A couple of months ago we wrote about our culinary explorations through lush wet season Uganda. Since then, we been wandering about Kenya, from the mountains, the plains, the desert, to the coast. Kenya holds a little piece of both our hearts, and we will miss its huge skies and wide spaces, and the open smiles of its people.
Our Kenyan wanderings involved a lot of public buses and a lot of long distance driving. Kenyan roads are notoriously poor, and travelling anywhere by road takes a long time! Along the roads, at most points where an extra large pothole or an unexpected speed bump cause the traffic to slow even more than usual, people gather, offering bottles of water, fruit, and snacks for hungry travellers to buy. As the staple carbohydrate of the country, maize is everywhere, and hot, freshly fire-grilled cobs are held out in handfuls to passing traffic. These fill the belly, give the jaw a good work out, and are a tasty meal, particularly spiced with a bit of chilli. At strategic distances along the road from maize vendors, troops of baboons tend to congregate to feast on discarded corn cobs. Sugary sweets aren’t much of a thing, except in the more Arab-influenced coastal towns, but fresh fruit and machete-chopped chunks of peeled sugar cane satisfy a sweet tooth. Our favourite roadside snack involves a hot hardboiled egg, peeled skilfully with a spoon (a trick I’m yet to master), cut almost in half, sprinkled with salt, and filled with kachumbari – a delicious mix of fresh tomato, red onion, and hot green chilli.
We were lucky enough to be in Kenya during Ramadan. After four months travelling in largely Muslim countries, we’ve fallen in love with the gentleness and generosity of Islamic culture, and Ramadan was a delightful way to finish this journey. Among other things, Ramadan involves fasting for 30 days, from dawn to dusk. At dusk, people gather together to break their fast, sharing dates or pieces of fresh fruit and tiny cups of Arabic coffee with whoever is nearby. I spent a few days in an old Swahili town on a tiny sand island called Lamu off the north coast of Kenya where the population is mostly Muslim. Each evening I was whisked off to the nearest gathering of people to eat dates on a street corner or oranges on the deck of a wooden dhow. After the flurry of breaking fast, the streets quickly clear as people head home to share iftar, the evening meal, with their families.
As we’re always interested in fermented and cultured foods, we were overjoyed to discover maziwa lala, a unique Kenyan ferment. Lala, or mala, is similar to yoghurt, except it cultures milk at a comfortable room temperature of 25°C, rather than the 38°C required for conventional yoghurt (check out this post if you want to make your own yoghurt). This means that there are lower energy requirements for its production than for yoghurt, as incubation isn’t necessary, and the fermentation process allows fresh milk to last for up to four days without refrigeration. This is great for communities without much access to electricity. Lala just tastes like a tangy, liquid yoghurt. During our travels we bought lala in small bags beside the road, and made our own by adding a tablespoon to a jar of fresh milk and leaving it somewhere undisturbed for a day.
Previous British colonisation of Kenya means that there is a lovely community of British descendants scattered throughout the country. Within this community, one of the nicest traditions we experienced was that of sundowners. Sundowners are quite literally quiet drinks shared with friends and family as the sun goes down. Sundowners are generally enjoyed outside, watching the day close over the wide savanna, and allow everyone to come together and share stories of the day finished. As there is no real twilight in the tropics, one must be relatively punctual to sundowner gatherings, and we often found ourselves wandering homewards in the starry darkness, trying to avoid being stepped on by elephants.