Monday, October 27, 2008

Kenyan Food

I am a very big fan of food, and I do not consider myself very picky. I enjoy Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, French, Italian, Greek, American, Mexican, and Ethiopian food to name a few. However, I do not like Kenyan food. It is simply not very good. I have never been to Britain, but I have always heard that British food is some of the worst ethnic cuisine in the world. Unfortunately, Kenya has been dubbed the “Britain of Africa” in regards to food. French food is generally highly regarded, and areas of Africa with more French influence such as West Africa has much better food. I don’t know that the French caused this, but it is interesting how it worked out. Someone said that Kenya is so fertile, almost any food can be grown here, but somehow all the recipes have been left in West Africa.

Earlier I talked about my initial dilemma in hiring someone, but this has long since been resolved. I found (or rather was placed in) a group of four other single guys to eat with, and we hired a lady named Jane to cook, do laundry, and clean for us. She cooks lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. We are on our own Sundays and national holidays. I paid 2500 shillings for the first month, around $35. Rather a good deal. It ended up being a little short, so we each paid 3000 shillings for the next month ($42), which is still a good deal. Now this does not buy American meals, i.e. meals with meat, every day. We have meat probably twice or three times a week. This is problematic for me, because my basic standards for a meal is that there is rice (or potatoes, spaghetti, etc), meat, and some kind of a vegetable (although that is more negotiable). The meat is a very important part of this formula.

The most common Kenyan meal is ugali with spinach. Ugali is made from maize flour, and looks just like mashed potatoes. It is a little more gritty though, and is comparable to a very firm, non-watery version of cream of wheat. It has a generally bland flavor, but is quite dense and almost impossible to eat on its own. I dislike it, but people here love it. When I asked Emmanuel what his favorite food was, he said ugali. Ugali!! I can’t help but feel that he is missing out on some good food. One time when I was at a restaurant, I saw these guys ordering ugali, and I was thinking you probably have ugali every single day, and you come to a restaurant when you can order almost everything, and you order ugali. Incredible. I’ve heard that for Kenyans who move away to somewhere like America that one of the more difficult things for them is missing ugali. I guess it’s all what you’re used to.

The other guys in my group are really great, and very understanding of my situation, and they told Jane that ugali should always be complimented with something like spaghetti, so I don’t actually have ugali very much. Generally we have rice, boiled potatoes, or spaghetti, with some kind of vegetable stew. Sometimes it has beef as well, sometimes its made of peas, carrots, things like that.

What really gets me through is the dinner invitation. This wonderful thing is when a family asks me to come over for dinner, and I always accept. This food has always included meat, and is very good. About once a week for lunch I go to the Tamu CafĂ©, which is affiliated with the guest house, and is quite good and rather reasonable, about 150-200 shillings for a meal (2-3 dollars). Being here I feel like that’s a lot, and if I ever spend more, like 500 for a meal (7 dollars) I feel like I’m being super extravagant, and I feel guilty. In the US that really isn’t much at all, but here it feels like so much more.

To clarify about what I said earlier about food being expensive here, anything imported or American is expensive. Peanut butter can be 5 or 6 dollars for a jar. Cereal is also expensive. Meat is very expensive, maybe 8 or 10 dollars for a package of chicken I would expect to cost 4 or 5. Now if you don’t shop at the store, but at the market, things are cheaper (especially if you’re not white). Vegetables and flour, the basic essentials here, are rather cheap. But in the US, if you were to live off cakes baked from flour along with spinach, it would be pretty cheap too.

This ended up being rather long, so one of these times I will try to be shorter. And pictures are coming as well! I had trouble uploading them last time, but I’ll keep trying.

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