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Kenya: Wild African Food Safari

Writer and urban homesteader Novella Carpenter once raised hogs on Dumpster scraps to make prosciutto. But when she visits Kenya, she learns the true meaning of resourcefulness.

I had been in Kenya for only a few days when I found myself surrounded by 11 Maasai tribesmen, the golden grass of the savanna under our feet, waiting for lunch. The men were tall and lean, and dressed in traditional red shukas (sashes); some wore intricate bead bracelets and amulets around their necks. Their village of mud huts with thatched roofs was off in the distance. Lunch was the whole shoulder of a recently killed lamb, roasting, spit-style, on a branch. After a time, the warriors started pulling off chunks of meat and handing them to me. There was a language barrier, so we just smiled at each other and chewed. The texture of the lamb was perfect, with crispy skin and tender meat. But to be honest, it really needed salt.

I wasn't about to give them my culinary criticism, though, because these guys are totally hard-core. Never colonized by the Europeans, the Maasai are a semi-nomadic tribe who live in the sweeping savannas of Kenya and Tanzania, guarding their herds of cattle, sheep and goats from lions. Their preferred drink is cow's blood mixed with milk. So you can see why I held my tongue.

Kenya Food Safari: Jonathan, a Maasai tribesman

Jonathan, a Maasai tribesman. © Lisa Linder.

I had come to their land—the 373,00-acre Maasai Mara game preserve, just north of the Serengeti—because I was hoping to learn from them. You see, I have goats myself. I also raise chickens, rabbits, vegetables and bees on a tenth of an acre in a gritty part of Oakland, California. But now I was definitely out of my comfort zone. I'm a city girl familiar with street thugs, not lions.

Luckily, I had two guides. One was Patrick Angugo, a safari director for the luxury outfitter Micato Safaris—a brilliant man who can speak at length about any number of topics, including local agricultural trends, the natural history of termites and Kenyan politics.

My other guide was chef Hubert Des Marais. His job was to help out when the meat wasn't properly salted. Des Marais, an F&W Best New Chef 1993, moved his family to Africa in 2008 so he could run the restaurants at Fairmont Hotels' three East Africa properties, among them Tatu at Nairobi's Norfolk hotel. His efforts to work with local farmers and producers helped inspire Micato Safaris' new culinary safari package, for travelers looking to do more in Africa than check out elephants and rhinos.

Des Marais and I might seem like a strange pairing—swank chef and urban farmer. But he is into many of the same things I am: supporting small-scale producers and encouraging people to celebrate their local cuisine. In Nairobi, he and I shopped the farmers' market and hazarded the dives, stopping at roadside stands for meals of smoked trout and crispy beef kebabs. Angugo almost had a heart attack when Des Marais and I insisted on eating at a sidewalk stall selling nyama choma (roast meat), in which a window displayed whole bloodied goat carcasses that would be grilled to order.

Kenya Food Safari: Chef Hubert Des Marais at Mara Safari Club.

Mara Safari Club. © Lisa Linder.

I wanted to meet Des Marais's farmers and take some of their methods back to Oakland. I have been known to be resourceful (I once raised two hogs on Dumpster scraps, then turned them into prosciutto), but my hunch was that the Kenyan farmers would still have plenty to teach me. And that is how I came to be dining on roast lamb with Maasai herdsmen in a cluster of acacia trees.

After lunch, the warriors and I wiped our faces and hands with leaves. One guy with especially bright teeth broke off branches from the so-called toothbrush tree to chew on. As I bit my twig, it filled my mouth with a tingly, almost tree-tea-oil taste.

The chief—an older, wrinkled man with very stretched earlobes, who spoke English—and I got to talking about goats. He showed me how the Maasai lead their animals by grabbing their beards (I had never thought to do this), and we discussed other issues that are probably only interesting to goat farmers, such as caprine-disease prevention. But he also told me that the Maasai Mara had been hard hit by a yearlong drought, which killed many animals. Only in the last few months had the rains started again, and now the animals were growing sleek and fat.

I could see his goats in the distance, munching on shrubs. Small and spotted, they resembled my Nigerian Dwarf goats, which like to perch on the stairs in my backyard. I thought of them, with a pang, half a world away. They would love it here. Except for the drought.

In Oakland, I have ready access to high-quality heirloom seeds. My counterparts in Kenya, Des Marais explained, don't have it so easy. To support local growers, he provides them with seeds, buys directly from them at the Nairobi farmers' market and encourages them to raise produce specifically for his restaurants. I was able to sample some of the results at the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, a legendary property just north of Nairobi once frequented by sheiks and movie stars. The vegetables in Des Marais's spicy Swahili curry came from Tambuzi, an organic farm cultivated by the women of the Kikuyu tribe, known for agricultural acumen. The farm also supplied the greens that Des Marais dressed with a tangy passion fruit vinaigrette and served with organic chicken; the chickens were raised by Peter De Mello, a former big-game hunter.

