We’ve been doing a lot of cooking at home since we’ve been in Nairobi. Being that Jess is the breadwinner now, most of the cooking is now falling on my shoulders. Not that I (Derek, her house-husband and guest blogger) am fast becoming a member of the “ex-pat wives club,” I mean, I do work part-time and still run a small press. But I definitely have more free time around the house to cook. Being in Nairobi, there are also less restaurants and eating options, at least that qualify as a culinary experience. And the good restaurants aren’t cheap. And being that Jess is working on nutrition in Kenya, it’s only right that we learn and experiment with local cuisines. Right?
Being a mzungu that hadn’t set foot on African soil til last year, it’s only natural that I haven’t acquired a taste for Kenyan food. I must admit I’m partial to Mexican food, having spent many years in Mexico and the Southwest of the U.S. On the outside, Kenya, being a corn-based society, with a similar climate and available foods, seems to have all the components to make good Mexican food. Not! There is a whole aisle in the supermarket dedicated to corn flour, but as I’ve discovered, the hard way, none of it is suitable for making tortillas (the outcome if you try it, will be more like a crumbly and gritty corn pancake). I think I know what to do (with the help of some lye) to make proper corn masa for tortillas, but that is the subject of another entry, once successful.
This post is about my experimentation with a few more traditional Kenyan food staples: black njahi beans, matoke (green bananas, and actually more typically Ugandan than Kenyan) and pumpkin leaves, and my efforts to make them palatable to the spice-desensitized mzungu tongue. All the ingredients in this dinner were purchase at Nakumatt, which I’m ashamed to admit is like the Wal-mart of Kenya. There are better options, but we don’t have a car at the moment, and Nakumatt is closest, so that’s my lame excuse. But it also speaks to the power of the Nakumatts and Wal-marts of the world. People will always find excuses to shop there, and it takes more effort not to. Again, the subject of another post that I’m sure Jess can speak more to.
Literally Eating Dirt
An interesting thing I discovered today at Nakumatt is that they sell “baked clay.” Telling someone to “eat dirt” elsewhere in the world is usually what you say (in the heat of competition) when you willfully want them to crash or wipe out. Well, in Kenya, and other parts of Africa, they do literally eat dirt. I think “geophagy” is the term I’ve heard Jess use for it. The other day we were buying charcoal in the nearby village and the woman was selling mounds of clay rocks. Jess asked what it was for, and the woman said that pregnant mothers eat it. Again, I’ll let Jess speak to the nutrition validity of whether eating clay or dirt has any positive or negative benefits, suffice to say, that here’s proof that you can buy edible “clay” in Kenya’s biggest supermarket.
Curious, I took a bite out of it, and guess what? It tastes like eating dirt. I guess you can give Nakumatt kudos for catering to the common folk, though I don’t think the common folk shop there much, considering the prices. But I also acquired the njahi beans there. As well as some camel milk which I’ve acquired a taste for (tastes more like salty grass than regular milk). And I also got some licorice gum that was really good and I’ve never seen elsewhere. But I digress.
Kenyans typically eat a green leafy vegetable with every meal, and typically it’s sukuma wiki. But there are a number of other leafy vegetables they eat. The ones available (besides spinach and cabbage and more typical ones) at Nakumatt were terere, kahurura and sagetti. I actually didn’t know what they were besides these names, though I thought the kahurura looked like pumpkin leaves, which I had my heart set on. So that’s what I got. Now on to the dishes:
– Stewed matoke with njahi beans (a la Derek)
– Sautéed pumpkin leaves
– Tandoori chicken
Matoke with Njahi Beans
Most recipes for matoke with njahi beans call for little more than boiling both and mixing them together, either mashed or in chunks. Without any spice, matoke is very bland, at least to my tongue. Maybe there are certain subtleties to appreciate, I don’t get it.
– A few cups of njahi beans
– Five or so green cooking bananas (matoke)
– one white onion
– a few cloves of garlic
– a few chilies
– can of tomatoes
– olive oil, salt, white wine and spices to taste
1. Soak the njahi beans the night before. They are funny looking beans, they look like tiny black clams or inverted goat eyes. Evidently kikuyus serve njahi beans as a specialty for pregnant mothers due to high iron content. Why eat clay, when you can njahi beans?
2. Rinse and drain the beans then boil for about half a day. While I was cooking them, I was doing some research on njahi (also known as lablab beans) and found this site that warned they were poisonous if not cooked properly! Not sure the validity of that claim, but needless to say, I drained them and rinsed them over three times. I’ve heard rinsing beans and starting with fresh water is good for reducing gas anyway. Can’t hurt. [… And the next day neither Jess or I had gas, not to mention that we are alive!]
