Monday, May 7, 2007

Let's talk about food

(Written Friday May 4, 19:44 Kenya time – regarding the whole trip)

As I sat having lunch in Nginyang, it occurred to me that I haven't talked about food that much. And for those who know me, you'll recognize that as a glaring omission. So, let's talk.

There ain't much.

And by that don't mean quantity, but variety. There is a very short list of what is on every menu, in every restaurant, in every kitchen, in every hotel. Here's the list.


  • White rice – usually served with some tomatoes mixed in, almost always undercooked (nearly crunchy). Flavorless
  • Beans – sometimes served alone, but usually served with maize. Can be tasty, and is a staple at the orphanage
  • Maize – looks like corn but much bigger and tougher kernels, never served alone (see Beans)
  • Potatoes – boiled or fried, but if they're fried, they're soggy
  • Cabbage – also usually served with tomatoes mixed in. There's cabbage everywhere here, and in the markets it's very sadly wilted looking. I guess it lasts a while though as it's everywhere
  • Kale – again with tomatoes (I think). The single most flavorful dish I ate while here. But as anyone who's cooked kale before will tell you, you have to cook it to death to make it edible.

  • Bananas are abundant
  • Watermelon on occasion
  • Pears? Not really sure if that's what those were…
  • Mango, maybe? Again not sure, never had one

  • Eggs – quite dreary looking in restaurants, although out at Joshua's home we had fresh eggs from his own hens, and WOW those were good.

  • Flat bread (fry bread?) – unleavened bread cooked on coals and served covered in ash
  • Sliced bread – only in restaurants, and oddly when served with breakfast, never ever toasted

  • Goat – Usually served as a stew. I heard it is also sometimes roasted, but never saw that. Unfortunately they don't carefully remove the meat from bone and gristle – instead it's chopped up by a large cleaver and all mixed together. You pick up a piece with your fingers and eat what you can. It is, however, quite tasty. They say the meat is so good because the goats eat the nettle trees. These trees are covered with poisonous 3-inch spikes and hurt like hell if you touch them. Yummy.
  • Chicken – only seen in restaurants in Nairobi and Nakuru. Very scrawny birds go into this – not a lot of meat to chew on.
  • Fish – Talapia, talapia, and talapia. I had it once in Nairobi with some kind of breading and sauce, but otherwise it's served whole. In one place it was actually fried up beautifully with crisply skin and while overcooked, was still a delight to eat. The other time it probably started off well, but by the time I got it it had been soaking in run-off from the veggies (of which the sauce is liberally poured over everything else) and so the entire fish was soggy.
  • Suasage – hard, dry, but tasty. Only saw this with breakfast at the Carnation hotel in Nakuru

  • Tea – black Kenyan tea, served everywhere all the time. Milky and sweet and quite good.

  • Salt – and actually a very good salt. Don't know where it comes from but it's nice
  • Pepper sauce – generic, not-too-spicy, red sauce
  • Green Chilies – got these once at a the restaurant in Nginyang, but even the second time we were there they didn't have them. Too bad, they added some flavor to the rest of the food.

  • Ugali – that tasteless, incredibly thick (like super-thick mashed potatoes), cornmeal foodstuff that is served with every meal. It's very filling, and is what is made from the cornmeal we were giving out at the famine feeds. To eat, a chunk is pulled off in the hand and squished and pressed into the fist, then dipped into sauce or used to scoop up kale or cabbage. [link - Wikipedia]

And that's pretty much it. The entire food supply of every restaurant I was in. Most places don't even have menus – seriously – because they all serve the same stuff. And asking what they have is like a comedy routine. For example…

Pokot – what do you want?
Me – what do they have
Translated to server – what do you have?
Pokot – beans
Me – um, ok, anything else?
(I'll cut out the back and forth translation, but trust me it's a "who's on first" routine)
Pokot – rice
Me – so beans or rice… ok. I'll have rice
Pokot – do you want a vegetable?
Me – oh they have vegetables! Great… what do they have
Pokot – vegetables
Me – oh right. Ok, sure
and so on… finally, you get a plate of rice or beans, with kale or cabbage or boiled potatoes or a combination of the three, and either ugali or flatbread.

On occasion you get some meat, but unless it's a big city it's chicken or fish or goat, never a choice, just one of the three

And curiously, beer is usually not available in restaurants. Never saw wine anywhere.

Damn I can't wait to eat cheese… and fresh vegetables… and fish other than Talapia… ooh, sushi. Yeah. And pizza. And anything Mexican or Italian or Spanish or Thai.

I'm hungry now :(

Oh a curious point – so I have to assume that Nairobi, a big city, has restaurants serving food from around the world. But everyone I asked who goes to Nairobi often – or even lives there, has never been. Not once. I haven't met a single Kenyan who has eaten anything other than Kenyan food – and that includes the students in University! It's very curious.

I'm meeting James, one of the Pokot university students, in Nairobi for dinner before my flight out. Hopefully I can get him into something other than goat and ugali. Wish me luck.


Nathan said...

The fried flatbread is called a chapati (pl 'chapatis'). That's my mzungu spelling but I think it's right. And you like Kenyan chai? You're a champ. I like it too if it's only half a cup and I have 20 minutes for it to cool down. The kale dish is called sukuma wiki. That it is called sukuma wiki is not especially important. Getting to walk around saying sukuma wiki in whatever Swahili accent you've been able to pick up, on the other hand, is so nice. Our big treat going in to Nairobi was to eat at the Java House. Drink a latte, eat a toasted turkey sandwich. An amazing treat.
Great posts, keep them coming!

Joseph said...

Chapati, that's it, thanks! Yes the chai was awesome, even if it has like double the caffeine of coffee. At least it felt that way… I blogged early on that my first few cups had my heart in my throat, but I guess I got used to it as I was easily downing three of them every morning.

Now where's my espresso machine… ;-)

I hear about the Java House and had intention to go there on the way out, but our car broke down on the way to Nairobi. Long story (to be posted), and I had no spare time upon arrival. Bugger.