Feasting Wild in Nairobi was written for Afro Tourism in 2016 by ‘Funmi Oyatogun.
Nairobi is fragrant with the familiarity of major Africa cities: crammed buses chug down major roads, modern buildings venture into the sky in the CBD, expats revel in the colour of Kenyan normalcy and fruit sellers display ripe mangoes, bananas and oranges in their seasons.
Nairobi is full of character and the flavourful recipes are extensions of this character. The food reflects where Kenya is coming from and where she is going to; a sizeable portion of Indian descendants, whose ancestors were recruited to build the Uganda railway, means that chapatti and samosas have become adopted foods of Kenya. Fish from the coast, tea and coffee from the hills and maize and meat feature prominently in the cuisine.
One night in Nairobi, our food sojourn led us to Carnivore, Kenya’s renowned fine dining restaurant. The Carnivore ambience is unrivaled in Nairobi – dim lights, fire grills in the center of the restaurant, a clever combination of rustic and modern charm in the decoration and countless references to wildlife. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the hosts and servers are dressed to the nines in prints that resemble the skins of their country’s most famous wildlife – The Big Five.
What is surprising is that there are no lions, elephants, buffaloes, leopards or rhinoceroses on the menu. Of course, this is a much welcome development because it reinforces Kenya’s commitment to protecting wildlife and conserving endangered species. In 2004, Kenyan authorities banned the sale of game meat but the ban has not dimmed the star of Carnivore. They may no longer be serving wild meat, but the dining experience is wild enough to be engrained in the memory of anyone who visits.
Upon arrival, guests are greeted warmly in Swahili. “Jambo”, they cry out, “welcome to Carnivore.” We walk through the center of the restaurant where large skewers are rotating over an open hearth. I do a child-like dance and my eyes dilate in anticipation. After seating the party, one table server jokes, “Are there any vegetarians?” As he points to nowhere in particular, he declares “the vegetarian section is on the other side.” His joke is met with hearty laughter. It is this warmness and a world-class display of customer service that permeates throughout the evening.
Dawa, Kenya’s alcoholic starter beverage is the re-purposed word for medicine in Swahili. “This is our medicine for the mind”, Wangeci quips as she beckons for the host whose Dawa cabinet hangs from his neck. Before long, we are bombarded by an array of Carnivore’s famed meats.
In one night, each guest is presented with an unlimited supply of pork leg, pork ribs, chicken, turkey, sausages, beef, rabbit, bull balls and crocodile. The stomach is the limit. A tiny flag on the table tells the servers when the guests have eaten to their fill.
One after the other, the servers cut meat slices on our plates directly from large skewers, along with potatoes, salads and other accompaniments. With the meat comes an array of custom sauces, each one suitable for a specific kind of meat.
As Kaluhi dips her pork ribs in fruit salsa and Wangeci sprays mint sauce over her lamb, I struggle to make a choice so I mix wild berry, garlic, tikka masala and chili sauces on a plate. It is the first time a spicy option is offered to me throughout the trip. Nonetheless, each meat is delicious enough to stand on its own.
For the first time tonight, our group is mostly silent as everyone munches away. The only sounds we hear are those of Lyra’s shutter as she snaps away and our quiet groans of excitement after each well-seasoned and tender bite of meat. Our silence is quickly interrupted when we hear a song rise from the other end of the restaurant. “Jambo, jambo bwana…” the servers sing for a birthday group, “nchi yenye amani, hakuna matata.”
Originally released in 1982 by the local band Them Mushrooms, Jambo Bwana welcomes visitors to Kenya and reassures them of the beauty, peace and wonder of the country. The tune is Kenya’s unofficial anthem, with key Swahili phrases that are easily recognized by visitors. By the time the song is repeated, most of the guests are humming along to the tune.
If the food at Carnivore is exceptional, the service is off the charts and the treat is worth every Kenyan shilling. After a few hours, we are more than satisfied. By the time we surrender our flag, we have experienced a fulfilling taste of not just Carnivore, but Nairobi.
With my hand on my belly, I grin at my company saying “sawa, sawa” like the locals say when everything is okay. They nod in agreement. With that gesture, Kenya joins the ranks of countries that are more vivid than just the wild imagination of my adventurous palate. Without a doubt, the land of the Big Five has earned her crown as the Beast of the East.
‘Funmi Oyatogun is the adventurous food traveller and writer behind The Village Pot. Her writing has been published on a number of travel websites and magazines. In her travel stories, she celebrates the culture of good food inspired by her world adventures.
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