Monthly Archives: May 2017

The Talisman: A magical expat nook in southwestern Nairobi

The omnipresent developing world traffic of Nairobi, Kenya can’t stop expats from flocking to The Talisman, an eclectic, cozy gastropub for international culinary fusion or cocktails with friends. I joined that set for a night during my trip to Kenya, and the restaurant didn’t disappoint for food and atmosphere.

For those of you who haven’t visited sub-Saharan Africa, I’m guessing the image in your head is taken from The Lion King or, perhaps, nature documentaries: a grassy savannah with a sparse few stubby trees. Yes, Africa does have them, of course, but the city of Nairobi is certainly more green, hilly, and forested than one might expect. Or that just might be me.  

With the exception of downtown Nairobi with its skyscrapers, or its densely populated urban slums with human life beating out the plant kingdom (sometimes barely a victory), the city and its surrounding area is forested, not unlike a somewhat more tropical version of those seen in the US and Europe. The effect is that you can’t really see just how terrible the traffic is ahead of you, and you find places that are almost magical surprises in their existence within the forest.
The Talisman is one such surprise – and it should be, given that it is not the most easily accessible with a location on the opposite side of the city as its primary business and diplomatic districts. On a map, it doesn’t look quite so far. The distance is less than 6 miles (10 km) from the city center, but in Nairobi terms, its more like 60. Traffic in Nairobi is absolutely horrendous, and that means something, coming from someone who commuted in Lima, Peru and has experienced the world-class horror that is trying to drive through crowded Agra, India on a night particularly auspicious for weddings (which stop traffic completely). 
Nairobi’s baffling affinity for roundabouts, strobing road cameras, and U-turns in place of organized traffic control (signals or humans) is perhaps its own worst enemy. Bottom line, you must be very accustomed to the traffic and/or have a very good reason to drive across or around the city for dinner at The Talisman.

The Talisman itself is rather unassuming from its driveway, a rambling, one-story white stucco building that appears to be a converted residence, surrounded by tall trees. Inside, a network of rooms with working fireplaces and walls adorned with local art – impressionist landscapes and portraits – form separate dining areas, and its wooden bar evokes nothing of the gastropub marketed on its slick website. But its coziness grew on me, a respite from the traffic, from the crowded slums and bumpy dirt roads I passed through earlier in the day. I realize that probably sounds a little shallow, but it’s really all about unwinding after a day of overstimulation and too much jostling in a van.

My colleague and I were seated in their covered outdoor patio – the covering fortunate after a wet afternoon during this winter rainy season. A charcoal grill whimsically in the shape of a grinning frog (the mouth full of coals) kept us warm as the evening darkened. It was perhaps a bit too dark without a candle, but that addition made our meal feel a bit more rustic – never mind that anything but African cuisine is part of the menu. 

Having skipped lunch, I was the hungriest I’d been on my trip to Kenya, and my colleague had a bit of a scare owning to playing prawn roulette at dinner the preceding night, so we both chose starters: me a beetroot and goat cheese tartlet and him that African staple, spicy chicken wings (sarcasm). The tart was layered, with caramelized beets and onions lining the shell and crowned with goat cheese.

Excited to see wine flights on the beverage list (which I discovered to be an alien concept to the British, apparently), I decided to be adventurous and try a Sauvignon blanc flight that included variants of the varietal from Chile, South Africa, and Kenya. The Kenyan wine had an intriguing aroma of toasted marshmallows. I should have guessed right there what that meant, but I eagerly took a sip. The wine had a cloying white-grape juice flavor, which was masked by a smokiness best described as tasting like the grapes were grown in a field surrounding by heaps of burning trash (a real and not abnormal odor around Nairobi and the Rift Valley). Oh well! I now know not to drink Kenyan wine anytime soon. Rift Valley Wine: When you miss that toasty, garbage ash aroma.

For my main dish, I chose a Moroccan spiced beef stew, served with a minted couscous that looked like tabbouleh but was certainly couscous; soft pita; yogurt, chutney, and hummus. The hummus tasted subtly and weirdly of bananas – I am going to guess that was all me. Who makes banana hummus? It was a fun palette of sweet, salty, tangy, and earthy flavors at once. It was satisfying and filling to my empty stomach. 

My colleague ordered steak, which came with “matched potatoes”.  No, I don’t believe that was a typographical error on the menu. These were little fried potato cakes that made French fries seem pedestrian. If I return to the Talisman, I definitely would order those potatoes as a side dish.

If our beef-heavy meals weren’t enough, chocolate desserts were our downfall. We split a chocolate fondant (molten cake) and a seasonal special – a Bailey’s brownie, both served with ice cream; both were fantastic, but the brownie was other-worldly with the clear flavor of Irish cream infused throughout. I need no other words to describe the sensation other than YUM.

Stuffed, satisfied, and relaxed after a day of overstimulation, The Talisman was the perfect culinary antidote we needed.

