Kenyan food is not only about a taste, it’s about an experience. It’s about how we serve the food in pots, it’s about the hospitality and the friendliness with which we serve the food, which is a reflection of our cultures as a people.
By BIKO JACKSON
Traditionally eating was not the elaborate production it has turned out to be. Nobody sat down with napkins hanging from their necks. Nobody worked their way through cutlery — from the outside to the inside. Nobody stood up when a woman approached the table, mainly because the women ate from the kitchen. Eating was purely about food, and men ate with their bare hands. They ate food from the first wife’s kitchen, then they ate food from the second wife’s kitchen. They ate from mats and wooden stools. They ate under trees. They ate with their children and, once in a while, they would toss the dog a morsel of food. That was how my community handled food and eating, and most communities in Kenya ate in more or less the same way. Often someone visiting from overseas will ask to eat “Kenyan food”, which provokes the immortal question of what exactly Kenyan food is. Is Kenyan food githeri, a mishmash of potatoes, beans, maize, peas, potatoes and meat? Or it is ugali? Is it wali? (spiced rice with beef). Or perhaps it’s nyama choma?
Festus Mbwiria, an executive chef with Sarova Panafric Hotel, says he is used to foreigners asking for ugali, which is basically maize meal whipped together with some water. But he is quick to note that that isn’t necessarily a pointer. “We don’t have a Kenyan food,” says Festus “We can’t, not with all the forty-plus tribes that make the Kenyan family.” He is quick to point out that the question should be expanded to a broader scope, which begets the question of not what Kenyan food is but what our food says about us. “It says, we are tolerant as a nation,” he enthuses, “Kenyan communities are always borrowing from other communities. Luos now cook their fish with coconut oil, something that has long been predominant in the coastal towns. Kikuyus eat ugali. Kisiis eat nyama choma. We are borrowing from everywhere to create a taste that can’t be tied down to one ethnic community.”
Roast Rave: Nyama Choma is Kenya's Contribution To World Food Culture
He makes an interesting point; that we are not afraid to borrow from other communities. A willingness to experiment, call it a culinary adventure of sorts, but it also might imply an amiable cockiness to invite a “foreign” taste into a dish and still have the confidence that it will not loose its culinary identity. “At the end of the day, it’s never about who cooks what, but does the food taste good, does it make people smile; will they come back to my house for more?” But food, he adds, also acts like a breaker of economic divides. “Every household — be it in the posh Runda or in lowly Kibera slums — cooks ugali. It’s the one meal that unifies the rich and poor. On top of being the only meal that two economically diverse groups share, it’s also the meal that one can easily eat daily. You can’t eat lasagna daily, or even chapatti, and so there is an almost spiritual reason why ugali, a cheap and easy to prepare meal is a Kenyan staple.”
But at Blanco’s Restaurant in Nairobi’s Hurlingham area, Kenyan food is being morphed into a taste that has a variety of tastes borrowed from all over the world. “Food in a typical Kenyan context was never about taste or look; it was purely for sustenance purposes. You ate so that you would not faint while farming,” Leonard Mudachi, the proprietor, and a former chef at Carnivore Restaurant says. At Blanco’s they take African ingredients and give them a worldly twist. For instance, they make stir fry matumbo, a blend of oriental and Kenyan. They don’t serve potato fries; they serve fries that contain chippings of potatoes, arrowroots, Irish potatoes and any other tubers they can lay their hands on. The end-product is what they call “Kenyan fries”.
“Kenyan food is not only about a taste, it’s about an experience. It’s about how we serve the food [in pots], it’s about the hospitality and the friendliness with which we serve the food, which is a reflection of our cultures as a people”. At Blanco’s, for instance, the menu is written in Swahili in order to “engage” the foreigners and stimulate their curiosity and make them ask questions. Kenyan food, Mudachi adds, ultimately is an unexplored avenue in which we can define ourselves as Kenyans, because our food says we are friendly, welcoming and ready to accommodate other people. Which really is largely what diplomacy is all about when you think about it. Talking of diplomacy, Ranalo Foods, a spoon in the city center famous for local dishes once acted as the ground for two iconic political leaders — Prime MinisterRaila Odinga in his capacity as ODM leader and former Attorney General Charles Njonjo.
The two broke bread over lunch, a politically significant gesture during a time when Kenya was going through a shaky, tumultuous and highly polarised political period. It was not easy not to read politics in this seemingly innocent event, not when Njonjo ordered fish, cuisine that is identified with the Luo community. The proprietor, media shy businessman Ronald Osewe, says, “It doesn’t matter which part of the country you are from when you sit down with someone to eat. Sharing a meal is a sign of friendship, and is probably the best way to express it.” So Kenyan food might have acted like an ambassador, but Osewe insists that there is no definite Kenyan food. “Maybe ugali,” he says with a thunderous laugh, he is a big man after all.
But ultimately perhaps the meal that says Kenyan most must be nyama choma, which is essentially meat roasted on a spit. It might not be the definitive representation of Kenyan food, but it says something unique about us. It says, we love the outdoors and that we love to eat together, even if it is cholesterol- laden. Men muster the art of conversation over this roasting meat; the art of diplomacy, if you will. They talk about family, sport and finally about business as the smoke makes their eyes water. Camaraderie is forged. It’s a bit like golf, only no gloves are worn. And they use their bare hands.
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