SOUTH OF THE EQUATOR, DOWN KENYA WAY

I was seriously worried that they would all get food poisoning, or at the very least go blind. Ok, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but not only had I never really had to cook for 11 people before, but I have also never used one of the Kenyan jikos, which is basically a mini charcoal cooker. Keep in mind that I am a young, single Canadian male living on my own, which means that my culinary efforts has been less than stellar for the past three months. My dinner last night? Plain pasta with margarine as sauce. My Side dish? Sliced cucumbers and carrots. Dessert? A glass of brandy and a cigarette. Sorry that you had to read that last one, mom.
Anyways, the whole ‘Canadian Cuisine Night’ idea wasn’t even mine in the first place. It had been simply just a passing suggestion by my friend, David, who manages the local hole-in-the-wall restaurant that I often frequent. He simply just suggested, “Hey, you know what Tom, how about a Canadian food night next Monday?” In the blink of an eye and with a mouthful of githeri (kidney beans and boiled corn) I agreed with enthusiasm. It wasn’t until I was walking home that I really considered the scale of what it was that I had agreed to.
Now, I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m clueless in the kitchen. I’ve spent too many high school summers working in various neighborhood restaurants for that to be the case. If anything, I’d say that when it comes down to it I can make a mean whatever it is you feel like. However, here I am standing in Kenya, and I don’t exactly have my local ‘Ultra Mart’ grocery store to pick up my ingredients. Considering the fact that the staple Kenyan ingredients are kale, maize flour, and kidney beans, I started to wonder what in god’s name I would make aside from a kale-kidney bean salad.
This whole proposition emerged out of a simple but complicated question asked by David.
“What would Canadian food be?” asked David.
You know, I couldn’t answer that in any kind of a simple way. Canada has such a mix-match of dishes originating from all the corners of the globe that a truly ‘Canadian’ dish was really hard to determine. I thought back to a typical week at my own household, where we might have pasta one night, Indian the next night and Chinese to celebrate the weekend. Of course, one truly Canadian staple would be a bottle of real maple syrup, but I decided that I didn’t want to go all the way to Dubai just to get that. I figured that some sort of meat dish was essential to any Canadian palate, but good luck finding a T-bone steak at the local supermarket.
And then I thought back to my days working at ‘Adobo’, one of the only Mexican specialty restaurants in my home town. That food was simple enough to make, and it used to bring in droves of customers. Ignoring the fact that these customers were coming in at 2am and were drunk as hell, as Adobo was one of the few late night food joints in my town, I had to ask myself, “What is my favorite food back home?” I decided that because Canadian cuisine is so diverse, that there are few foods that one could accurately describe as ‘Canadian’, I decided to go with my gut, at least that which my gut was craving the most at the time, and the answer was then quite simple: Burritos.
After talking with my friends at the restaurant I determined that not only had none of them had a burrito before, but they didn’t really have any idea what it was. I figured that rather than having the ICC come at me for crimes against humanity, I had better rectify this situation. For what might possibly be the first time in Kakamega history, Monday night was going to be burrito night. My mouth was already watering.
Then I had a thought: Where the hell was I going to get the ingredients to make burritos? It’s not as thought Old El Paso has set up shop here in Kakamega. As well, I didn’t think that tortilla shells were giving ugali a run for its money. As the old saying goes, which I had just made up, things were looking ‘no bueno’.
Upon walking into the vegetable section of the local grocery store, things quickly began to look much more encouraging. Tomatoes were in abundance and were no problem. There were probably TOO many onions for this store’s own good. Green peppers were available, and so was lettuce, though they were tiny little heads at a damn expensive price, at least relative for lettuce. Ground beef was there, and only cost about 5$ to feed the lot. The cheddar cheese was calling out to me and didn’t even cost too much. I then hit a bit of a stumbling block. What to do about the tortilla shells? I realized that there was no possible way that I was going to find some pre-made tortilla wraps anywhere in this country, and then it hit me like a bolt of Indian lightning. Chapattis! Granted, they are much oilier and heavier than what I had in mind, but I figured that they were not only basically the same, but were also in abundance at the restaurant.
