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.

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