Kenyan Food

Food in Kenya, as in many other countries in post-colonial Africa, has a complex history. Kenya as a country developed quickly under Western influence from a spread-out, rural area of many tribes into a single large nation with huge cities, over the space of just 40 years or so. Thus, the food also developed quickly, going through a sort of accelerated, multi-cultural melting pot over that period.

While this may mean that Kenyan food doesn’t have the millennia of shared history behind it that say, Ethiopian food has, this doesn’t mean that the deliciousness has been impacted in any way. In a much smaller, much more sedate way, Kenyan food reminds me a little bit of Malaysian food, in the way that both nations freely combine many traditions and cultures to create a result that is fiercely their own.

So, down to business. Here are three areas of Kenyan food that I think are important to know about: the pervasive Kenyan lunch plate, the Indian influence you find everywhere, and BBQ’n a way into my heart: nyama choma.

Kenyan plate

Come to me, delicious lunch. Stay in my stomach and make a little home.

Throughout Kenya, as far as I can tell, the lunch that everyone eats is what I call the Kenyan plate. Man, is it good. The basic template isn’t that surprising: it’s a starch (either rice, ugali, or chapati), with whatever main you order, plus some vegetable sides. Common entree options are beans, beef stew, fried chicken, lentils (called green grams or ndengu), or matumbo (tripe). My personal favorite is beans.

The whole plate shebang will often be topped with a touch of kachumbari, which is something like salsa: tomatoes, onions, peppers, sometimes avocado, all nicely chopped up and fresh.

Often the Kenyan plate is served from a small house or a small business that’s near where people work, and which caters to the lunch crowd only. There’s two lunch places like this within a block of where I’ve been volunteering. They are pretty awesome, homey affairs: just a few people in the kitchen, maybe a waiter to take your order, and some folding chairs and a table in the sun.

The best part about the Kenyan lunch plate, though, is that it changes every day. Every place I’ve had it, and every time I’ve returned, it’s slightly different. Some days you get cabbage, some days you get sukuma wiki (sauteed kale). Some days you get four vegetable sides, sometimes just one. Sometimes they have beef, sometimes they only have ndengu. And sometimes, no matter what you order, you’ll get something totally new. You can’t control it, you roll with it, and it’s great fun.

Counterclockwise, from top left: Stoney, a type of spicy ginger soda; stewed potatoes and vegetables with tomato; sukuma wiki, which is sauteed cabbage/kale; some delicious cabbage; Beef stew, a common lunch entree; pili pili, which are sliced very hot peppers; and steamed rice.

I really, really like the Kenyan lunch plate. It’s one thing I’m really going to miss when I leave Kenya: having a delicious, home-cooked, mostly vegetarian lunch each day for about $1 U.S. The Google cafeteria is fancy and legitimately great, but for me personally, I’d take the Kenyan plate every time.

Indian influence

One thing that I was surprised to learn when I got to Nairobi is how widespread the Indian influence is, both in Nairobi and across Kenya. For a long time, there’s been a sizeable Indian population in Kenya, and you can see this all over town in Nairobi: there’s a ton of Sikh and Hindu temples, there’s a lot of specialized Indian shopping centers and groceries, and one affluent district of town, Westlands, is mostly composed of Indians. (If you watch carefully, you can even see a scene in “Out of Africa” where there’s a parade through Nairobi after the war is over. In a building in the background, a bunch of folks are holding a banner that says, “The Indian Community Salutes The Victory.”)

What this means for you, dear eater, is that there’s all sorts of Indian influence up in your Kenyan food. Which is awesome. One example is chapati, which has been fully integrated into Kenyan food as the most common side bread with a meal. Which, I have to say, is awesome: I will never say no to delicious fried up savory bread goodness.

Lillian, our samosa lady.

Samosas are another way that you see this Indian influence. Kenya has adopted and re-imagined the samosa as a meat-filled, triangular pastry of hot deliciousness. It’s commonly eaten for breakfast, or as a snack. One of the great little pleasures I’ve had while volunteering in Kenya is having Lillian, from the lunch place down the road, come by my desk each morning at 10 AM to give me a freshly made hot meat samosa. Price: 20 cents.

