I’m a halfway decent cook and a rather reasonable baker, at least compared to my comrades in college who – despite unflinching brilliance in their coursework – had to read the back of the mac n’ cheese box to successfully feed themselves. Compared to my insufferably genius brother the chef, who graduated top of his culinary class and got a job in a Michelin-Star rated restaurant right off the bat, I have all the epicurean talent of a cracked cinderblock. But still, I can feed myself. More or less.

As I’ve said before, I’m spitting distance from an international hub, so I theoretically have access to all manner of magnificent foreign ingredients in addition to the highly palatable local ones. I literally stood gaping when I walked into the grocer my first day and saw vanilla extract. However, anything imported comes at a premium – one I can’t usually accommodate with my modest living allowance. With the exception of a precious bottle of olive oil (which set me back 600 shillings for 500ml), I make do with eating on the cheap.

The basic ingredients that rotate through my kitchen consist of these: sukuma, potatoes, white rice, ugali, lentils, beans, garlic, pasta, eggs, salt, pepper, curry powder, Blue Band (margarine), SUPA LOAF! bread (think Wonderbread), tea, and more sukuma. Whimsical guest stars that occasionally join the party include bananas, cabbage, pineapple, ramen, peanut butter, skim milk, whole milk, Weetabix, onions, pillau spice mix, oranges, creepy drinkable yogurt, carrots, and matoke (starchy cooking banana – think plantains). Kept on the top shelf where I’ll only bust them out on special occasions (guests and/or nervous breakdown) are Nutella, EasyMac, PowerBars, one single Chocobisq, and a half-dozen packets of Starbucks: Via.

I have never grated my own coconut nor fried a whole fish. Clearly, I’m not truly yet a “Coastie.”

If I were a kitchen mastermind (or just a better volunteer) I’d spend more time trying to think of new and exciting ways to combine these ingredients. However, anything that takes more than one pot is generally too great a hassle unless it’s Sunday and I have time to wash a million dishes. So usually it’s a boiled egg or piece of fruit for breakfast, then some sort of vegetable/legume or starch for dinner – but not always one of each. I don’t often make lunch because the kind folks at the dispensary stand over me tsking in displeasure until I’ve taken at least two cups of sugary milk-tea, three slices of bread, and most of a plate of fried potato slices during our 10 AM chai break. (The consensus – of which I’ve made no concerted effort to dissuade them – is that I’m not great wife material. The remedy for this, at least partially, is to keep me nice and plump so I’ll be more appealing. Erm, ok. If you say so.)

Meat is available, but problematic. One, it tends to be expensive: 200+ ksh per quarter-kilo direct from the butcher, 400+ ksh from the grocer. Two, it should be refrigerated if you’re not cooking it within a day (or two, or three, if you’re my host mother) of buying it. Three, I have no good knives. You don’t realize how much you take utensils for granted until you’re standing in your kitchen trying to decide if the carrots would best by peeled by use of your fixed-blade military-replica tactical knife, your folding pocket/hunting knife, your Leatherman multi-tool, or your machete.

Still, goat + sukuma + ugali = GOOD. EATS.

Everything must be accomplished in cheap, thin, aluminum pots called souffariyas and with the aid of an enormous wooden spoon called a mwiko. The pots are so cheap (HOW! CHEAP! ARE THEY!) that I once bent the rim of one with my hands by accident. I routinely warp the lids into wonky shapes through the hard work of washing them with a sponge. This probably explains partially why I can’t get good/even heating in anything, and also prevents me from cooking things like fried eggs. Tres lame.

Cooking is done over a teensy kerosene stove, although I hope to upgrade to a proper gas burner someday. Kerosene is a serious pain. It smells, it produces smoke/soot, it requires that I use tweezers to thread eight stubborn wicks beneath the burner, it doesn’t produce enough heat to cook anything with reasonable speed, it’s costly, it’s inefficient, and I always have puddles of cooking fuel on my kitchen floor because I am an IRREDEEMABLE CLUTZ. Said fuel also it takes up a jerry can I might otherwise be using for water. Have I whined enough yet? Have I made my point? Good.

The stove and I have a history. Maybe I’ll tell you about the time I tried to fry potatoes by … well. We’ll save that one for another day, shall we?