Sunday, August 9, 2015

what makes the food so good

Albert's goat and potato stew


At a party last night, I told an acquaintance about my travels to Kenya. Knowing some Kenyans here in California, this new friend related to me what he knows about Kenya culture: the generosity and friendship, and the differences in spirituality. And then he says to me, "And Kenyan food is really good."

I didn't respond right away because it surprised me what thoughts came to mind. They were mostly disagreements, something like, "well, it's not spicy enough for me," or, "we ate a lot of rice" or "what I really wanted was to find some good Indian food when we were in the country" (there is a lot of good Indian food there). I asked him to elaborate on what kinds of Kenyan food he's had and we talked a little more about it, then moved on to some other topic.

Now, it's not that I don't like Kenyan food. I eat when I'm there - a lot. There is this dish called mukimo that is a mash of potatoes and spinach and corn in one dish, which for me is a combination I would imagine might be in heaven. For vegetables, there is lots of sauteed cabbage and carrots, and also some really tasty sauteed greens. My favorite are chips (french fries), which are so much better than here in America, I'm guessing because their potatoes are different and the oil they use is probably tastier, though possibly not that great for me. Still, I indulge freely. And then of course there's nyama choma, or roasted meat, most often goat in the places where we stay. It's especially good with ugali, which is a bland corn dish (similar to polenta, but less rich) because it's the perfect simple, starchy food to eat along with the fatty goat.

And this brings me to my point, because I've eaten nyama choma in a restaurant in Nairobi, and then I've eaten it around a fire pit where it was roasted by generous friends hosting us and hands down it is tastier around the fire pit. That's the whole point for me - it's about the food but it's also about the people preparing it for us and enjoying it with us. Albert is our cook (among many other roles he plays) when we stay out in the bush. There, the accommodations are a lot like camping. We pitch a tent, and bring bottled water from the city (there is no running water), and meals are cooked over a fire. The sun sets each evening around 7pm, leaving us to eat in the dark with the fire and headlights from our van as our light. Dinner in the cool, dark evening around a fire is our time to shrug off our long, full, hot days. We tell stories and laugh. Or, sometimes I find a quite space to myself and watch the fire as Albert cooks. The fire crackles and Albert moves quickly between pots and a bucket of water, and every once in a while we catch the smell of our food cooking.

We know dinner is close when someone comes around with a pitcher of water and a shallow bucket holding a bar of soap. One by one, we rub the soap between our hands as our host pours water and the dirt from the day washes away. Then come the bowls and spoons and the invitation to scoop rice and whatever it is that we're eating: lentils, cabbage, meat stew.

Albert is hesitant to give us his recipes, and maybe it's because he knows. He is clued into the fact that, though his food is very good, what makes it special is less about the ingredients he puts into it and more about the way that sharing a meal with people you love, in a place you love, is, when you get down to it, what makes that food so darn good.

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