Narobi, Kenya: Where culture, cuisine, and class converge

Fresh off a Kenyan adventure, the CD takes you on a cultural and culinary tour of Nairobi, a city of contrasts. The food scene one finds in Nairobi as a wealthy expatriate is far different than what those less fortunate may eat, showing us all just how fortunate we are as travelers.

Many of us in the developed world (pretty much most of the northern hemisphere) take for granted our range of food options – our ability to travel internationally without ever leaving home; access to clean water and safe produce; the consistent access to electricity to transform those raw materials into something altogether different through heat or refrigeration/freezing. Many of us are fortunate to vary our diet at least a few times a week and count on at least two full meals.

My recent trip to Kenya reminded me of the contrast between the global “haves” and “have-nots” in terms of not only our food culture, but our opportunities as well. I have to confess a little uneasiness at my enjoyment of international dishes at restaurants catering to expats and foreign visitors while serving a nutritionally marginal – yet coveted with the desperation of hunger and unpredictable meals – breakfast to street children and teens in a Nairobi slum. It’s the luxury of trying crocodile or camel for the sheer novelty of doing so vs the monotony of porridge and starch that provide easy calories.

During my trip, I visited everything from international organizations and gleaming, modern business schools to a rural primary school with 1800 students, 50 students per class clamoring for the chance to learn math through donated computer based training, and to slum-based community empowerment organizations, including one where I met some of Kenya’s most promising rappers dreaming of international recording stardom. In Kenya, there is extreme hardship and opportunity around every congested, chaotic roundabout (more of those than corners on the streets of Nairobi!).

And in each community, a contrast between the homeless (porridge), the road to empowerment (street samosas; rice and beans with cooked greens from an organic community garden); the formal dining hall of the university business school; to the luxury of (the risk of!) eating sushi alongside a Mediterranean eggplant spread with a cocktail at a five-star hotel.

Kenya’s cuisine appears fairly simple relative to the spicy dishes loved in other equatorial lands, though it also draws from the heavy influence of centuries of trade with the Indian subcontinent. At its most basic are its simple Millet or maize (corn) porridges that expand to fill a hungry belly, served with Mandazi, a simple, savory, triangle of fried dough (the slum’s samosa, perhaps). A little further up the ladder – and a bit more egalitarian among Kenya’s social classes – is Ugali, a soft pancake or spoon bread-like starch made from a hardened maize + flour porridge. It’s sort of a softer (and, I’m told, more bland) answer to Ethiopia’s Injera. It typically is a vessel for fried beef or goat, or sometimes beans. Beef is Kenya’s cheapest meat, in contrast to many developed economies.

The Indian influence does make it through even the working classes, where street kiosks sell samosas and chai to those on the go; biryani, pilau, chapattis, and roti/naan are prevalent.

And the middle classes and above have the access one might expect to modern supermarkets and coffee houses, to international restaurants.

At this end is where I fell, carrying the white woman’s guilt from handing out greasy Mandazi and porridge in cups that had to be-reused without sterilization from child to child, reminded that I am fortunate – as are any of you reading this bougie blog! because of birth, not birthright, nor deserved by hard work. My own work ethic only serves to elevate me even more from my birth status as one of the global 0.1% (as I used to refer to my fellow business school classmates and myself as we studied business in the developing world). It’s a humbling reminder to be grateful.

The humility also killed my appetite a bit; ok, that and unreliable drinking water. One night, my British colleague and I dined at the uber-touristy Nyama Choma Ranch dinner theatre at the Safari Park Hotel. It, like other touristy meat-themed restaurants (yes, that’s you, Carnivore) offers patrons a smorgasbord of any sort of meat imaginable. From the mundane – roast chicken and dark meat turkey – to the less ordinary – goat, to the exotic – crocodile (tastes like turkey) or camel (tastes like alpaca), diners are encouraged to channel their primal appetites while watching a coed troupe of athletic young dancers serve as a human, tribal diorama.

That’s not to say that tribalism isn’t authentic or alive still in 21st century Kenya (or, perhaps it isn’t a stretch to see tribalism in political rivalries in the US and the Brexit divide in the U.K…?) Those dance numbers just feel a little too contrived for me to enjoy them. And it’s another reminder that the culinary traditions enjoyed by Kenya’s citizens and residents are largely a reflection of a stratified, uneven class structure – and that I fit into that top echelon as an American professional and visitor.

Yes, Kenya is a land of contrasts. I felt it traveling from the five star hotel to the slums, just as I felt it in a different sense during a drive through Nairobi National Park – a safari available within the Nairobi city and county limits. In the park, one can feel so remote, so close to nature – and yet there, the zebras, impalas, buffaloes, and giraffes coexist with the visible urban skyline of Nairobi. It’s every bit a surreal experience as the slum-to-hotel transition. It’s every bit quintessential Kenya, also.

Lest this blog seem super heavy, join me next time for my favorite meal of my trip at expat (and Trip Advisor) darling, The Talisman.