Having promised at the outset of this blog not to trouble the reader with a flood of recipes, whether of the “Clean Eating” variety or otherwise, I hesitate to post on the subject of Kenyan cuisine. The lawyer in me though would seek to draw a distinction between posting a recipe and discussing culinary matters generally; this distinction is sufficient for my (all to easily satisfied?) conscience, and I trust that it will do for the reader too.
If from my earlier descriptions of our travels the thought of using a matatu makes you feel a little queasy you need have no fear on that score when it comes to the local diet, which is both wholesome and tasty. That said, two groups will find it particularly difficult to eat out in Kenya; firstly, anyone from the UK who is on a fashionable “low-carb” diet will find it hard to order a meal without a starchy food at its heart (the idea of picking away at a near empty plate of “nouvelle cuisine” would seem laughable in Kenya) and, secondly, vegetarians will be treated with consternation.
At first blush, the second of these two difficulties is the more perplexing as Kenya appears to have a large variety of vegetarian stews on the menu and roadside stalls a plenty bursting with locally grown vegetables. Appearances though are deceptive; even many vegetable dishes are cooked in or served with meat broth for, in truth, however much Kenyans like their vegetables, vegetarianism is treated (at best) as a quixotic folly and (at worst) as a form of self-abuse. I suspect that meat eating is a sign of prosperity-reinforcing this point is the fact that many rights of passage ceremonies centre on the slaughtering, cooking and communal division of animals, particularly goats. Added to this, African mores around the giving of hospitality must be born in mind; a host will want to give bounteously and of their best (i.e. meat if it can be afforded), and a guest will want to show their appreciation by eating heartily of whatever is set before them.
A typical Kenyan meal would have as its bulk either potato, ugali (maize porridge) or matoke (plantain), eaten with a variety of meat, bean or vegetable stews and accompanied by stir fried vegetables or a salad. There is also a strong Indian influence to the cuisine through the descendants of the the workers employed to build the Mombasa to Kampala railway in the early 20th Century, so rice, chapatis and mild curries feature as staples. Fruit is plentiful but pudding lovers will be disappointed as formal dessert (outside of an expensive restaurant) is a novelty. Dairy products are expensive and rarely used in cooking save for copious amounts of milk which is often used to make “Kenyan Tea”-although making tea with warm milk rather than water is an appalling (indeed heretical) thought to most Englishmen, in the heat of the day it makes for a drink that nourishes as well as refreshes. Another drink that goes down well in the heat is Mala, fermented milk, which has the consistency of yoghurt and a faint taste of cottage cheese.
Kericho Market-a vegetarian’s delight?
Veggie reality-chicken and pilau, ugali and nyama-choma (barbecued goat)!
For our own part we made the decision early on to eat the local diet and have not (yet) lived to regret our choice, not least because of the cheapness of most of the staples of life. Particular favourites are, ndengu (mung bean stew), gutheri (bean and maize stew-the complementary proteins mean that one can get by without too much meat), matoke (plantain stew) and kimi (beef and ginger curry). Many of the forgoing can happily be served with mukimo, a potato, bean, maize and spinach mash. We frequently make ugali, though, much to the disapproval of our Kenyan friends, we add a little salt and butter-ugali is so bland that it can be eaten with a wide variety of foods at all times of the day, including with milk for breakfast. Many of our meals are accompanied by “sukuma wiki”, kale, spinach or unidentified and unpronounceable “greens”, stir fried with garlic and ginger, or salad, avocado and tomatoes being easy to prepare, cheap and immensely flavourful. Incidentally, sukuma wiki means “stretch the week” the implication being that the greens are so cheap it helps a householder to stretch the budget to the next weekly pay cheque. Paw-paw, mango, melon, pineapple and bananas make up for pudding proper, though we have made an occasional mango crumble. We have however stuck to our Western habits as far as breakfast is concerned; uji, fermented flour porridge with a faintly luminous purple tinge, has proved to be a bridge too far in our acculturation to Kenyan cuisine.
This brings us neatly to the subject of shopping in Kenya, which does not by any means always involve using anything as commonplace as a shop. For those determined to replicate their Western diet, Nairobi has modern supermarkets and specialist shops in secure malls a-plenty, brim full of Western branded goods. Be sure to bring a full wallet though as most branded goods would be several times more expensive in Kenya than in the UK; by way of example, a simple and relatively cheap meal in the UK might be pasta and pesto, but buy both items here and you could easily spend what we shell out on fruit and vegetables for a week-add a little Parmesan and you might as well inform your children to stop trading on their expectations of an inheritance.
[The Yaya Centre-sorry not to have any shots of the interior but photography inside is not permitted just in case we might be on a reconnaissance mission for terrorists (I think it’s Merle that brings suspicion upon us). The interior is of interest as some effort has been made to give it a higgledy-piggledy look more akin to a medieval shopping street than the usual mall design of a rectangular box with rectangular shops in rows. Note the high-rise to the left; it is in fact an apartment block that is part of the centre so that particularly pampered or delicate souls can go shopping without having to set foot on the streets of Nairobi.]