Time from this photo to utter happiness: 4 seconds.

If you ask most Kenyans what they think about Indian food, though, they won’t know what you’re talking about. They’ll firmly assure you that chapati and samosas are not Indian, but are in fact Kenyan. And they’re right. That’s how the melting pot works.

Nyama Choma

Of course, no investigation of Kenyan (or East African) cuisine would be complete without a long, leisurely drive down Nyama Choma Lane.

The Prepping.

What is nyama choma? In swahili, nyama means meat, and choma means grill. But usually, what is commonly meant by nyama choma is mbezi choma, or grilled goat. That’s because goat is the luxury meat of choice, here: a goat strung up on a tree outside your house literally means Party.

The Grilling.

And folks, I have a secret to let you in on: I have discovered that I love goat. I mean, I really, really love goat. To the extent that if you now gave me a plate of expertly prepared cuts of goat, beef, chicken, and pork (thank you!) what I’d reach for first is now goat.

Of course, in the US, we don’t really eat goat. Which is a shame. Because, in fact, goat is ideal in so many ways. As a meat, it’s considerably milder than lamb, and not gamy at all. For those who haven’t had it, the taste of goat resembles something like 80% the taste of lean beef (like loin) and 20% of mild lamb. So it’s like beef with a slight added punch of additional flavor, but not too strong at all. De-licious. Because goat meat is a bit tougher than huge lazy beef slabs, that also means that goat can be cooked in many awesome ways and hold up well: fast grill, slow BBQ, boiled, braised, baked.

The Fixins’. Counterclockwise, from the top: ugali (with some pili pili peppers nearby), sukuma wiki (braised kale/cabbage), kachumbari, pilau rice, chapati.

However, nyama choma is more than just the deliciously smoky-charred-juicy goat. Traditionally, you enjoy the grilled goat with ugali, which is something like maize dough (your starch), and kachumbari (your veg), and a little smidgen of salt to dip it in to taste. The goat is grilled naked, with no additional spicing added, and cut into small bite sized pieces for easy pickup. So, take a pinch of ugali, make a little pancake, use it to grab some meat and kachumbari-salsa, dab it in the salt, and enjoy.

The Chomping.

Or just eat the whole damn leg, like me.

See the full album of Kenyan Food adventures, including a shot of Page with a camel-milk moustache. No joke.

Malacca! /Pictures of us eating stuff

We had a hot and lovely time in the rich-in-history, colonized-by-everybody Malacca (sometimes called Melaka). Malacca has interesting architecture and museums, but that didn’t stop us from spending most of our time there eating. You know how, when it’s really hot, you don’t really want to eat? I think that doesn’t happen to us.

Peep all the Malacca photos here. Then, quick like a 6-hour bus, we are over into Singapore for another installment of The Sundowner Report, and then we’ll finally be in Nairobi in earnest. Just 6 weeks after our arrival!

Bangkok Part 2: Bangcockier

After a surprisingly restorative stop in Chiang Mai, we headed onward to Bangkok, to fit in one more day of that highly modern, mildly impenetrable city, before going further south to Malaysia and Singapore. To shake things up a bit, though, we travelled by train, since we tend to love trains, and they are a good way to see parts of the countryside you might otherwise miss. Plus, people are weird as shit on trains.

Since the ride was going to be an overnight train, though, we first made a Cultural Excursion to the local supermarket, something I always enjoy. Maybe in another 10 years seeing the combination of undiscovered-to-me types of local green vegetables and the weird consumer food products each country invents will get old, but not yet. And until then, I’ll have me some Red Skin Peanuts Larb Flavor, thank you very much.

