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Nyama choma is Swahili for “meat roast,” and can refer either to a dish (pretty obvious) or an event (like a Kenyan barbeque.) Last Sunday, when my supervisor kidnapped me for a sunset drinking-chilled-espresso-and-walking-along-the-beach adventure, she brought along her friend J. J invited me to a celebratory nyama choma – more specifically, a goat roast – this weekend to mark her completion of her first year in a university environmental studies programs. In three words: it was awesome.

It was a small gathering (only 15 people or so, plus the standard seventy thousand billion small Kenyan who may or may not actually belong to any of the people there) but there were entertaining discusses, lots of cold sodas, and a troupe of vervet monkeys to amuse us when the conversation fell into a lull.

Because meat in general is expensive and whole goats particularly so, it’s traditionally done only for special occasions. Having recently survived university myself, I say making it through the first year alive and sane is pretty special. First, the goat is cut up to be cooked according to the different uses for the different parts. (There’s a more specific culinary word for this, but I don’t remember what it is.)

The less roastable bits – joints, organs, neural tissues, stuff like that – are put into a pot and boiled in salt water, then passed around in bowls as a sort of appetizer. Lemon is squeezed on top of the fattiest bits to provide some contrast.

Mmmm … delicious. At least, delicious until you let yourself start thinking “Wait, is this just gristle or am I chewing on goat stomach?” So don’t do that and you’ll be fine.

Meanwhile, the choice cuts – ribs, back, etc – are pierced by sharp sticks and left dangling over a low wood fire to roast pole pole (slowly.)

When these are done, they’re served with ugali, which is a tasteless (yet surprisingly appealing) mixture of maize flour and water blended into a solid block, and kachumbari, or an assortment of fresh raw vegetables. Traditionally, kachumbari is made from salted tomatoes and red onions, although hot peppers, cabbage, or grated carrots are also common.

This is ugali.

Notice how I halfway demolished my plate before pausing to take a picture. When it comes to goat, I’m basically that T-Rex from Jurassic Park.

Since it’s all eaten without utensils, I asked to wash my hands before we ate. Another guest looked at me with amusement and asked, “Is that how you do it in America? Do you need soap, too?” I took this opportunity to don my Hat O’ Public Health Education and explain how washing your hands with soap under running water before eating is vital to maintaining good health and can prevent potentially fatal diseases like cholera. Everyone nodded politely and followed my lead, but I’m not sure how effective an intervention it is in the long run … behavior change is hard, and a lot of Peace Corps is just throwing spaghetti at the wall: do your best and hope some of it sticks.

Afterwards came the traditional Kenyan post-meal speeches. In the “Things I Should Have Seen Coming” file, we can add “Megan was asked to give one very close to the beginning.” (Gulp.) They suggested I might just share my favorite bible verse about togetherness. (Double gulp.) Instead, I thanked them for allowing me into the community and rambled on for a while about how I felt blessed every day to have the opportunity to be here. Everyone nodded along and said “amen” a lot -diplomatic crisis averted! I really need to work on my two-minute go-to emergency-speaking-engagement speech. Labda badaaye.

It was also what we call a “good goal two day” – the second goal of the Peace Corps being to help educate foreign cultures understand America (the third goal, of course, is to help America understand the rest of the world, so it’s reciprocal.) We talked about farming practices in America, how goats are used more for cheese and overpriced milk soaps than for roasting, and how most of the corn doesn’t go towards American equivalents of ugali or githeri, but to fatten animals and produce high-fructose syrups. These revelations never fail to surprise (and often amuse) Kenyans. Just wait until I start telling them about purse dogs.

I made it home just before dark after a very long, very tiring, and very fulfilling day. New connections, new friends, and a belly full of nyama choma – what more can you ask out of a lazy Saturday in October?

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?

I was reading a book during lunch (as I often do) so I didn’t notice the fly land in my teacup. Nor did I see its last desperate struggle to free itself before succumbing to a sweet, milky demise. I did manage to notice it as I was lifting the cup to my lips, but before I had drunk of it, which I’ll count as a blessing. I skimmed the insect off the top with a spoon, closely inspected the surface for a missed wing or something equally unpleasant, and hesitantly took a sip. It tasted fine. I drained the cup.

