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Food in Kenya September 5, 2010

Filed under: the journey — Admin @ 1:03 pm
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Throughout my stay here in Kenya, I’ve been taking photos of food whenever I can remember to do so. The foods I have eaten include traditional Kenyan dishes, “Kenyanized” food and international cuisine. Traditional foods are like, githeri, mukimo and ugali. “Kenyanized” dishes include bhajia, samosa and eggrolls. These foods have been in Kenya for decades but are not indigenous. Kenya, well, specially Nairobi and Mombasa, is a blend of cultures. In these two most popular cities, you will find heavy influences of Asian Indian, Arabic, and Portuguese cultures. As far as international cuisine goes, I’m specifically referring to Italian food, Chinese, American, etc. Here we go!  (Place the mouse over the photo to identify the food items.)

Top row, left to right: 1) Mukimo and kuku choma. 2)Fish soup and spinach. 3)Spicy meatballs. Bottom row, left to right: 4) Mboga mix. 5) Pineapples. 5) Bhajia, vegetarian eggroll, stew and mango juice

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Before I came to Kenya, I read about a dish called, nyama choma and every blog and website that I read about Kenya stated that every visitor to Kenya must eat nyama choma. Confession: I have been in Kenya now for 10 weeks and I have yet to eat nyama choma. Second confession: I don’t eat meat, with the exception of fish.

Nyama (I have also seen it spelled, nyoma) means beef, or what Kenyans say, “meat” and choma means “roasted. American translation: grilled/barbecued beef. Nyama choma truly is the national food of Kenya because all the ethnic groups eat it. People here keep telling me to try it and I say, I don’t eat beef. After the initial shock of meeting a non-meat eating black person, they usually ask me if I am sick or if I am Muslim (which is strange because Muslims eat meat, just not pig, AKA swine.) I tell them, “no,” and explain that I do it to keep good health.

This reminds me, Phyllis’ 65-year-old father hard a hard time understanding this. He kept thinking that I am not well, or that meat makes me sick. Phyllis had to explain to him that I am trying to prevent illness.

But anyway, I have finally relented and said that I will at least eat chicken choma. But even this act of surrender does little to impress my Kenyan friends. “No, nyama!” Is what they often say next.

“Just a little bit won’t kill you,” Phyllis said to me, not once, not twice, but three times.

I ate kuku choma (roasted chicken) in Njoro while the K24 colleagues who had accompanied me at nyama choma. I ended up only eating three of four bites of the chicken because I found the texture quite…different. Chicken in Kenya is tougher than it is in the States, partly because it is free-range, meaning the chickens on the farm are able to run freely as opposed to being caged. By moving around, the chickens strengthen their muscles, thus the meat is tougher, obviously.  But not only was the chicken tough, but I just wasn’t able to like the taste of it. My K24 friends ate the rest, while I nibbled on the mukimo, which is the green “stuff” in the picture. Mukimo is maize, corn and pumpkin leaves mashed together. It tastes like…very thick mashed potatoes but sweeter.

Good fish is hard to find in Nairobi, and I know this mostly because that’s what Nairobians keep telling me. “If you want good fish, you have to go to Kisumu or to the coast [Mombasa]” is the common explanation. But, since I can’t go to either of those places, I have been eating fish, which is always tilapia, in Nairobi, and it tastes okay, nothing spectacular. A lot of the Kenyans I meet don’t really eat fish and maybe that’s because a lot of the Kenyans I meet are Kikuyu. The Kikuyu people come from the central areas of the country and they don’t really have access to fish. Even Phyllis, a Kikuyu, told me that she doesn’t know how to make fish. She and her family buy already prepared fish because they don’t know how to cook it. One K24 camera guy, Kevin, who is also a Kikuyu told me that he only eats fish in the western part of the country because Kikuyus can’t cook fish; but then again, he said Kikuyus can’t cook that well anyway, with the exception of his mother.

So, I went to a popular restaurant with Tom one day and ordered fish soup. It was the only thing on the menu that I could eat anyway, since every thing else was beef and chicken. I ordered a side of spinach to go along with the soup.

The fish soup didn’t taste anything like Nigerian fish soup, which we call pepper soup. Kenyan food is extremely plain, according to my taste. They use very little herbs and seasonings and almost no pepper. Whenever I make a mention of this to other Kenyans, they agree and they tell me that the food in Mombasa if much more flavorful. So the fish soup didn’t have the taste that I wanted and when I asked for pepper, what the waitress brought was also not what I was expecting. I was looking forward to sprinkling grounded red pepper or crushed red pepper flakes onto the fish, but they didn’t even have that-to my great surprise. Tom had to explain “pepper” to the waitress–who kept asking questions as if she has never heard of someone asking for pepper in a restaurant– and she brought a small bowl of what I believe was a blend of red and habanero or scotch-like peppers. The chilled blend was so raw! The seeds were still in it. It spiced up the food, but it did not add taste. Now, as a Nigerian, I know the difference between hot pepper and good pepper. Good pepper is more ideal, because not only is it spicy, but it has a great taste.

