I seem to remember Nairobi being obsessed – and I mean obsessed – with sausage & chips (“Ask for Farmer’s Choice sausages and win x”) & soda. Some people liked Coca cola, some people liked Fanta (but never both), personally I was a Fanta kinda person. There were kids at school who didn’t eat in the dining hall or bring packed lunch, instead they bought chips & sausage or samosa. Everyday! Those people must have had Kwashiokor. Those were the days before wide-scale pizza. When pizza tokead, I was among the first few to eat it at Pizza garden, Westlands. It was a ham and cheese and mushroom pizza, but the cheese wasn’t well melted, nor were the mushrooms cooked beyond being warm (in short I didn’t like it) but I ate it all. As for lasagne, cannelloni, and other such Italian staples for me now, those were unknowns. There were few Chinese restaurants either; people only really went there on special occasions unless they had loadsamoney.
In Nai now, there are so many Oriental restaurants – Vietnamese, Thai, maybe Japanese, and people go there for lunch like they’d go to Wimpy. Speaking of Wimpy, I remember their delicate French fries, their coleslaw, their strawberry milkshake, and now Wimpy has gone McDonalds style – yes the food is okey (in a formulaic, laboratory kind of way) but where is the slight char on the burger bread, the excess but welcome fruit in the shake, the extra serving of fries thrown in my friendly Mr/Ms Proprietor? People no longer eat at small, unknown food houses (having said that, Nairobians eat out in town so much that hardly any food house can go bust). I came across a cafeteria in tao recently, it’s near Grand Regency (which, by the way, totally lost its grandeur) but it’s a really down-to-earth cafeteria with a unique menu: ugali & sukuma, chaps & stew, rice & ndengu, irio, githeri, etc. – in other words the kind of food that Kenyans eat at home. I was pleasantly surprised, and they sell like ‘hot cakes’, the place was packed, and the prices were fair (I think 100 for a meal and soda). Yes there are wonders like that, and the prices of the previously ubiquitous chips & sausage are cheap in places like Jeevanjee or other small shops (Ksh 20 for chipos if I remember correctly).
But at the same time, a new brand of food house has appeared, the kind that has become unpopular in Europe. McDonalds never caught on in Kenya (there was a branch in Industrial Area which was closed in the early ‘80’s) but there is Steers, which is global. I hate such places; they are over-priced, they charge European prices in “developing” countries, so obviously someone is making a hefty profit. Surprise, surprise, Kenyans flock to Steers like it gave them Kamuti. In that league is a chain of cafés selling overpriced coffee (espresso, cappuccino, lattes, etc), overpriced cakes (but I must admit that the quality of coffee and cakes is excellent) in Starbucks fashion. People flock there to buy into a concept, an illusion, but which illusion? I’d rather sip coffee in a non-chain coffeehouse than in an industrial-type chain, the kind that I avoid anyway in Europe.
I remember when chapos were delicacies, when chicken curry was a festive dish, and when meals were balanced. That woman ‘Mke Nyumbani’ (Oh what a faux pax programme title) used to cook and ladle nice balanced meals. I loved and still love rice. Rice and stew was a staple – when I say stew I mean that Kenyan version which included, by law, cubed beef, cubed carrots, peas, maybe potato cubes, and which was cooked a certain way that any Kenyan worth their salt should be familiar with. It was served with every starch – from rice, chapati, to ugali, mashed potatoes and spaghetti. Urgh I hated spaghetti, I guess I now realise it was because pasta just doesn’t work with a curry-like stew. Living in Europe has taught me about food, but who is to say that the Kienyeji meals were not gourmet in their own right?
A good thing now is that people in Nairobi can eat just about any cuisine, but I hope that people wont forget the good old staples that we were raised on. For a long time I couldn’t stand ugali, but after my tastes matured I realised the concept of it (ugali with sukuma wiki is a combination not to be tampered with). I miss millet porridge – fermented with lemon juice and milk added to serve (yum yum).
But no one can deny that ‘back in the day’ consisted of dubious foodstuffs like roiko, juice-squash (“orange” squash was actually orange in colour but not in composition), sweets with chemicals that make me shudder, oil, oil, and more oil, in the form of kasuku, ghee, lard, kimbo – eurrgh cholesterol alert!!! Even so, most meals consisted of natural stuff, so we didn’t eat E180, E3435, Locust bean gum, Xanthylic acid, etc (check the ingredient list of the next ready meal you buy). Bread was bread (ah remember Eliot, sliced). Well, speaking of food, I’m off to make dinner.