At this point things were looking really good. I knew that I had chili powder, paprika and coriander powder back at my house, so the beef seasoning would be ok. Cheese grater? Check. Vegetable peeler? Check. Fry pan? Check. It was go time.
So I arrived at the restaurant and was greeted by a room full of enthusiastic guinea pigs, also called known as ‘dinner guests’. I knew some of them but not all of them. There were three young kids who had accompanied their mother, who was the wife of my friend known as ‘The Comedian’. There were other friends I had met previously, a number of them I can’t for the life of me remember their names, as well as the usual restaurateurs. The pressure was on and it was time to get down to business.
I should just note that everyone around me at that time was very much likely a much better cook that I am. I mean hell, they run a freakin restaurant, so of course this isn’t their first time holding a knife. There was, however, an air of fascination as they observed how the ingredients that I brought, which they all had experience with, would be put together. They were quite curious to watch me as I put my homemade mild salsa together (tomatoes, onions, salt, olive oil, cilantro). Can you believe that cilantro is actually quite common around here? Anyways, the point here is that while all of the vegetables and ingredients that I brought are not necessarily uncommon, how they were put together was quite uncommon.
I had brought with me my small 6km gas cooker and it was put to use right away to get the rice ready. A huge charred cooking pot was brought out and was used with my gas cooker to make what seemed like a million pounds of rice, more accurately 2kg. The Comedian was put to work chopping up the onions into tiny little pieces as my other friend, Morris, was put to task prepping the tomatoes for the salsa. The kids were scampering around the room taking little nibbles of the prepped food while the other adults were chatting away in Swahili, no doubt talking about the ridiculousness of this scene. I set Alice to task grating the cheese while Louis hand-carved the lettuce, utilizing her amazing kale-chopping techniques. I watched the chicken enter the room and start to peck around at the floor beneath the table. Nobody else seemed to care, so I neither did I. I instructed David on how to mix together the ingredients for the salsa and he did a pretty damn good job of it, with just enough lemon juice and not too much salt. I could see the look of confusion on the faces of the restaurant clientele as they entered into the restaurant for their dinner, only to see a crown of people making god knows what. Davis went to task on peeling the cucumbers, which was the only side dish I could think of. Luckily they turned out to be a huge hit, as I don’t think that they normally eat cucumbers.
The rice was almost ready, the conversation noise level was growing, and the prep work was more or less done. Time to cook the beef.
And then the lights went out…
There are times when you are consciously aware that you are experiencing a moment that you will never forget for the rest of your life. As I was bending over the fry pan of simmering spiced ground beef sitting on top of the coal-burning jiko while ‘The Comedian’ held a flashlight on our cooking culinary work as the sounds of the other participants were all that could be detected of those hidden in the shadows of the unlit room, I knew that I was having one of those unforgettable moments.
The beef was cooked and everything was ready. You have to imagine now that on the long table in front of me is a plate of chopped up lettuce, a pate of homemade salsa, a plate of grated cheese, a large pot of rice, a fry pan of spiced ground beef, and 11 plates holding their own chapatti, all nicely set up for full aesthetic appeal. I could tell that the crowd around me was hungry, so I kept my explanation of the application of the ingredients to a minimum. I set up each plate with the right amount of the good stuff and dinner was served.
Some people sat out in the small main eating room. Others were standing in the back alley, with their plate in their hands. Some of us, including myself, just made a space for ourselves on the table amongst the scattered remains of the prep work. Everyone was talking to one another and the atmosphere was joyous and enthusiastic. The kids were eating in silence, and anyone that has ever had dinner with young 9 year olds would know that that is a good thing. The verdict? Burritos ni tamu (burritos are delicious). My original fear that my dinner would not be enough to satisfy their large Kenyan appetites were put to ease as the people around me started saying how full they felt after one burrito. Satisfaction all around.
It’s funny how the seemingly insignificant experiences in ones life can later end up being absolutely invaluable. I know that my boss at ‘Adobo’ would be proud of this somewhat authentic Kenyan-Mexican-Canadian dinner. The sun was starting to go down and everyone had finished their food, so we quickly cleaned up the dishes and we said our goodbyes.
I can honestly say that this was one of the best Monday nights that I have had in Kenya.

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