I wanted to see the growing conditions in the savanna where the Maasai warriors live, so we packed into 4x4s, driving past zebras and wildebeests, until we reached the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, where we would be spending the night. It is a luxe camp set on the edge of a wide river filled with hippos that, I was told, once went for a swim in the pool around which French tourists were now relaxing in chaise lounges. That night, in my cozy tent, surrounded by mosquito netting, I was lulled to sleep by the sound of hippos gently calling and the occasional bleat from an errant Maasai goat.

The next morning, Des Marais took me to meet Tim Keshe and Richard Ntwala, two farmers who supply vegetables—greens, tomatoes, cabbage and pumpkins—to Des Marais's restaurant in the Fairmont Mara Safari Club. Keshe is young and vibrant, a long-distance runner who also happens to be a farmer. Ntwala is older and taller. He showed us around fields of collard greens, which Des Marais would later turn into sukuma wiki—braised greens with garlic and tomatoes—to pair with Kenya's national dish, a sticky maize porridge called ugali.

Kenya Food Safari: Novella Carpenter

Novella Carpenter. © Lisa Linder.

"Is that a Bible?" I asked idiotically, gesturing toward the beaten-up book Ntwala carried under his arm. "Huh?" he asked, cocking his head. Then he smiled. "No." He opened the cover to show me: It was a book called Birds of East Africa. There is a ton of wildlife surrounding the farm, some benevolent (like the birds), others destructive (like stampeding elephants that can destroy a whole field in a matter of minutes). We stood near the shack where a guard sleeps at night, protecting the vegetables from animals. I peered inside. It was tiny and dark, with a goat skin spread on the ground for the guard to sleep on.

There were three workers in the fields. One was watering, another was weeding the tomato plants and the third was busting up clods of dirt as he prepared a field for planting. Some of the farmers I met in Africa used oxen, but most relied on hand tools. Hand-tilling and -harvesting is idealized in many places with a strong interest in organic farming. It's how I do things on my little farm. But these farmers were hand-cultivating three acres of land.

Kenya Food Safari: Novella Carpenter

Collard greens. © Lisa Linder.

"Do you want to see the bees?" Ntwala asked, squinting his eyes. I nodded. I keep bees on my farm, too—modern Langstroth hives, which are stackable boxes. "There," Ntwala said and pointed to a bee house swinging from an acacia tree. It was the hollowed-out hull of an agave plant; a piece of tin formed the door, while another closed off the side of the plant. Totally innovative. "We saw the bees going into these naturally," Keshe said. "So we built this."

"Can we buy some honey?" Des Marais asked. I could see his mind working: local honey to serve in his restaurant's signature drink, the dawa, a heady local concoction of vodka and limes.

"Sure, tomorrow," Ntwala said. A deal was struck, and I saw how this relationship could change the beekeepers' lives. For a farmer, a connection to a chef—especially in Kenya—can mean survival.

Des Marais had been delighted to discover his farmers were keeping bees. "This is how it is here," he told me on the bumpy ride back to the lodge. "One thing leads to another."

The next day, before I left for Nairobi to fly home, Des Marais re-created a high-end version of my Maasai bush meal at his restaurant at the Mara Safari Club, near the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Out on the veranda, he grilled a gorgeous leg of goat, which he'd marinated in goat's milk and wild herbs, then served with sugar-and-spice-roasted squash. I chewed the meat slowly; it was from the Maasai herds we'd visited the other day. Des Marais looked for my approval. I nodded: perfect. For dessert, he brought out a rich baked pudding with macadamia nuts. It was sweetened with honey from Ntwala and Keshe, a gallon of which had arrived that morning. Des Marais handed me a jar of the smoky, complex honey to take home.

Back in Oakland, I reunited with my goats, who seemed annoyed that I'd been gone so long. A homeless lady had taken to parking her shopping cart in my vegetable garden. When I saw her, I waved and told her not to worry about it.

The next morning, when I leaned in to milk one of the goats, I thought about the Maasai tribespeople and their deep relationship to their animals, and about Ntwala and Keshe, who are battling to grow food and raise bees using only their cunning. We have different struggles, and yet we all keep going. I steamed some of that morning's milk, and then added a dab of the African honey. While I sipped, I surveyed which tree I could hang an improvised beehive on, à la the Maasai Mara. The honey made the milk taste deep and rich, almost mysterious. I was tasting Africa all over again. Thankfully, minus the cow's blood.

Novella Carpenter is the author of the memoir Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. She raises goats, bees and chickens near downtown Oakland, CA.

Published November 2010
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