Meatballs. You know what that is. The big, oily balls of beef are served after church at Mavuno.

Mgoba mix. I had this dish in Nyeri on Saturday and I really liked it. Mboga means vegetable and Kenyans like veggies, mostly beans and greens. This dish is a mix of local beans, carrots, spinach, kale and onions. Not only is it filling, but it’s healthy.

On the last day of my visit with Pyllis’ family in Nyeri, I had a simple breakfast of pineapple, mango juice and bread. I found it really strange to eat a sliced bread with fruit, but hey, that’s how they do it here. I didn’t even bother to let them know that for the sake of good digestion, fruit is best when eaten on an empty stomach, without the interference of other foods. The pineapples were delicious (the pineapples in this country taste like candy- so sweet!), but I could only eat a few cuts. Everyone else not only ate pineapple, but oranges. I have never eaten more than one fruit at a sitting. Actually that’s not true- fruit salad. But still, I found this as very different.

My plate full of bhajia, veggie eggroll, and stew was my first “Kenyan” meal. While waiting for Pastor Frida after church one Sunday, I went and bought this and it was good, not great, but good. The fresh cup of mango juice tasted amazing. Bhajia, a flat round ball of fried potato and onion, is an Indian dish that has become well-incorporated into Nairobian cuisine. I’ve only had it twice, and the second time I had it, I was so disgusted with all the oil sliding around the plate, that I threw it away. But at the church, it is not very oily and tastes ok. I think I’d like it better if it had some pepper. I’m going to learn how to make bhajia and then find a way to “Nigerianize” it.

Top row, left to right: 1) beans, fish fillet, chapati 2) Thai stir fry 3) boiled aro root Bottom row, left to right: 4) macadamia nut 5) bhajia 6) vegetarian samosa

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Chapati is one of the best flour-based foods I’ve ever tasted. I love bread, and fortunately you can find some variant of fried bread in nearly every culture. You’ve got burrito, pita, flat bread. Chapati, also known as roti, is an Indian unleavened flatbread. It taste just as it looks, thich, chewy, slightly sweet. You can find white or wheat chapatis and Kenyans eat it for breakfast with tea, or with beans and greens. The beans in this dish taste like red beans, I believe it is called nduma.

This delicious Thai stir-fry came from Village Market; I went to that mall with the Shah family several weeks ago. The veggies were fresh and the sauce was sweet. I gotta find time to go back for more.

Boiled aro root taste like chunks of soggy paper. I don’t know any other way to describe it. It is, really, interesting. I saw the actual root growing in Phyllis’ mother’s garden and then Phyllis ordered it at a restaurant so I can see and taste it. She said her kids don’t like it and I can’t blame them. It is really thick, starchy and heavy. It’s unusual white and purple color doesn’t make it look any more appetizing than it already doesn’t. While eating, Phyllis said it is “sweet,” which I didn’t understand. She said it does have a very plain taste, but that is the way it should taste.

I went to a primary school in Central Province and on the school campus is a farm. Macadamia nuts grow wild here. I only know macadamia nut from the little bits you find in chocolate bars.

Samosa is another Indian import to Kenya. Remember, Indians have been in Kenya since the early part of the 1900s. Samosa is a triangular-shaped fried pastry filled with beef, chicken, potatoes and spices. Samosa is like a Jamaican meat patty or Nigerian meat pie, or any of the other meat-filled pastries you find in other cultures.

Top row, left to right: 1)ugali and kale 2) chicken, ugali and tomatoes 3)rice, beans  and fish fillet bottom row, left to right: 4) pizza 5)spring rolls 6) I have no idea

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Many African ethnic groups have a food that looks like ugali. In Nigeria, we have fufu/garri/ or what have you. Ugali is maize flour (aka cornmeal) stirred in boiling water. You can also find ugali in Tanzania and throughout eastern and southern Africa. I read somewhere that South Afrians call it pap. A friend told me that in Zambia and Malawi, it is called nshima.

It took me a while to finally taste ugali. One blogger wrote that ugali is “heavy in the stomach,” well, it wasn’t that heavy for me. It has a gritty texture, as if you’re eating fine sand. Kenyans eat it with greens or nyama/kuku choma. At Phyllis’ family’s house in Nyeri, I had some ugali with kale. I think I ate most of it, too. Tom had ugali with kuku choma and tomato salsa when we went to Renalo’s restaurant.

Rice is what I usually eat in Kenya and unfortunately, is is usually white rice. I eat rice with beans and fish. When I first ate rice here, I was surprised that there was no tomato- based stew. I thought tomato-based stew was everywhere in Africa, I mean, that’s the way West Africans eat stew, and even a lot of Central Africans. But, no. there was no tomato-based stew, only the “juice” from the beans to wet the rice.

