Once November rolls around, if you are an American, you probably start fantasizing about kitchens and what comes out of them. As holidays approach, the smell of roasting turkey, tang of cranberries, and spice of pumpkin pie begin to dance in your head.
Of course Kenyans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but I remember a few very special meals in Kenya.
They definitely weren’t the meals I cooked myself!
During our sojourn while adopting Lily, I struggled to adjust my cooking skills to the tools and food products available. Many people in Kenya cook over an open fire, like the orphanage where we stayed in Kakamega for a court hearing, where they cook for 30 children over open flame!
With intermittent electricity available in Nairobi, most city-dwellers depend heavily on gas cook-tops or sufurias (large cooking pots) over jikos (charcoal brazier) instead of an oven. And while the close-to-the-earth ingredients of lentils, beans, rice, and fresh produce were delicious when cooked by others, I clumsily worked my way through the process of sorting, soaking, and stewing.
One time I decided to cook up a special piece of home for my kids. I managed to make pizza dough from scratch, figured out a sauce, and rounded up some cheese. But every night for three nights in a row, the electricity went out at dinner time! Finally, I cooked it one more morning for breakfast.
No, the meals that linger in my heart still are those given as sacrifices of love.
My friend Hellen cooked for the staff of the compound where we stayed. She doted on my kids and often surprised them with mandazi (like donuts) in the morning.We learned we were age-mates, and she shared with me her struggles to provide and pay school fees for her two sons. She also supported her mother, who lived with them. After several months, she invited us to lunch at her home, a tiny room in a cement block building. The window-less room, containing a kitchen, living/dining area, and bedroom, all within about 60 square feet, was dark and cramped; but I remember the glow of her smile as she stood in the corner, stirring lentils because she knew they are one of my favorite Kenyan dishes. I felt overwhelmed by her love.
Any meal with the Karaus was special. We were grateful frequent guests at their home. Lily loved the popcorn Mama always made as an appetizer, and my boys eagerly dug into Mama’s irio (potatoes mashed with peas). I couldn’t eat enough of the fruit salad she made for dessert – mangoes, pineapple, passion fruit, and avacado chopped into tiny pieces. Although funds were tight for them as their children finished college, they always served a bounty of delicious food, as if we were visiting dignitaries. During a time of tremendous stress and uncertainty for us, at their house we always felt safe and loved.
One of my favorite Kenyan kitchen memories transpired after a meal at the Karaus’ house. Suddenly the clamor of dishes, water, and women’s chatter fell silent. Dash (the Karaus’ daughter) exclaimed, “Oh, you are a very large man!” There, in the door-frame, my 6’2” husband shadowed the room, clutching a load of dirty dishes in a space where, culturally, men most definitely do not belong.
Wherever you spend the holidays this year, I am guessing it won’t be the the food you remember most in years to come. You probably won’t recall much of what was said. But you will always remember how the people who were there made you feel.
If you are interested in adding a little unique beauty to your holiday cooking experiences and meals, visit Pamba Toto’s kitchen & dining section for these items and more.