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Living in New York I don’t take for granted the fact that superb Indian food is only a couple of blocks away at any given point. Anywhere in the greater New York area (including parts of New Jersey, like Iselin, for example) Indian food of the highest quality is available. I am an incredibly huge Indian fan. I love the thick curry stews from the North, the tandoori baked naan with a little butter, onion fritters, fried vegetable samosas, nutty biryani with all the trimmings and a mango lassi to boot; I love the spicy combinations from the south, the hot sambar that goes with just about anything, the pickled fruits and vegetables that are tremendous on their own and perfect as a palate cleanser, the crispy edges and soft potato center of spicy dhosa, the perfectly portioned thali for the times when I can’t decide and just one option, and the creamy rice pudding to end the meal. To me, Indian food is the ultimate comfort food. It satisfied the mouth, the heart, the soul. It’s warming, homemade, and you feel so full that you get slightly worried for your digestive system after you eat.

However ambiguously, “They” say that the best Indian food outside of India can be found in London. Certainly the Indian scene of London is to be respected and taken advantage of after a flight across the pond. However, I certainly think that New York and Jersey offer quite a down-home traditional Indian fare that can compete with even those expensive, up-scale British joints.

If New York can compete, then Nairobi can definitely compete. A large Indian population from both the north and south have immigrated to Kenya over the years and there is a thriving Indian community within Nairobi. This makes for interesting cultural diversity (and some, although relatively few, complications with locals) and it makes for spectacular culinary offerings. There are quite a few good options when it comes to Indian in Nairobi: from the expensive side (like Handi) to inexpensive food-court options (see next post), you can’t go wrong.

Handi is located in a smaller mall adjacent to the Westlands area and just off of the highway leading out of Nairobi to the West. “The Mall” contains several good restaurants, Handi being the shining star. It has been described as being “the best Indian food in Africa” (popularly told, though I don’t know who said it). From my experience, I wouldn’t argue. The atmosphere is quite upscale and whether you enter from the mall or from the parking garage, you are surrounded by a beautiful, serene setting that makes for a welcome respite from the busy streets of Nairobi, not to mention the weak-in-the-kness curry aromas that hint at the meal to come.

Definitely try some starters before your main dish. I like to keep it simple at Handi and order the poppadoms. Served with a spicy salsa fresca over the top, I find that poppadoms don’t ruin the appetite but definitely prepare the palate for the main course. For the main course several dishes come highly recommended.  Perhaps my favorite Indian dish is Malai Kofta: delicate vegetable dumplings that have been lightly fried and are served in a rich, thick gravy.  The dumplings often have cashews in them that serve as a light crunch to the dish and whether you order it with naan or simple basmati rice, sopping up the gravy is the best part.  Handi offers a wonderful rendition of this dish and in a substantial portion.  All dishes are served in traditional Indian vessels including copper and clay pots and each comes over its own individual flame warmer.   Handi also offers several paneer classics that are difficult to beat.  The paneer korma (mixed vegetables, gravy and paneer) and the saag paneer (creamy spinach with paneer cubes) absolutely to die for.  The saag paneer smells richly of cloves and other subtle spices that add to the creaminess of the dish.  

Accompany your meal with a drink from Handi’s full bar.  The local beer (the “pride of Kenya”) is Tusker and guarantee you won’t leave Kenya without trying it.  It’s not a bad beer, but it isn’t impressive either.  It’s light and has enough flavor to satisfy going down…try it and you’ll decide!  If you want to drink Kenyan but Tusker isn’t for you, try the Tusker malt.  Though it’s a bit more expensive and comes in a smaller bottle, the taste more than makes up for it and it is a good alternative to the regular, 500 ml bottle of Tusker.  Other beers include White Cap (another light lager) and Pilsner.  As far as liquor goes, Kenya has one liqueur that is definitely worth trying and makes a great gift/souvenir when going home.  The drink is called Amarula and comes from a fruit that elephants traditionally eat.  It’s a creamy liqueur and difficult to describe: think Bailey’s but mildly fruity.  It’s nice by itself or in coffee.
Make a stop by Handi during your next trip to Nairobi, you won’t be disappointed and the ambiance will be a respite from the bustle of your trip.
The Mall
Second Floor
Nairobi, Kenya 

Langi Langi

Nairobi doesn’t get the respect it deserves.  Certainly, there is some getting used to the East African lifestyle, but the same goes for anywhere on earth.  The first time I was in Nairobi I was certainly overwhelmed but as I got to know the ins and outs, the local streets and cabbies, the local transportation routes, the cheap internet cafes and places to eat, the sprawling city suddenly became accessible.  