I am adjacent to bustling little town, so I have a wide variety of dining options when I choose not to cook (cooking in Kenya is another entry entirely.) On one end of the spectrum, you can buy fried potatoes (not French fries, but like … soft potato hunks dipped in egg and fried) or small, spit-roasted fish from women on the side of the road for a few shillings. It’s not going to win any hygiene commendations, but I’ve never had a bad experience (knock on wood) and both items are shockingly delicious. Good option if you’re of a strong constitution and/or short on cash.

Next up in price, you have little open-air “Swahili cafes,” which all serve about the same things for about the same prices. These include such Kenyan standards as sekuma wiki (kale), maharagwe (beans), chapati (fried flatbread), mchicha (bitter local greens), samosas (little fried dough pouches of meat and onions), and ugali (maize flour formed into a solid mass). Often, the selection is complemented by local specialties, such as samaki (grilled whole fish) or pillau (rice prepared with spices and a sprinkling of meat – my favorite). Most of these can be altered by the addition of fresh coconut while cooking, which gives a milky appearance to the juices and a taste that’s vaguely reminiscent of sunblock. I’m kind of indifferent to the coconut thing, honestly, but it’s very popular. Some of these establishments have menus, but those are best employed in waving the flies off your table: they don’t cook every item every day, so your first statement when walking in, even before “Where can I sit,” is “What do you have?” Or, in the Kiswahili, ”Una vyakula gani leo mchana?” (You have foods which today afternoon?)

PCV/visitor sidenote: try the sekuma na wali at the Station View. Even better than the stuff in Loitokitok.

General sidenote: It’s called Station View because it’s across the street from the police station. Bonus points for skipping the creative bullshit, but is it really a view if there’s nothing exciting to look at?

Most of these cafes have a selection of tempting warm Fanta flavors to offer you, and those that don’t keep them on hand are generally happy to send a random small child off the street scurrying to a nearby duka (shack/store) to fetch some. If you feel like being a bit of a devil and enjoying a cold Tusker beer with your meal … you’re S.O.L. B.Y.O. or go to a bar.

This is usually where my dining-out habits hit their limit, since I mostly cook for myself and can’t afford to eat out at fancy places often. From here, however, there are indeed more options. A trip to the touristy Italian part of town will yield all sorts of little bistros serving espresso, crepes, and Dantean delicacies for a price that may be reasonable by European standards but makes me shriek and clutch my wallet (150 shillings for a cup of coffee? Really?) There’s also a pizza place somewhere in that area, but I haven’t found it yet. It’s good to know that if I’m ever on the verge of a nervous breakdown without something involving cheese, I can make that work.

In terms of upper-class dining, the sky is the limit. Or … so I’m told. I’m only a few kilometers from some major tourist resorts that are rumored to have a mind-boggling variety of fine ethnic dining options. Italian (duh), French, Indian, Greek, Ethiopian. I haven’t found a Chinese place, sadly, so my craving for lo mein may remain unsatiated for the next 23 months. This is also where most of the higher quality fish is sold, to feed the holidaying masses in their pricey hotels. It’s great for local fisherman, but does little to put meat – a pricey addition to meals most anywhere in Kenya – in the hands of people who could benefit from the heart-healthy protein choice.

If the number of choices is overwhelming to you and you find yourself going “Dammit, I just want a banana,” then you can be accommodated. Fruit is available year-round in this tropical little slice of paradise, but don’t expect to pay village prices. A medium-sized banana starts at 5 shillings a pop, and a medium-sized pineapple will set you back 40 shillings or more. If you’re craving mandafu, or unripe coconut, you’re in luck: a dude on a bicycle rides around selling them 7 days a week, and would happily machete the top off of one for you to enjoy on the spot. Mmmm … salty, fruity, vitamin C-infused fat-water.

(Stay tuned later this week for how I feed myself when I make the fiscally reasonable choice to eat in.)

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Yours truly