(Posted 17th April 2023)
Courteys of and with permission from Jayne Rose Gacheri
First published by The Standard, Nairobi, Kenya
Sometimes a travel experience is not complete without experiencing the culture of a place. A trip to the coastal strip of East Africa would be incomplete if you did not “taste” the rich culture – food, religion, and way of life.
Swahili represents many things – it is a people, a language, and a culture. Experiencing the culinary art of Swahili is a history lesson. Swahili dishes depict a mix of many cultures of the region – from Bantu, Islamic, Indian and European.
The cooking styles are different and sometimes left to the creative mind of the chef.
Pilau is easily the best known. It is also called pilaf, pallao, pulao, palaavu, palaw, fulaaw, fulab or fulave depending on various Swahili cultures.
Pilau is a mixture of ingredients cooked together in the same pot. This includes beef, goat, chicken, or fish (only one of these), whole spices (like cumin seeds, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves), and rice. This is the traditional method of preparing this dish.
The origin of this popular dish is not entirely clear, but it has been linked to the Arabs and Persians.
In many Swahili homesteads, this deliciously spicy meal is popular and is a menu must during special occasions and festivities such as Eid-ul-Fitr (the end of the Ramadan fasting period) and weddings. Pilau is also a savoury dish in many coastal restaurants.
Then there is biryani, another spiced rice dish that is equally loved.
A biryani dish is made with vegetables and meat (goat, chicken, or beef), boiled eggs, and potatoes. One variation uses a combination of potatoes, boiled eggs, and chicken, but the most popular recipe uses a combination of chicken and boiled eggs.
The recipe originated from India, where there are many different types of biryani, it employs as many steps as it does ingredients.
The meat is marinated either overnight or a few hours prior with yogurt, chopped tomatoes, fried onions, chili powder, turmeric powder, crushed ginger, garlic paste, and salt.
The vegetables are fried separately but are served with the biryani along with the famous recipe of kachumbari sauce. An optional ingredient used with the dish includes saffron or curd milk (or for that special Swahili twist, coconut milk). The meal can also be served with plain yogurt and lemon pickle.
Another delicacy is coconut rice. A dish made of coconut and rice, at first glance, appears to be that of a normal rice dish, but a bite brings out the strong flavour of coconut. A closer look reveals the coconut flakes that differentiate it from a normal rice dish.
Coconut rice is said to have originated in India. The white rice is cooked in coconut milk, and coconut flakes are added to enhance the taste.
It is served with steamed vegetables or meat stew (chicken, beef, goat, or fish). The coconut oil gives it a creamy taste and a silky texture. Coconut rice is readily available in restaurants along the Kenyan coast.