The pizza came from a restaurant at Village Market. The taste was unlike what you find in the states. I found this tasted like speciality pizza, with artisan bread and juicy green olives. Spring rolls are everywhere in Nairobi, and usually if you don’t want to beef samosa, the alternative is a veggie spring roll. Another Asian import. I can’t remember what the last picture is- but it looks kind of like a banana or bits of sugar cane.

1)mukimo and kale 2) pizza 3) Swahili chicken curry, rice and salsa 4) chapati 5) veggie spring roll

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By now, most of these foods should be a familiar. The first photo of the mukimo looks different from the previous shot of the mukimo because this is the real “rural, homemade”mukimo. I ate this one in Mureru, Nyeri and not only did it look different from the mukimo I ate at a restaurant in Njoro, but it tasted different as well. Before, I described the mukimo as thick, sweet mashed potatoes. It contained corn kernels but I didn’t feel them. The mukimo in Nyeri also contained corn kernels, but they were really hard. When I told Phyllis this, she was surprised because that corn is considered to be the softer type.

The Swahili chicken curry has a very sweet taste. This dish is from Java House. I’ve had it once and Tom ordered it when we met for the first time. What they call “salsa” is really a just a blend of cut tomatoes, with cilantro and lemon juice. I can’t stand the taste of cilantro, but I really love this salsa.

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K24 Day 3: Road Trip to Rift Valley July 19, 2010

Filed under: cultural observations,K24 — Admin @ 6:13 am
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I left my place at 4:30 in the morning to join Caleb for a feature on a guy who was buying crocodiles. Unfortunately, we had to postpone the story and Caleb ended up meeting a guy who owns 500 dogs. The day turned into a road trip. From Nairobi to Naivasha to Njoro in Nakuru District of Rift Valley Province. I was accompanied by Caleb, a K24 camera guy named JP (he’s from Rwanda), and our driver, Jesse.

After meeting the dog guy (and confronting my discomfort of aggressive dogs), we went to Lord Egerton Castle in the beautiful Kenyan countryside of Rift Valley Province.  I had never heard the story, but apparently, it’s well-known here. British nobleman, Fourth Baron Lord Maurice Egerton of Tatton, arrived in Kenya in 1927 and fell in love with the country. Here, he built a symbol of love for the lady in his heart.

He wanted a structure that would have no comparison in England. His  fiancée visited him from England and did not like the humble cottage that Egerton had built for her, referring to it as a “bird’s nest.” So, in the late 1930’s, he began constructing another structure, a 53-roomed building adjacent to the first one. The second building, magnificent and stoned in grandeur, was completed in 1954. She again rejected his gift and went back to the UK to marry another man. Heartbroken, Lord Egerton banned all women from the castle and he never married. According to the current caretaker, 76-year- old Robert Onyiego (former employee of Lord Egerton), Egerton did everything he could to avoid women. Only men were employed at the castle.  Before he died in his Kenyan home on January 30 1958, Egerton had sold the estate to the Kenyan government. The barony ended because Egerton left no heir to carry the family name.

The property is now owned by Egerton University’s Njoro campus. (Note, Egerton referred to the estate as a hunting lodge, but the local Kenyans called it a castle.) The estate was made open to the public in 2005.

It’s a beautiful estate, with a colorful garden on all its side. Softly rolling hills stand in the background. One of the ladies who tended the place said they are trying to promote it for parties and such. I asked her how much it would cost to do a wedding. She said Ksh10,000.  That’s less than USD $125, for a wedding in a castle! Strangely, the name of the woman who rejected Egerton’s proposal has never been published in any accounts of Egerton’s life.

Driving throughout Kenya, my heart swelled. I’m really beginning to like this country. The smiles, the curious faces, everyone, I mean everyone, looks in your car, and everyone says “Karibu Sana” (You are very welcome). Caleb and JP explained what I was seeing. We stopped in Naivasha, where Caleb said one must buy yogurt.  I love yogurt, but this yogurt was a bit too rich. 100% whole milk.  But I did enjoy lunch, mukimo, a traditional Kikuyu dish made from pumpkin leaves and maize. It’s really healthy, as most Kenyan food is. My only issue is that Kenyans don’t really use pepper and I looooooove spicy dishes.

We stopped to see the famous Great Rift Valley. I later learned that the rift actually runs from central Mozambique to Lebanon. But the term, Great Rift Valley is usually used to describe the valley in East Africa. It’s home to several lakes and springs. Scientists have found fossils in these areas which lead many anthropologists to believe that the first humans on Earth lived along these bodies of water. And some of Africa’s highest mountains surround this area. I, personally, loved the gentleness of the valley.

Overlooking the land behind a multicolored gate, I was bombarded by traders selling craft wares. And lured by the wooden figures, I spent Ksh5,000 (not much money, really) on little sculptures: a giraffe, a rhino, a hippo and the perfect gift for my best friend.