If you come from a Kikuyu house you know our food has very little character. We eat to get full not to enjoy the dish. That’s why the first thing anyone asks you when you enter Nyumba ya Mumbi is, “Niurete?” (umekula) or “niukuria?” (utakula) because the food is always there in plenty waiting to sit at the bottom of your stomach with a dull thud. This is no fault of our own, this is all on evolution because Kikuyus cannot spend all their days in the kitchen when cows need to be milked, the shamba needs to be tilled and money needs to be made.
We don’t even have time to add salt to food. Enter a Kuyos house and you will be served a bloody hot, cabbage full, watery dish with the furthest hint of taste. Kuyos are the only people who won’t ask you how the food was after you’re done eating because they know it was horrible. Instead, they will ask you things like, “Niwahona?” (umeshiba) Because what else is the purpose of food besides getting you full?
We have very little imagination when it comes to the kitchen. All our dishes seem to revolve around: githeri, mokimo, minji and njahi. All these foods are usually chaperoned with lots of potatoes, lots of cabbages and stew in the form of a mtungi of water. Stew that would put a small dam to shame. If you’re lucky there’s a hint of coriander somewhere on the north pole of the plate and if the chef of the day is feeling a bit randy they will add royco cubes to the dish and nobody will catch a break in that house that day. You think the Luo are braggadocios? You haven’t seen a Kuyo cook who has added royco cubes in their dish. They cannot be held. It’s as if they start minting royco into the sufuria and realize they are turning into Gordon Ramsay. But it’s ok, we accept ourselves the way we are because what we lack in the kitchen we make up in other areas.
Forget our dishes today. Food that is placed on the table and it sits uncomfortably because it knows it doesn’t have flavor. Food that is afraid to speak up or look you in the eye because the only thing going for it is that it’s extremely hot, not sexy hot but searing. That means you don’t have to taste what you’re eating because you’re too busy blowing on it to cool it down. The other thing going for it is that its food and that is not much by any standard. So it covers up by not looking you in the eye. It stammers with its sweaty hands in that depressing dam of sogginess and as you eat it, it staggers on and on like engaging in a conversation with a drunk.
So you’re forced to sample other cultures because they take their time to cook. I don’t know why, perhaps because the food goes to their stomach and not into their enemy’s mouth. They cook with passion and when you taste the food you can tell that someone cared. Someone did not just add oil, onions, tomatoes, a few warus and boil to cook. No, they do it with love and craft and when the food hits the table it looks like something from a brochure. It sits unruffled with its chin up and it draws you in. It smiles and flirts with you because it’s confident, well prepared, well dressed, well presented. Perhaps even with a bit of a cockney accent because it’s well travelled. You gag to have a bite and when you do, you don’t say things like, “Where is the salt?” Or, “Why is there only one piece of meat floating in my stew?” You make sounds, unrepressed groans. Mmh’s and ah’s.
But I digress with the prelude. This post is not about our ho-hum foods. Food that makes your mouth want to light itself on fire with every bite. This piece is about fish. I have always had a bit of a crush for the Luo. A big crush actually, from a young age. The Luo in my class were always razor sharp with access to information we did not have. Folk attributed that to eating fish. I have always been a bit jealous of them. Their Kogallo songs, their Sirkal chants. How loud and unhinged they sometimes get. Luo’s are our very own Nigerians. How they talk uppishly, with flair even though very little might be going on in their life. I have always wanted to get in there. Be a Luo for a day, an afternoon, an hour even. And there’s no better way to be in chorus with a culture than to sample their staple food.
I found myself at Kosewes last week eating a whole fish for the first time. Kosewe is on the hip of Nation Center and you can see its knees as you approach from Tribeca. When you enter Balfour House on the first flour you will be hit by slow soothing Luo music. It might be something by Tony Nyadundo, Suzzana Owiyo or even Ayub Ogada. The crowd there is mature. People who come to blow off steam after a long day in middle management. There’s Luo chatter and laughter sizzling in-between gulps of beer and bites of meat. If you’re in Nairobi and you want a feel of the Luo culture, Ronalo is where you want to be.
You order at the counter and the waiter brings your dish. In my case, Tilapia in coconut oil and brown ugali. It comes full-figured as if it’s been fed Cornflakes all its life. Zaftig and thin as you approach the tail. The only thing missing in its ensemble a little black dress to complete its seductive look. The thing you need to know about fish is that you always start from its side. (YouTube’s advice). There are no bones there. After you’re done with the side, pick the fish by its tail, and the spine along with the head should come off easily leaving the lower meat on the other side. What you want to be careful with is the outer sides of the fish because that’s where the thin bones are. Sharp and pesky.
My table is next to this uproarious gang of Luo men with beer bottles on the table and a yellow girl with plump breast in a polka-dot dress smack in the middle. Creating the scene of a blooming flower in the middle of a desert. There is a crescendo of laughter and I imagine I am the subject of it. An Okuyu eating fish? Dawe, otamo wanga!
I fumble at first. She is a big fish and I don’t want to disappoint her (that one, one minute man. Just big talk). I pinch a chunk of ugali, unlike white ugali, brown ugali is a bit stickier, better built to file off meat from fish. She has flavor, tang that explodes in your mouth bite after bite. I pick up the tail fin and the spine peels off with the head leaving the lower part of the meat and I feel like calling the guys over at the Oscars for my award. I even think I saw a hint of a dropped jaw from my Jang’o brother at the next table. Koth nyalo, chue kauwono.
I’m a Luo now who has earned his stripes to chant Kogallo. Pitch tent next to Kit Mikai and talk about Luanda Magere. When they sit down to tell my story about my first encounter with fish let them call me Oloo, Oduor or Opiyo. Let them say I sat with giants and ate fish for the first time like I had done it my entire life. Let them say not a single bone choked me. Let them say Okuyus and Jango’s have more in common than people let on. Let them say we are more siblings than we are enemies.
Also, big thank you to Barbara Otieno for jumping in and helping me out with the Luotranslations. Erokamano, Nyasayeogwedhi.
Hey there, we don’t (yet) have the budget to buy space on prime time TV or full page ads in the Daily Nation, so your shares are what help us get discovered. Feel free to whisper us to a friend and leave a comment.