Do you remember the song “Africa” by Toto? If you are of a certain age, of course you do. Picture this: it’s 1907, and we’re listening to Toto at my apartment in Haverford (please don’t ask why). I get into a deeply heated argument with Brian Minier over the lyric “Kilimanjaro rises like a leopress above the Serengeti”. Note the spelling? It’s obviously a female leopard (although the lyric is ridiculous, obviously. In what way would a mountain “rise”? Do female leopards “rise”?) He insists the band is referring to a female leper. Really, Brian? Really?
So when I see Kilimanjaro, looking a bit like melting vanilla sundae, out the window of my ridiculously tiny Cessna (the safari version of the shuttle bus), that lyric gets stuck in my head, and I get indignant all over again. I mean, who would differentiate between male and female lepers anyway? But, as usual, I digress. Because, while most people go on safari and want to see blah blah leopards blah blah rare rhinos blah blah lions nom-nomming on something, I am on the hunt for something else. I want to be the one nom-nomming on something. I am looking for nyama choma.
“Nyama choma” is basically a cooking term referring to grilled meat — frequently goat, but also beef, pork, mutton, what have you. As is the case with grilled meat of any persuasion, nyama choma is delicious — as seen by the numerous stalls selling it roadside. But for some reason, people don’t seem to believe you want to eat African food. Typical menu offerings at these lodges are “fresh-out-of-the-bush” concoctions like beef carpaccio, roasted pumpkin soup, and grilled fish with Hollandaise sauce. Nice stuff, but some people want to experience new countries through their stomachs, too.
The folks at Singita Sasakwa (www.singita.com), where I first stay, are kind enough to indulge a few requests. One, suggested by my friend James, is “masala fries” — a perfect colonial fusion of Anglo-Indian influences. They are like junk food, they are so good: crispy fries, meaty within, coated with a tangy, salty spice coating of masala and dusted with a bit of parsley. There is no reason why this shouldn’t be in every vending machine in every corner of the globe. I have to figure out how to make these at home.
They also indulge us with an “African tasting menu” that includes some things I’ve never seen: ugali, maize cooked into a solid mass that resembles glue, meant to serve as the backdrop for everything else; mchicha, a Tanzanian curry of spinach and peanuts; mishkaki, skewered, impossibly tender beef; maharage ya nazi, kidney beans stewed with coconut cream; “coconut rice”, cooked a la risotto, but with coconut milk instead of broth; and a sort of kachumbari that they appear to call chachandu, a tomato-chili relish served alongside grilled tilapia. Of course, it blows everyone away. Why is there not more of this?
At Governors’ Private Camp in Kenya (www.governorscamp.com), we get more English-y stuff the first night — chicken fillet in mushroom gravy and an impossibly tall tower of fluffy mashed potatoes that I cannot help but eat all of — but Patrick and Frank, our stewards, are more than happy and even a little tickled to accommodate a request for nyama choma. The next day they outdo themselves, grilling up strips of beef slathered in a parsley-and-onion speckled kachumbari.
They also serve up heaping spoonfuls of sukuma wiki, a Kenyan staple dish that literally means “to push the week” and comprises braised, shredded greens studded with bits of tomato, cooked until it falls apart and finished with a bit of cream. Although I’ve had some indifferent versions of this dish, the one here is made with lots of love, “the traditional way”, Patrick tells us.
The next few days are a blur: githeri, a stew of kidney beans and corn, sweet and filling; matoke, made from stewed plaintains in a sweetened tomato-and-onion sauce; mandazi, crispy, giving dough “dumplings”, slightly sweetened, reminiscent of the Thai patongko. Our camp manager Colin tells us that South Africans eat a version of mandazi that is stuffed with mince, another smart Anglo-African fusion dish. If I ever go to South Africa, I am trying that immediately.
But I miss home. I rediscover chilies. Although they are a bit bigger and not as spicy as the prik ki nu (bird’s eye chilies) back home, I remember that it was the Portuguese who were supposed to have brought chilies to Thailand, and that these suckers were probably the ones they brought. So in a way, I have a bit of home at every meal, sprinkled on my fried eggs or tucked into my curries. Enough to tide me over until I get back.