In search of chakula tamu and a mini history lesson on Indian influences on Kenyan food (Part I)

by Danielle Del Vicario

A month ago, I graduated from university in England, packed my bag and got on a plane to Nairobi, Kenya to start an internship with the British Institute in Eastern Africa. For an African history student about to start her masters’s degree, there couldn’t be a better summer job; for a British Columbia blogger who usually spends her summers picking berries, chasing farmers’ markets and baking pies, there couldn’t be a worse one.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been super excited about this internship since February. But missing out on a B.C. summer to sit in a dark library basement—with no bathroom!—blowing dust from 50-year-old newspapers to research Kenyan politics? I’ll stick to digging in the garden and sipping local wine by the lake, please. After all, what can Kenya offer in terms of culinary experiences?

As an African historian, I regularly condemn anyone who dismisses ‘Africa’ as a singular place of hunger, war and under-development. So four weeks into my internship, I’m embarrassed to admit that, in generalizing about African food before I arrived, I was guilty of a similar faux pas.

The before shot of dinner in Ndakaini

My first meal in Nairobi set the tone for what has become the culinary adventure of a lifetime. The day I arrived, a fellow intern took pity on me (I’d flown overnight, had a 3 am airplane breakfast and gone straight to work) and treated me for lunch at the nearby Police Canteen, a makeshift hut where a single cook serves up steaming portions of beans with your choice of chapatti or ugali. Also only recently arrived in Nairobi, my new friend had yet to try out the Canteen, but had heard it was good, hearty and cheap—the perfect spot for a starving Canadian without any Kenyan currency.

Logically enough, the Canteen has two sides: one for takeout and one to sit down. But the latter, tucked behind a corrugated metal wall, isn’t actually visible unless you know where to look. Woefully unaware of this double system, we walked tentatively up to the front of the hut and asked for lunch. The cook—a man of little conversation, especially for two new white girls without a word of Swahili—gave us our food and turned away. We looked at each other and then at the thin plastic bags of beans burning our hands, pretty sure that this wasn’t how the Canteen had been described to us. Where were the tables? And spoons? And other people…?

Despite having to return to work and eat from a plastic bag, our Canteen lunch was perfect: the lentils were hot and filling and chapattis smoky and fresh. And I was a happy, happy girl.