The Best African Barbecue

A writer offers this look at a Nairobi tradition: grilled goat and cold beer in the highlands.

The Best African Barbecue

The Best African barbecue: The Masai people of Kenya raise goat that’s prized for its rich, herbal flavor; the animals eat juicy leaves from thorny bushes—never grass.

© Lisa Linder

Kenyans are the kings of goat meat. We are connoisseurs, able to tell from the taste how much salt was in the soil where the animals grazed. On Sundays, even busy Nairobi professionals and their families make a pilgrimage to the highlands to spend the afternoon eating charcoal-barbecued goat meat off wooden cutting boards. That’s how I recently found myself in the back of a pickup truck with friends, tearing up the bumpy back roads on our two-hour drive from Nairobi to the town of Siakago, which is famous for its fresh goat meat.

On market day, Siakago is full of bicycles and hundreds of traders; there are a few dusty cars belonging to civil servants from nearby Embu town and sales reps from all over. But Sundays are for eating. My friends and I located a shop called Vision Butchery, where the carcasses of young goats hung upside down, their ribs streaked with what would soon be crispy fat. We knew the meat would be superlative. Siakago is sandy, with lots of minerals in the soil and many species of thorny bushes—but goats can get their tongues between the thorns and find the juiciest leaves to nibble. They do not eat grass. That is what makes the meat so good.

We ordered two kilos of goat—ribs and back leg—from the butcher and asked him to grill them for us outside on one of the giant barbecues loaded down with slowly dripping meat. We would eat the goat meat with an array of accompaniments: a sautéed kale dish we call sukuma wiki; a red onion, tomato, chile and cilantro salsa we call kachumbali; and hearty portions of ugali, a rustic white-maize dish that tastes, to the non-African, very much like polenta.

After 40 minutes, the ribs arrived in a pile on a giant cutting board. We were already well into our cold Tusker beers.

The butcher brought a jug of hot water so we could wash our hands at the table. He started to cut the ribs, as is traditional, giving us the first piece to taste. It was salty and tender and had a faint herbal flavor, from the leaves the goat had eaten. We stripped the meat from the bones, sipped our beers and let the afternoon slowly wind down. My friend Kariuki asked me why white people in Africa like to eat grilled meat with a barbecue sauce that tastes of sugar and vinegar. We shuddered in horror and disbelief.

—Binyavanga Wainaina, author of the 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place

 
 

 

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PUBLISHED May 2012

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