there was more seating, and elegant marble-topped tables and spindly chairs. “Nice way to end the day,” The Family said. I agreed.

An official banquet

An official banquet in China is quite an experience. There is the round table with its Lazy Susan which is slowly loaded with more food than you think you can eat. The featured photo shows a small selection of a banquet. There is the amazing sweet and sour Mandarin fish; amazing for its knife work, the way the fish seems to grow quills as it is cooked. The duck-shaped dish above it contains slices of Peking duck, served with chapatis (yes, that is a more appropriate translation than pancake) and plum sauce. You can also see a wonderful mushroom called black fungus and an interesting dish of pork lung in chili sauce.

Niece Mbili looked at the photo of the menu (above) and asked “Which ones did you order?” She was blown off her feet when I explained that you don’t choose. Everything on the menu eventually arrives at the table, the dinner continues for several hours, and a lot of baijiu drunk during the dinner. I rather like the sweet pumpkin stuffing that you get in China.

Tulip and turban

In the late afternoon we sat down for a quiet time and looked at the crowded road outside Sirkeci station: the lines of taxis, people crossing the road, trams coming and going. It looked so calm and unhurried, compared to the tempo of Mumbai, that I wondered about the inflamed imagination of writers who passed through here in the nineteenth century. Could this really be the colourful East of their imagination: debauchery, glamour, exotica?

A hint of that exotica arrived at our table in the form of güllaç (pronounced guellash). This traditional sweet is made only for Ramazan: thin layers of pastry oozing milk, filled with nuts and pomegranate. Perfect with çay. We’d run into güllaç before, and had put off our first experience of it. Now that we had only a couple of days before we left Turkey, we were rushing through our list like the last episode of the Game of Thrones. The result would be some hard-to-shed holiday weight.

That plate looked nice. We took a closer look at the design. Swirling bands of green and gold looked like the “awful turbans” which Mark Twain took such a dislike to. The tulips recalled the heady days of the Ottoman-era tulip craze. This shop was certainly standing when Twain’s ship pulled into Halic to dock. We’d had a wonderful reception at the counter of the sweet shop. We didn’t see a place to sit in, and were gently led upstairs to their cafe. I’d carried my library of books about Turkey on my phone. When I opened Mark Twain’s diatribe about Istanbul (“Everybody lies and cheats”) we had a hearty laugh at the depressive comic who might as well not have left home.