Where would you travel for great food? France, of course. Italy, naturally. Japan, yes please. Mexico, increasingly. China, certainly. Thailand, absolutely. And Kenya … Pardon?
Yes, you heard right. Travellers have long been making the journey to East Africa for the wildlife, tribal cultures, wondrous landscapes and white sand beaches. Now, however, Swahili cuisine is emerging as another attraction in its own right, taking everyone – and particularly their taste buds – by surprise.
Once, visitors to Kenya made do with vast quantities of the staple boiled maize flour ugali, indeterminate stews, tasteless green banana plantain and the bitter local greens, sukuma wiki. Today they're much more likely to be served a wide variety of locally raised organic meats, fish fresh from the oceans, a huge array of vegetables and fruits grown in market gardens or by hotels, lodges and the restaurants themselves, and prepared by chefs determined to promote a distinctly East African style.
Think turmeric and tamarind red snapper, with spicy mango salsa and avocado quinoa, or that same maize now served in polenta-like neat squares with slow roasted lamb shank, cherry tomatoes and sukuma wiki, dished up as much more palatable, and on trend, crispy kale. And for dessert? How about a saffron-poached pear with roasted hazelnuts and cocoa syrup?
"I like to experiment, adopting recipes to use with our more traditional foods and local flavours, says Timothy Okoth, the chef at Kenya's Ol Donyo Lodge in the Chyulu Hills, near Mount Kilimanjaro to the south, who has reinvented those dishes.
"I consider myself an artist and try to find a balance between western food classics and local ingredients, according to whatever is in season. I like to come up with light dishes that highlight the fact we're in East Africa. I think this style of food here is catching on very quickly. Our visitors are more open-minded, and we're a lot more creative."
Okoth's determination to introduce a Swahili-style cuisine is rivalled only by his early resolve to become a chef. As a contender for the title of the tallest chef in the world at just under 2.1 metres in height, he has overcome great odds in his career; in his first job in a hotel kitchen, the owner set him to work with a paintbrush as he needed the walls and ceiling of his restaurant painted.
"But I protested, gracefully, and was finally given a wok and a spoon and allowed to cook," says Okoth, 31, a member of the tall, lean Kenyan Luo tribe. "I've always been fascinated by food, and loved it."
Further north, at the Ol Malo game lodge in Laikipia in northern Kenya, there is a similar culinary movement going on.
"We have a lot of local food that we like to prepare for guests," says the chef, Grace Wanjiku, 30, who also tends her own vegetable, herb and fruit garden. "We have our own methods of cooking, our own spices and combinations of herbs. I think a lot of people are now surprised by the quality and style of our food. It's been a quiet revolution."
Swahili cuisine at Ol Malo uses many spices such as cumin, coriander and turmeric, and pulses in lentil dhals and curries, representative of the Arabian and Indian influences on East Africa, and camel milk from its own herd. On occasion, a goat might be roasted on a spit, plaintain chips will accompany salads, and the local favourite katchumbari will be served – a Kenyan relish made from chopped and shredded tomatoes, onion, garlic, peppers, cucumber and cabbage, flavoured with chilli pepper and herbs, and dressed with lemon juice.
At The Emakoko Lodge, in the Nairobi National Park, a highlight is the Kenyan stew made with tender slow-cooked beef, zucchini, onions, tomatoes and garlic, often thickened with potatoes. It is served by chef Stephen Musyoka, 33, another of the up-and-coming young chefs making their mark.
"We'll then have sukuma wiki as a side, lightly fried with onions and tomatoes so it never loses its lovely green colour, and I'll make mukimo, a mash of maize, green pumpkin leaves, beans, green vegetables and potatoes, with some butter. It's very rich and nutritious, filling and delicious.
"We've found our guests want to try Kenyan cuisine. I think more and more people from Europe have heard of it, but the rest of the world is only just learning and is keen to try. And, of course, we love making it!"
At another major stop in Kenya, Lewa House on the slopes of Mount Kenya, ossobuco is served with ugali, these days delicately flavoured and cooked in much smaller portions. Muesli is homemade with home grown beets, cinnamon and ginger, dried in an on-site solar oven and drizzled with local honey and home-churned yoghurt, and served with fruit from the organic gardens tended by lodge manager and homeopath Sophie Brown.
"We like to use a lot of local produce," she says. "We serve guests trout from the streams and local beef, and all our cheeses come from my sister's company, Brown's Cheese, in the highlands which produce 17 different varieties of cheese using milk from over 3000 small-hold farmers in the area.
"There's a big food movement now from middle-class Kenyans, looking towards more traditional foods, helping this Swahili food movement. We don't even have a McDonald's in Nairobi – yet!"
South African Airways, flysaa.com, flies to Nairobi via Perth and Johannesburg, and Safarilink flies direct from Nairobi to all locations featured. See flysafarilink.com
Ol Donyo greatplainsconservation.com/ol-donyo-lodge/; Ol Malo olmalo.com; The Emakoko Lodge emakoko.com; Lewa House lewahouse.com. All can be booked via The Classic Safari Company phone (02) 9327 0666, classicsafaricompany.com.au
Sue Williams travelled courtesy of The Classic Safari Company and South African Airways.