Tuesday, November 24

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Eating out

Every so often the taste for a meal outside the center descends upon Demetra and me. We've already had githeri twice that week, and we know it's on the menu three times next week. Our tongues are bored. In those cases, when even a spoon of mustard or dash of chili sauce fails to excite the tastebuds, we stay a little longer in town and eat out.

Ever seeking to expand my palate, my selections at Nakuru's restaurants and cafés gravitate toward the uniquely Kenyan dishes, the ones that you can't find in the States. I ran through most all of those within a month. Kenyan cuisine is pretty limited, even in the Rift Valley, some of the most productive farming land in Africa. No matter where you stop, most of the menu is either British or Indian. Near every café offers Full English Breakfast, and it is the rare place indeed that fails to serve chips. Unfortunately, Kenyans have not adopted the British tradition of flavoring their chips with generous amounts of vinegar, but they make up for it with masala chips, chips served in a chili sauce. Curries of varying quality are not hard to find either. Other staples include omelets, fried chicken, fried fish and burgers. I have yet to taste anything less than terrific pizza though spaghetti is rare.

Despite this lack of local culinary pride, there is some decent stuff that I've never seen before and don't expect to see again outside of East Africa. Nothing particularly fancy, this is food meant to fill you up and keep you going. Two particular favorites of mine are njahi and ndengu. Similar to githeri but tastier, both are hearty sauces that are served with ugali or rice or chapati or whatever to scoop it. Njahi's central ingredient is black beans while I'm still not clear on what exactly is in ndengu. After having it the first time I would have guessed they were split peas, but the waitress assured me they were green grubs.

Matoke is an interesting one that I've enjoyed a few times. It's a cooked banana. Sometimes it comes still in the classic banana shape and with a thick yellow sauce. Once it was mashed and was accompanied by a translucent red sauce. Both times it tasted kind of like a potato. I don't know how they manage that. I've asked and been told it isn't actually a plantain. Maybe they just cook them when the peel is still green. I hear they only eat fried matoke with beef in Tanzania.

Pilau is a particular favorite, but I'm not entirely sure if it's Kenyan. It's a lightly fried, lightly spiced plate of rice, sometimes with vegetables and sometimes without, served with a thin sauce. It makes for a good texture.

For what it's worth, my top pick for budget eating in Nakuru is Naku Chick in the Uchumi Business Centre. The menu is limited, but they do it fast and do it well. An especial fan of their masala chips and njahi. You can easily do a complete meal with drink there for under 100 shillings. In the mid-range, I like Rift Fries, not to be used with Planet Fries whose front is almost the exact same and only a block away. They do the crispiest chips in the city and have some decent curries. El-Bethel The Meeting Place is good, too. I avoided it for months because it looked like such a tourist hole, just a block from Cafe Guava and with an awning that screamed its authentic African dishes and mursik, but they have good ndengu. They don't screw my order up either. This is important. About half the time, I need to have two orders ready because they won't have one that day. The other half the time they bring back the wrong thing either because I butcher the Kiswahili or they don't understand my accent in English. I kid. But not much. In any case, it makes ordering an adventure on the nano scale.

My culinary adventures in Nairobi have been limited to mid-range places along the same lines as Rift Fries and The Meeting Place. This is unfortunate because I hear ex-pat entrepreneurs make some terrific Italian and Indian food, and Carnivore has been twice voted one of the fifty greatest restaurants in the world by some magazine. I am, however, grateful to financial concerns because, without them, I would have never been forced into Fast Food and Take-Away Restaurant next to the Methodist university. They do it cheap. They do it fast. They do it tasty. They have two secrets to this. The first is frying everything. There might be three things on the menu that aren't fried. As soon as you place your order, they can shovel your meal up and you are on your way. The second secret is their onion salsa. They leave heaping bowls of the stuff on the counters, so you can take as much as you want. Equal parts chips and salsa? No problem. It's like three free servings of vegetables and kicks up their already good chips and bahjia (fried potato rounds) to the next level.

So, what I'm trying to say here is “No worries. I'm not starving.”

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