There are certain things to know about getting around in East Africa.  The most certain way to get around (if you don’t know the streets) is by taxi.  Take heed though, because you’ll be sized up and based on your savvy, you’ll be charged an arm and a leg to get where you need to go.  The most economical, if not slightly round-a-bout way is by matatu.  Matatus are privately operated (though now government-regulated) mini “buses” that pile 12-15 passengers into a small minivan.  The matatus run on regular circuits so if you know where they are going and where to catch the return ride, they are totally worth it (about 10 shillings for a matatu ride versus 200-400 shillings for a cab).  
The first striking thing about Nairobi is the number of pedestrians.  People on their way to and from work in full professional suits pass farmers grazing their cattle on the side of the freeway (something likely to be noticed by first time visitors on their ride from Jomo Kenyatta Airport into downtown), children in various school uniforms skip along well-trodden foot paths that stand in place of sidewalks over much of the city.  The next striking thing is the shear intensity of the traffic; think New York numbers without stoplights.  Instead of electronically regulated traffic signals, Nairobi is a maze of roundabouts in which four lane highways merge into a frothing traffic jam at more intersections than one would think possible.  
This isn’t to dissuade one from traveling in Nairobi.  On the contrary, I have come to appreciate (enjoy is a strong word) the craziness of the city, the throb of city life, the sound of Swahili mixed with beautifully accented English.  Most of all, though, I have come to love the food.
Nairobi is a bustling metropolis that has attracted a mix of nationalities, most common of which is Indian.  Not surprisingly, the Indian food is amazing (see upcoming blogs for the restaurants “Handi” and “Vegetarian Indian”).  A traveler, though, can find any cuisine they are looking for.  There are excellent Italian, Chinese, Cuban and Ethiopian restaurants throughout the city and close to many hotels in the tourist-friendly Westlands district.  In the near future I will review many of these local eateries and their surprising ambiance and selection.  
Kenya is not given enough credit for its own cuisine, either.  What is Kenyan cuisine?  It’s a question that even the most knowledgeable western citytaster may have difficulty with…I certainly haven’t seen a Kenyan restaurant in the U.S. or Europe.  A simple answer to the question is meat stews.  Kenyans specialize in tenderly cooking any number of meats in a thick vegetable stew and serving it along some sort of starch.  Though the food can sometimes be bland, when cooked well, the food is tasty and quite filling.  The most common starch is called “ugali” and is basically a white corn meal that is boiled with water and made into a thick cake in a large circular pot.  The cake is then removed from the pot as a whole and sliced.  Stew is poured over the ugali and you dig in.  Kenyans often grow up with the opinion that no meal is complete without ugali; without ugali, how can you be full (an opinion I’ve often heard)?  Beef stew tends to be the most reliable, but in Nairobi goat stew may also be quite tasty (in rural areas of Kenya the goat tends to be tough and gamy).  Instead of a meat stew, Kenyan food can also take the form of Nyama Choma: BBQ beef (more commonly goat) and sometimes chicken that is served communally or shaved from the shank onto your plate.  Starch is still a part of this tradition and often a vegetable stew can be found on the side.  
If you’re in Nairobi and would like to try some traditional Kenyan fare, there are countless restaurants to mention.  One standout that comes with other benefits is the Langi Langi Cafe.  When you go to Nairobi, you have to go to the National Museums of Kenya on Museum Hill (any matatu driver or cabbie could direct you/take you there).  Kenya is renowned for its role in the reconstruction of human origins.  The UNESCO World Heritage site of Koobi Fora (along the East side of Lake Turkana near the Ethiopian border) alone has produced thousands of fossil specimens and tens of thousands of ancient stone tools that allow archaeologists to gain behavioral evolutionary perspectives on the human past.  The museum has just been reconstructed and is thus a must-see.  After spending your morning viewing the exhibits, go to the Langi Langi Cafe located at the back of the museum property for lunch.  
An open-air eatery, the Langi Langi offers an extensive and inexpensive buffet lunch that you can eat along an open patio area (just watch out for the monkeys that might try to steal your lunch).  With options including various meat stews and nyama choma, a vegetable of the day and your choice of starch (rice, ugali or chapati), Langi Langi consistently pleases the palate.  I recommend ordering separately their somosas (get at least 3).  These glorious fried triangular pastries can be found all over Kenya, but Langi Langi makes mouthwateringly hot somosas filled with ground beef, onion and peppers.  Also make sure to ask for chapati with your meal.  Similar to the South Indian round bread, Kenyan chapati is used to scoop up the stews but unlike their Indian counterparts, Kenyan chapati is much more greasy (in a good way) and I can never seem to pass it up wherever I go.  
If your trip allows you time at the Kenya National Museum but that visit doesn’t overlap with Langi Langi’s lunch hours, the staff will happily make you small snacks so that you can order samosas, chapati and a coke and enjoy the lush vegetation and friendly atmosphere even without the exceptional buffet.  Another worthwhile try, in general, while in Kenya is the soda known as Stoney Tangawizi.  Affectionately called simply “Stoney,” this soda is ginger ale as it should be: peppery and spicy going down.  It’s one of my favorite carbonated beverages, and, though produced by the Coca-Cola company, it is not imported or available anywhere in the United States or Europe.  Give it a try and see if you can handle it!
Nairobi (and East Africa in general) offers many culinary delights which I will detail in future blogs.  I highly recommend vacationing in this underutilized region and will also offer some more specific options in terms of vacations in these upcoming blogs.
Langi Langi Cafe
Museum Hill, Nairobi, Kenya 

