Nyama Choma: a Kenyan delicacy

For Kevin K. (you know who you are)

‘Do you want to go out for lunch today?’ Isaac asked first thing in the morning.

‘Sure’ I replied. ‘Where to?’

The ICT team had organised a Nyama Choma lunch for a bunch of colleagues and I was honoured to be invited. As the only foreigner I was somewhat of a guest of honour. Everybody was excited to show me this typical Kenyan experience and eager to see my reaction.

Come lunch time, a bunch of us got in Isaac’s car and headed to the restaurant. On the way there we stopped at what looked like a mechanics garage/carwash by the road. There was no pavement, just red dirt, it was strewn with litter and it looked rather unwelcoming. ‘We must be stopping for some car parts on the way to the restaurant’ I thought. A second later I got invited to step out of the car and make my way to the restaurant. ‘What restaurant?’ I thought. There was nothing that looked remotely like an eating establishment. I felt mildly uncomfortable and wondered what was coming.

There was a rough concrete floor, a few rough wooden tables of various sizes strewn around the place, some soft bright coloured couches as well as stumpy wooden seats around some of the smaller tables. There was a loud TV playing sports on one of the walls and all tables were covered in cheap plastic table “cloths”.

We put two of the bigger tables together and moved around some of the couches so we could all fit. A minute later a lady came over with a bright plastic tub, a jug of warm water, liquid soap and paper towels. She went around the table so that everyone can wash their hands. I was still pretty much clueless as to what was going on.

The lady wasn’t done going around the table when a man came over and placed a big chunk of meat on a thick chopping board. He cut it all into smaller pieces and divided it between two platters. One came my end and the other stayed close to him for the rest of the group. There was no cutlery and didn’t seem like any was coming so I grabbed a piece with my hands. I started chewing on it and realised that it was goat meat. I’d picked up a rib and was trying my best to get all the meat I could get but it was rather chewy and there didn’t seem to be that much meat anyway.

Washing our hands while the Nyama Choma is being cut up

Washing our hands while the Nyama Choma is being cut up

                Isaac and Kevin were looking at me, giggling. ‘You have to eat faster! Before all the meat is gone.’ they said. ‘I am eating as fast as I can, but it is very chewy! I don’t want to choke!’ I protested.

Next the waitress placed a few plates of ugali and if you are wondering what that is – it is a bland, tasteless, dry blob of maize floor mixed with a bit of water. It cannot be eaten on its own and it is usually served with meat and sauce (lots of it!). What came next was the Nyama Fry, which is essentially the same goat’s meat but fried with spices and decorated with fresh tomatoes and onions. What a huge difference some spices and a bit of fresh onion make!

I enjoyed the Nyama Fry – the pieces were smaller, and there was more meat on them, and it was flavorsome and a bit spicy. It went well with the ugali. But still I couldn’t eat as fast or as fearsome as the others. Eventually the pace slowed down and people were starting to lean back on the couch and relax after a hearty lunch. The table was a mess of bones, half chewed pieces of meat, bits of ugali, empty platters and used napkins.

Soon after the bill was settled, I was showcased to some ex-colleagues of Isaac’s who had also come to have lunch, we got back in the cars and before we knew it we were back at ILRI.

‘Did you like it?’ people inquired eagerly. ‘Ahum…’ I mumbled. Everybody could tell that I was somewhat scandalized by the whole experience and they laughed heartily. It was very different from anything I was used to, not something I would be too eager to repeat and at the same time everybody around me was so proud of this local delicacy, of their culture and so eager to share the experience with me. It was a tricky situation and had to be managed tactfully. For those of you who know me well, you know that tact is not one of my strongest qualities, as a matter of fact it is probably completely missing. Luckily, every time I blurted something that may have offended people, my companions just laughed heartily completely aware and comfortable with the peculiarities of Kenyan culture.

The following evening I went out for dinner with Isaac and Kevin and the whole Nyama Choma experience came up again. We were rolling under the table with laughter, tears streaming down Kevin’s eyes when he was describing various other Nyama Choma places made unique by the various degrees of smoke that filled them or the particular way you had to pronounce their names and how if you got it right you would be nothing short of a local!

The whole experience allowed for no less than three wonderful bonding fun moments with colleagues and friends. Where is number three you may wonder?

A few days later after a long drive to Lake Nakuru, I, Katerina Ruseva asked for a Nyama Choma dinner. My friend was flabbergasted. He couldn’t stop laughing and there was no end to the Nyama Choma praises coming from his mouth. ‘Ha! I told you it is great!’ he kept going. Unfortunately the meat wasn’t that great at the place we stopped and even I as a Nyama Choma newbee could tell. It is true what they see…’If you find a good Nyama Choma place, stick with it. If it moves, you move with it.’

Nyama Choma prep (Nakuru, Kenya)

Nyama Choma prep (Nakuru, Kenya)

This is what a somewhat posh Nyama Choma place looks like (Nakuru, Kenya)

This is what a somewhat posh Nyama Choma place looks like (Nakuru, Kenya)

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