Flavors of Kenya
Flavors of Kenya
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A Culinary Journey

Jambo! Hello!

It’s terribly hot. The cooking smells wafting from my kitchen take me back to Kenya. Pencil in hand, I made notes, collected secrets and brought back new flavors and discoveries. Today I’m putting this meal together for the pleasure of my guests and myself. The lanterns are already hanging from the trees and the table is set with a leopard-print cloth. In the center, a carved wooden lioness holds the candles. All that’s missing is the beat of the tom-toms that I love so much. At 8 o’clock, I’ll say "Chakula tayari": "Come to the table" in Swahili.

I still remember the enormous wild boar that was turning on the spit in the garden of a restaurant located on the edge of Nairobi National Park, the flickering flames, the starry night, the burned earth road leading to the reserves.

On the way to Mrs. Haley’s house (Roots author Alex Haley’s "Mama")

Having set out in a Jeep to spend a few days with the Haleys, I stopped at the market to buy some cashews and peanuts, which they handed me in a piece of newspaper twisted up like a candy bag. We’re in the middle of the bush. Things are frugal here; cooking is distilled into its simplest expression.

Mama Haley was sitting on a bench waiting for me. She had on a long dress and her white hair was wrapped in a lace headscarf. I sat down on my heels in front of her, and as I expressed my emotion at meeting her she stroked my head with her thin dark hand as she listened, nodding her head with a wide gap-toothed smile. She was almost 90 years old.

She brought me into the beaten-earth hut in which I had to crouch down to enter the kitchen. All the family’s activity takes place outdoors. Inside, in front of the door, the floor is dug out to allow for the constant fire that keeps out animals, mosquitoes and the night cold.

I helped Mama with her little daily chores. I remember going to fetch water at the village pump with an orange plastic pail. Women transferred water from the fountain into large bowls that they set on their heads before heading home in a graceful balancing act. When I set off, pail in hand, the children followed behind me, laughing to see water carried in such a primitive way.

One day Mama Haley decided to make yogurt. She poured goat’s milk into an earthenware bowl made from the same reddish earth that was turned into bricks not far away. She placed a big white cloth over top – it didn’t take long for me to see why. In a few moments, hundreds of flies, drawn by the smell, were circling around the bowl. The cloth was black with them. The milk, exposed to the sun, turned naturally into yogurt. After a few hours, she drew the cloth off with a snap and a cloud of flies took off, leaving a lovely white cream that we ate with little wooden spoons. Delicious!

One of the most pleasant times of the day was morning when, still sleepy, I sipped my hibiscus juice as I watched the village come to life. To make the juice, the flowers are crushed and set aside to macerate. The color, flavor and bitterness of the pink juice is reminiscent of cranberry juice. Here in the bush, gardens are limited to the essentials, though in areas more favorable to growing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables are produced that show up in the various markets and become part of the Kenyan diet. After all, there are sixteen different ethnic groups here, each with its own distinctive culinary traditions that call for specific ingredients. In colonial times, the English introduced strawberries, raspberries and asparagus. Rice pilaf, curry, samosas and soup as a first-course are also all legacies of their travels between the mother country and their colonies in India.

In the garden and plantations
  • Atokiko (ground mango pit)
  • Avocado
  • Banana
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Cabbage
  • Cashew
  • Cassava
  • Chili pepper
  • Coconut
  • Corn
  • Date
  • Eggplant
  • Egusi (melon seeds)
  • Lemon
  • Mango
  • Millet
  • Okra or gumbo
  • Onion
  • Papaya
  • Parsnip
  • Peanuts
  • Pineapple
  • Plantain
  • Rice
  • Shea tree (shea butter)
  • Sorghum
  • Sweet pepper
  • Sweet Potato
  • Tomato
  • Yam

Bunty's Flavors
  • Cardamom
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Coriander
  • Curry
  • Fenugreek
  • Gari
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Nutmeg

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