Thursday, July 17, 2014

Recipes from Kenya

If you've been reading my blog for any length of time you already know this one little fact: I'm not that crazy about African food. Ethiopia is one exception (there are a couple of others), because the flavor of Ethiopian food is big and robust and exotic. But most African food, at least the stuff I've had, is simple and, well, bland. It's perfectly edible, but not something I'm likely to make more than once.

So I wasn't that thrilled about Kenya, really, which I figured would be another meh experience. And I was wrong! Kenyan food is good. But before I get to that, let's talk about the nation itself.

Kenya borders Ethiopia, which could at least partially explain why I like the food--maybe a regional thing. It also borders Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan and Somalia, all countries that are a lot further down on my list, so we'll see. There are 44 million people living within Kenya's 224,000 square miles. The climate ranges from warm and humid to cool, depending on whether you're on the coast or near permanently snow-capped Mount Kenya. There are also deserts and temperate forests in Kenya, which makes it pretty geographically diverse.

Kimana reserve, Kenya. Photo by Francesco Scaglioni.

If you ever go on an African Safari, chances are it will be in Kenya. There are several large and diverse wildlife refuges there, and also some good beaches. So tourism is important to the economy, though agriculture employs more people. There's an illusion of wealth in Kenya, which probably comes from those places where tourism is a big money-maker, but in reality Kenya is a poor nation--38 percent of the population lives in poverty and the nation's human development index is a mere 145 out of 186.

If you travel to Kenya you won't find a lot of restaurants serving Kenyan food. I guess Kenyans themselves don't have a very high opinion of their cuisine, but I think I disagree. Their recipes share some similarities with other African nations--for example, a staple called "ugali" appears to be very much like my arch nemesis, fufu. But like India they also do samosas and chapati and they cook with garam masala, so there are a lot of familiar flavors in Kenyan cuisine. Here's what I made:

Mtuzi wa Samaki (fish in coconut milk curry)
(from Kenya Advisor

  • 3 pounds fish filets
  • 3 tbsp oil
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups coconut milk 
  • 2 tbsp tamarind paste or lemon juice
  • 3 tsp garam masala or curry powder
  • Salt and pepper to taste
On the side:

Watermelon Salad with Celery-Nut Dressing
(this recipe comes from the Samburu Tribe and was also posted on Kenya Advisor)
  • 3 cups watermelon balls, chilled
  • 1 1/3 cup celery, chopped
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 4 oz softened cream cheese
  • Fresh lettuce leaves
  • 1/2 cup roasted cashews, chopped
  • 2 tbsp mayonnaise
For dessert:

Coupe Mount Kenya
(from Kenya Travel Ideas)
  • 4 to 5 ripe mangos, peeled and pitted
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp lemon peel, julienned
  • 1/2 cup condensed milk
  • 1/2 tsp salt
So I got told off once for serving a summery salad with a wintery main course, and I'm thinking that this is sort of the same situation. Watermelon salad is, obviously, quite summery and I really couldn't say if the curry dish is something they would eat year round. So if I got it terribly, terribly wrong I apologize. It was still good though so I can't say I really have any regrets.

I was gong to make chapati, too, by the way ... but I ran out of time.

Let's start by making the curry. Al these recipes are actually pretty easy, so here we go:

Heat the oil over medium-high heat and place the fish filets into the pot. Sear on both sides and transfer to paper towels.

Now reduce the heat to medium and add the pepper and onion. Cook until the onion is translucent, then add the garlic. Stir for an additional two minutes and add the tomatoes. Turn the heat back up and add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer. Season with salt and pepper and add the fish. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until the fish filets are cooked through.

While this fish is cooking, make the salad:

Put the mayo and cream cheese in your mixer and beat until fluffy. Now whip the cream until you get stiff peaks. Fold the cream into the cream cheese mixture and add the celery.

Now line a bowl with the lettuce and put the watermelon balls on top. Finally, spread the dressing over and top with the cashews.

And finally, the dessert:

Mash the mangoes (I put mine in a blender) and transfer to a large bowl. Mix with the lemon peel, condensed milk and salt.

In a separate bowl, whip the cream with the sugar until you get stiff peaks. Fold into the mango mixture.
Pour the mixture into a six-cup mold and freeze overnight. Feel a deep sense of joy when your kids declare that they don't like this.

So yes, the curry was really good. Now, I've made stuff like this before, and I'm pretty sure I've made something really similar for another country, but this definitely had its own unique flavor. The tamarind and coconut milk combined with the garam masala sort of made it seem like a dish suspended somewhere between Thailand and India. The watermelon salad was really unusual, a bit too heavy on the celery for my tastes (I do like raw celery in some salads, but I think it needs to be in small doses). The dressing and cashews combined with the melon made for a really different dish, definitely not like anything else I've ever made. Kind of potlucky, if you're a risk taker. Not all potluck goers are going to love it, but you'll definitely give everyone something to talk about.

Now for my favorite part: the Coupe Mount Kenya. This was really a mango sorbet, and it was delicious. It had that great tangy bite that you get from mangoes (they're never completely ripe when you buy them in California) but you could taste all that wonderful cream and condensed milk, too. I loved that my kids hated this dessert because that meant I got to eat all their leftovers. Yum! I love fruity desserts and if you do too, I'm pretty sure you're going to love this one. Maybe another one for my end of year list, 'cause I'd have to find a really mind-blowingly delicious dessert to top it.

Next week: Campania, Italy


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