3. When the beans are cooking they smell strongly of beans. Hard to explain, kind of a dirty bean smell. Open the windows. They slowly start to lose their blackness and white eyes. I added a bit of lemon and that really lightened them up.
4. While the beans are boiling, peel the matoke (green bananas). I quickly discovered they are not easy to peel. I made two slits along the length to make it easier. I also discovered that my hands were coated in this gummy glue after peeling the bananas. It was impossible to wash off. However, after peeling the bananas, I also made some fresh salsa (we don’t eat a meal without fresh salsa on hand made of tomatoes, chilies, onions, limes, and cilantro) and discovered that the lemons (they were out of limes at Nakumatt) work great for cutting the green banana glue! I washed my hands with the lemon rinds, and the banana goop came right off. Another thing about the matoke, after you peel and quarter them, throw them into a bowl of cold water, otherwise they become discolored. I could see from the remnants on the cutting board, that it will indeed turn gray if you don’t heed this advice.
5. In a saucepan, sauté onions, garlic, olive oil, chilies and white wine (preferably from South Africa or whatever continent you live on). Thankfully, they do have chilies here, a skinny green variety that do have a kick on the order of a jalapeno.
6. Add crushed tomatoes (might be better with proper tomato sauce). Spice to taste (I added salt, pepper, red chili, oregano and other spices).
7. Add this mixture to the njahi beans, then throw the matoke into the mix. Add olive oil and wine and water so it gets nice and brothy. It occurred to me that I would’ve liked to have a can of chicken stock at this point, which would probably make it really good. I do admit though, I put some stuff called “mchuzi mix” into it, which is really popular here (there is almost a whole aisle dedicated to it at Nakumatt). It’s essentially chicken-bouillon/corn starch.
8. Boil for about a half an hour until the matoke is nice and mushy.
Tandoori Chicken Breasts
This is like the third or fourth time I’ve made tandoori chicken since being here. We have this little grill that we bought that is awesome. The other night I made the whole meal with this grill, steaks and grilled peppers on top of the grill, and baked potatoes wrapped in foil embedded in the coals.
– chicken breasts
– tandoori powder
– ginger or ginger powder
1. The charcoal we got from the nearby village, not coal, but wood-based. No gas or fire-starter was used to light it, just paper and one match and twigs and wood gathered in the yard. Once that gets going, you put the charcoal on the fire and they’ll eventually catch. Let them get nice and hot with no flame.
2. Meanwhile, combine yoghurt with tandoori spice, crushed garlic and ginger, and slop the chicken breasts around in it.
3. Let marinate for an hour or so.
4. Slap the breasts on the grill. If you have a dog, make sure the dog doesn’t snatch them. I put the grill in the doorway where I could see it, and took down the hammock so I wouldn’t trip over it running to scare the dog away.
5. It’s always a good idea to make too much, as nothing’s better than leftover tandoori chicken used to make fajitas.
6. Cook until burnt. I don’t know what it is about the tandoori, whether it’s the nature of the spices, or the yogurt, but it should get nice and charcoaled, blackened even.
Pumpkin Leaves Sautéed with Olive Oil, Lemon and Salt
I originally got the pumpkin leaves thinking I would mix them into the matoke, which I’ve had around here and is really good. At the store they were labeled as “Kahurura,” but looking around online, it seemed kahurura was something else. I asked Angie (the housekeeper in the main house) what it was, and she confirmed that it was indeed pumpkin leaves (Cucumis ficifolius).
Angie also told me I did a bad job picking it out, and that it wasn’t fresh. Now I know. She gave me additional advice about my matoke. In the main house, she was cooking up pumpkin in a spicy peanut sauce. She told me she had a recipe for matoke with peanut butter that was to die for (though not in those words). Anyways, to counterbalance my bad choice in pumpkin leaves (the leaves were “rough” and not tender fresh), I needed to add baking soda. So here’s the recipe.
– Big wad of pumpkin leaves (as with any leafy vegetable, it reduces down drastically)
– white wine
– olive oil
– lemon (or lime)
– baking soda (if you didn’t pick leaves well)
– salt, pepper and spices to taste.
1. Put it all in a pan and flash fry. You might have to add some water initially to get it to reduce.
Here’s what it all looked like in the end.
We washed it down with white wine (Obikwa), which is not usually my beverage of choice, but I’m all stuffed up and red wine doesn’t help. Beer would probably be even better, especially Tusker. I made fresh salsa too but we forget to eat it. It tasted good and was filling and nutritious. And there’s enough leftovers to reinvent it into something else tomorrow, like melt cheese over it and dice the chicken up for fajitas and have it with the forgotten salsa.