After Page handled some uncomfortably aptly named custard apples (100% like a fleshy foam-rubber children’s toy), we lugged our stash to the train station. The day before, in a soulful, cultural-sharing mission, the kind train-agent-policeman helped me understand my extremely meager booking options for our upcoming train ride. Whoops! After I made Page’s hair stand on end by breaking the language barrier hundreds of times, like a blowfish thrown repeatedly at a taut membrane composed of the station agent’s patience, the two of us managed to work out that there were two sleeper seats on the second-class, non-express 3:30 PM sleeper train the next day, and not much else. I’ll take it! (I mean, seriously, I spent 45 minutes hectoring this poor guy as he navigated a VT100-based terminal interface in Windows 2000 literally connected to a 9600 baud modem. Which failed 4 times during our negotiation, each time causing the poor guy to have to get up, cross the room, and flip a metal toggle switch hooked up to some jury-rigged plastic box. Man. I do not want this guy’s job.) Most of our conversation during this negotiation was some broken-record repeat of: “Oh, sorry, but, could you check train 23 again? On Tuesday? Yes, Tuesday? <wait 3 minutes> Oh, I meant first-class. Sorry. <wait 2 minutes> Oh, how do you tell if the seats are together again? <cranes neck to look inside metal bars of window>”.

Regardless, it did get sorted out, and the seats were totally fine. How this world holds together sometimes, I do not know.

The journey itself was mostly pleasant, but with a side of mild disappointment salad. I think I was hoping to see a bit more pretty stuff as we went, but the windows were dirty and dusty, so you couldn’t see a whole lot. The train was comfortable enough, but quarters were a little close, and there was some not-friendly jostling for places to put your luggage with the local folks, and accompanying mild glares. All in all, the trip was harmless, with occasionally nice (blurry) sights, and had no problems, but it wasn’t really a highlight.

And then: Bangkok. This time we stayed in a designer-y hostel that has some private rooms with private baths available, and it was actually perfect: clean, modern, fun, and directly adjoining the Skytrain. (Lub.d Siam Square, $66 per night.) Because we’d been traveling a lot, and we were still going to be traveling a lot more, we resolved to take it easy and just enjoy the day (Success Quotient: 4d / Mild).

The first thing we did, and probably my highlight of the day, was to go to the OTK Market. The market (real name is Aw Taw Kaw / Or Tor Kor, depending on phonic preferences) is a large, sort-of-high-end open air fresh market, and is reputed to be the nicest market in Bangkok, and where restaurant chefs shop for their daily haul. What I can tell you is that it was awesome: super clean, super fresh, amazing produce, and amazing food court. I think the best touchpoint I can provide is that it is like a much, much larger, more serious Ferry Building Farmer’s Market with Asian produce and foods. Rad.

So, that was fun. Then, in no particular order, we went back to Ruen Nuad for an amazing $5 massage, went to a not-so-great Museum of the Multimedia Here Is What It Means To Be Thai Except We Sorta Tapered Off Sorry, and then watched the Royal Wedding at the hostel bar. Then, Pager had the brilliant idea that we should go to a movie, since it would be relaxing, A, and B, because Bangkok has crazy-insane high end VIP movie theaters that have bars, private lounges, crazy recliner seats, and let you eat crazy food and noodles while watching the film.

Done! We had the crazy free green cocktail and mega-reclined to the smooth stylings of Source Code. And that’s how Bangkok leaves you feeling: weird.

( See all Bangkok redux photos. )

Normal Fruit and Luxury Fruit

After being in SE Asia for a few weeks, I’ve learned something interesting: all fruit is created equal, but some fruit is more equal than others.

By that, what I mean is that in SE Asia, there (as far as I can tell) are two classes of fruit: fruit, and luxury fruit. Fruit is composed of just about what you would expect: all the fruits you have heard of, and many other types of tropical fruit that we don’t get in the states much. Pineapple, mango, starfruit, orange, green orange, papaya, apple, rose apple, dragonfruit, coconut are all examples of “normal” fruit.

You’ll see normal fruit all over the place: market stalls, street vendors, etc. Particularly, you’ll see normal fruit at fruit shake vendors, who just have a little stand with a blender, ice, and racks of fresh fruit, and the’ll juice-slash-blend whatever you want to order. (Yum.)

But then, there’s Luxury Fruit.

Luxury fruit includes durian, mangosteen, jackfruit, and often lychee. Luxury fruit is kept separate from the normal fruit. You will see street-side vendors selling these fruits, but often the vendor will be dedicated to just one of these fruits: just selling durian, or just selling mangosteen. If they sell multiple types, the “luxury” fruit will be kept separate from the rest of the fruit, usually in its own reverent pyramid. You’ll never seen a fruit shake vendor with any of these fruits.