Next in the pecking order of shops are the older supermarkets and specialist shops such as butchers, bakers and grocers, often congregated in small shopping centres such as our own local Kasuku Centre. Such centres have a feel vaguely reminiscent of village and market town shopping in England in the 1970’s (and are none the worse for that) save for the presence of armed guards at the entrance! Some Western branded goods are available but local and regional products will be to the fore. Beware of assuming that Kenyan equivalents to your favourite foods in the UK will have the same taste and texture that you are used to; Kenyan jam, for example, is essentially sugar pulp tinged with the merest sensation of fruit, and from the startling colours of many of the fizzy drinks on offer I can only assume that the makers of Sunny Delight in the UK moved their operations to East Africa after turning children orange in the 1990s.
Inside the supermarket at Kasuku. Blue Band margarine on the left for those with long memories.
Kenyans can queue!
A typical provincial shopping street in Nakuru.
Kiosks of many descriptions are also a common sight; typically they are free-standing metal boxes or built into the curtain walls of apartment or office blocks. As with an old-fashioned British newsagent, the kiosks sell an eclectic selection of goods (albeit through the narrow aperture at the bottom of a set of iron bars) at prices a little higher than the supermarkets.
A Nairobi kiosk.
Our local “hole in the wall” kiosk.
Matatu station rest stop-I think the “No Idlers” sign put off most of the customers!
Some tin shack shops near to our office-even the more prosperous areas of Nairobi will have a variety of shops to suit different pockets.
Those in search of cheaper goods will eventually gravitate to the stalls which have sprung up at most major road junctions and on every patch of spare verge. It is at this point that the Western bargain hunter will begin to encounter problems for many such stalls operate what might charitably be called a “flexible pricing structure”. By this I most assuredly do not mean that the prices vary according to the normal rules of supply and demand (though those of course do operate); instead, the stallholder will vary their price according to your apparent wealth. Westerners often refer to this quirk as being charged “mzungu prices” i.e. prices for whites; this though is a trifle unfair as the stall holders would charge higher prices to a non-white if they pitched up at their stall in a Mercedes and wearing a suit-however it would be fair to say that the general assumption in Kenya is that if you are white you are, ipso facto, rich. We do of course have a form of flexible pricing in the West-if you must insist on shopping in Waitrose to avoid the riff-raff in Sainsbury’s your shopping bill will be higher-but this at least is an additional expense voluntarily undertaken, if for no good reason. What sticks in the craw in Kenya is that the same outlet will charge different prices to different customers for the same product within moments of each other. There are only two viable solutions to this clash of cultures, both equally unpalatable to the Western mind; forgo the potential savings in buying from a stall or barter.
Typical street stalls across from our office-some lovely produce.
No bartering necessary-see the relief!
Bartering is enough to bring one out in spots; in its face-to-face form it is almost wholly alien to the English mindset (we depersonalise bargain hunting by “shopping around” particularly using the internet rather than directly asking a seller to lower their prices) and most of us lack the basic piece of information needed to barter effectively i.e. what the price would be to a local. Added to this, one powerful tool the buyer has in a bartering situation is denied to us as Westerners-usually you keep secret from the seller how much money you have or are willing to spend, but this is of little purchase on a Kenyan stall holder who will assume that because you are white money will be no object. I will not trouble the reader with tales of our own feeble attempts at bartering; needless to say they have caused much amusement to our Kenyan friends and colleagues not least because we rarely manage to pay less than twice the going price despite our best efforts. Mercifully, some stall holders, when one has built a relationship with them, take pity on us poor inept Englishmen and charge the going rate, relying on our repeat custom (out of desperate gratitude) to turn a profit in the long-run.
Finally, an honourable mention ought to go to the army of hawkers present in Nairobi most of whom walk up and down the lines of traffic jams or set up a tray of goods on a brick podium by the kerbside. The range of goods on supply from these hardy entrepreneurs defies easy categorisation; beyond sweets, snacks and more wholesome foodstuffs, we have been offered belts, shoes, suits, bathroom scales, padlocks, souvenirs, live produce, clubs (!), Monopoly sets, hatstands (seriously) indeed anything where the seller saw a chance to turn an honest shilling. I should add that buying from a hawker or a stallholder in no way necessarily implies a lack of quality compared to a kiosk or a conventional shop-the fruit and vegetables on supply on the streets is often a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach, and it is quite touching to see even the meanest hawker (whose business capitol often consists of little more that a plastic washing-up bowl to display their wares) carefully cleaning and arranging their goods before “opening for business”.
So, I trust, I have kept to my promise-no recipes merely a general discussion on matters culinary. For those tempted by any of the above a quick Google search of “Kenyan recipes with [matoke, black beans, beef, goat etc]” will find no end of websites as hosting a foodie blog in Kenya is almost as popular as churchgoing. Two words of warning; the occasional recipe will require you to source a litre or two of blood, and practically all will require more garlic than an obsessive Frenchman could get through in a month of Sundays.