So why the separation? Well, it’s probably pretty obvious: cost. The luxury fruits cost a lot more, perhaps 5x-10x as much as the normal fruit. (I’ll try to do some quantitative analysis next time I’m lugging a 20kg bag and pouring sweat down onto the sidewalk.) The normal fruits have different costs, but as far as something like a fruit shake go, they basically have one cost: pretty cheap.

The other reason for separation, I think (which relates to cost) is seasonality and freshness. The class of luxury fruits spoil very quickly, I believe, and fresh vs. not-fresh ones are tremendously different. So it makes sense to dedicate your business to these products.

This second reason is also the reason why you almost never see any of these fruits in the US (with the occasional exception of lychee).

And this has been your extremely concise introduction to the Periodic Table of Luxury Fruit.

It's all about the Ho Chi Mins

Hanoi. As our plane was landing, I’d really done no research, and I had no idea what to expect. A lot of things I’d read suggested that Saigon was really where it’s at, and that Hanoi was more drab, less cultural, less romantic. I wondered aloud to Page if perhaps we were making a mistake by going there, that perhaps I wouldn’t enjoy it at all.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I had the time of my life in Hanoi. Something about the city and I really clicked. Clearly, a lot of it was the food, which I’ll get to in a bit. But, it wasn’t just that. There’s something about the city. Nearly everyone who visits stays in the old town area, but it’s not a cordoned off Ghirardelli Square-like contraption, or some Colonial Williamsburg spin-off. It’s very much alive, and no matter how many white-dreadlocked hippy backpackers show up, there’s far more locals. It’s a hive of specialized shops, streets devoted to doorknobs or purses or dried fish, and all that life is spilling out onto the streets at every corner, with vendors, food stalls, and just people hanging out.

Beyond that, there’s a lot else going for it. The city is quite pretty. The lake of the old market area, Hoan Kiem, is beautiful, and there’s a lot of other lakes and parks across town. The city is surprisingly walkable, perhaps the most walkable we’ve been in Asia yet. Everyone we met was tremendously friendly and kind, and it often didn’t feel like like a weird service relationship (which is mostly what you encounter in Asia as a white ATM).

There’s a number of fun activities, too. The Ho Chi Minh Museum, with accompanying hoverport, definitely opened my eyes to the Power of Communism like no other. The Museum of Ethnology was perhaps the best done museum we’ve seen in Asia yet: well organized, informative, crazy awesome structures, and the first place that I felt like I was able to get a grip on what the quilt of cultural-ethnic groups of SE Asia are like. Plus, the 8,000 thirteen-year-old school children there really liked Page. I mean, really.

I’ll probably never forget that Hanoi was where I was introduced to:

  • Cha Ca: Cubes of fish, fried dangerously at your table with mega dill.
  • Banh Cuon: The slippery dumplings with soup and crunchy fried bits of your dreams.
  • Bun Bo Nam Bo: Beefy beefy mega-beef noodle comfort soup.
  • Banh My Doner: Contender for Page’s favorite food of the trip. Cinnamon melty fat mayo-spicy goodness.
  • Mien Xao Luon: You didn’t know cellophane noodles could be this hot goody dangerous crab yes.

As well as a ton of amazing renditions of dishes that I already knew.

More than anything, though, my favorite moment in Hanoi was having Bia Hoi Ha Noi on street corners. This is a essentially local, essentially Hanoi thing to do. Thanks to some beautiful happenstance (thanks, Sandals Guy), a Czech brewer introduced beer brewing in Hanoi in 1960 or so, and hit upon a great recipe for a pilsner-like brew that seems to cry, to weep, to be served out of a keg.

So the people obliged. And all over the city, there’s a culture, unlike anywhere else I’ve seen yet in Asia, of Bia Hoi vendors, which just set up shop on a busy street corner, with a stack of red plastic chairs, and serve the beer by the mug, out of the keg, made fresh from the brewery that day, for a quarter a glass.

Every corner is a Zeitgeist, and every corner is full of locals and meanderthals alike. And it’s beautiful. You can just sit on a maze-like street corner of the old town, enjoying some peanuts or sunflower seeds, with your cold mug of clear-yellow-almost-green Bia Hoi Ha Noi, watching the world go by, not a care in the world.

And when the lady asks if you’d like another mug, you’ll say yes.

(Credits: Thank you, Gastronomer.)

What it's like to visit a restaurant in a foreign country with Kevin

  1. Set out to find the place. Kevin assures you that it’s not too far.
  2. Walk for 15m in scorching heat/pouring rain/war-ravaged cinderblocks.
  3. Kevin says, “Well, it’s a little further than I thought. I mean, I thought it was right here. Let’s keep going.”
  4. Walk for another 30m.
  5. Kevin says, “You know, I’ll ask one of these friendly local folks where it is.” Kevin lankily approaches a pharmacy owner or badminton player, bows/wais/nods and attempts to say the name of the restaurant, followed by a shrug/smile.
  6. After doing this 3 times, get a big smile, and then head in opposite direction.
  7. Another 10m later, and we’ve arrived!
  8. Kevin apologizes.
  9. Ordering ensues. The equation ((amount you should order) * 2.5 – (concession to Page / 2)) is used.
  10. Usually, Kevin will ask for something not on the menu and/or which is not available today. Attempt to politely negotiate at this point is attempted, which is universally unsuccessful yet humorous.
  11. Food successfully ordered. Time to cool off/dry off/remove leeches gained in process of finding restaurant. Kevin will usually lead conversation with a light discussion on space stations.
  12. Food arrives! Another table will likely have to be connected to ours to make space for the number of dishes that arrive.
  13. Kevin begins eating first dish.
  14. Moans of pleasure ensue.
  15. Continued, loud moans of pleasure happen.
  16. A few minutes in, Kevin is still loudly “Mmmmm… mmmmmm…”-ing every 45 seconds or so. Other patrons at the restaurant are looking at him.
  17. About 3/4ths of the way through the dish, Kevin wonders aloud if this might, in fact, be the best rendition of this dish available in the world. After all, we are in X, the country/place/province/cruise boat of the dish’s origin.
  18. Kevin finishes dish.
  19. 15 seconds later, Kevin gives his heartfelt description of why the dish is sublime, usually involving terms like “contrast,” “texture”, “balance,” and (Page’s favorite) “complex.”
  20. Plate pushed away, Kevin settles into his chair.
  21. Kevin waits patiently.
  22. After 1m30s, Kevin becomes twitchy.
  23. At 2m15s, Kevin finally breaks down and asks Page what she thought of the dish. “It’s OK if you don’t have an opinion yet.”
  24. Rest of meal is finished in a similar fashion. Time ambles by.
  25. Meal is complete.
  26. Pay bill. Kevin attempts to thank servers for his ridiculous behavior in a culturally sensitive way.
  27. Exeunt.

Mekhong Whiskey

Mekhong whiskey. Local drink of Thailand. Sometimes known as Songsam, a particular high-quality brand thereof.

More properly called Mekhong Thai rum, due to sugar cane origins and process.

Tasting notes: dry, peppery, faint notes of cinnamon. No peat or smoke. Ultimately light-tasting. Resembles a much less sweet Irish Whiskey.

Bangkok: The lie and how we told it

April 10th:
Afternoon: Arrive from Phuket
Evening: Chinatown food stands
Late: The Dome Skybar

April 11th:
Morning: Grand Palace & Reclining Buddha
Noon: Lunch at Chote Chitr
Afternoon: Bongo Shopping Mall (Siam Sq.)
Evening: Madcap search for, then dinner at, Krua Apsorn
Late: Arun Residence bar along river

April 12th:
Morning: Brunch at Kuppa, Sukhumvit
Noon: Jim Thompson’s house tour
Afternoon: Thai Massage at Ruen Nuad: $11
Dusk: Mandarin Oriental for sunset cocktail
Evening: Dinner at Bo.lan

Now, off to Cambodia.

See all Bangkok photos, with exciting caption commentary.