Doughnut Plant

I grew up in a small town in California where teenagers had nothing to do at night.  I wasn’t a hoodlum by any stretch of the imagination and so, my friends and I would, quite often, stay up until ungodly hours of the morning in order to go to the local doughnut shop and get those glorious rounds of fried dough while they were still hot.  This meant going “downtown” at 3 am and sitting at the bolted-to-the floor table waiting for the single dooughnut shop employee to finish the frying.  She got to know us quite well.  Not surprisingly, she was a large woman with a personality to match and, as the bells attached to the door would give their late-night ring, she would come knowingly out from the back with a grin on her face and welcoming words coming from her mouth.  She would make the raised crumb doughnuts first for the occasion when we would come in (we’d often buy a dozen between the three or four of us and take them home with a half gallon of milk).  I can remember the smell of those calorie bombs. I can remember how the glaze, just barely set, would crack when I bit into it.  I can remember how the crumb exterior would stick to my lips as I excitedly bit into the warm dough with my eyes closed.
I have rather fond memories of doughnuts….
I heard about The Doughnut Plant a while ago but only recently was able to try it for myself. Getting rave reviews from the likes of the NY Times and most recently The Boston Globe (June 18, 2008), the local bakery has a cult following and for all the right reasons.  In preparing myself for a flavor explosion, I fasted for the morning before heading over to the far east location through Chinatown on Grand.  I had read about the doughnuts baked on the store’s premises each morning, about the fruit and cream fillings made from local ingredients and from scratch each day, about the luscious combinations of flavors such as their “Blackout” doughnut (a cake doughnut filled with a chocolate pudding, layered with chocolate icing and dipped in brownie pieces), about the churros and cinnamon buns and muffins…I was thoroughly excited.
I took a walk to the location from Broadway and took in the morning grocery scene of Chinatown (a favorite of mine).  The fresh fish markets, the exotic produce, the street corners that could be New York, Beijing or Bangkok if one didn’t know; I can get acupuncture and fresh eel in the same building…I love it.  But the eels must wait, I’m on my way to doughnuts.  
The Doughnut Plant has a small entrance and a corner register from which any of the doughnuts may be purchased.  On the day I came the specials included a lavender yeast doughnut and a blueberry cake doughnut.  I decided upon a sampling of their “classic” doughnuts and, along with the excellent palate of my fiancee, finished off three of them and a cinnamon bun.  We tried the Valrhona chocolate, the coconut creme, the blackout and the cinnamon bun.  
Unfortunately, The Doughnut Plant is short on comfortable seating so we took ours to go and eventually found a decent place to sit down and indulge our tastebuds.  Maybe it was the high expectations or the build-up from the rave reviews, but overall, I was not impressed.  The doughnuts were quite good, don’t get me wrong, but I would prefer a good old-fashioned raised crumb from my local shop growing up to the greasy, coconut-milk-filled square yeast donut I ate from The Doughnut Plant.  Even the cinnamon bun, a weakness of mine and a pastry of which I’m not difficult to please, was sub par by my normal standards.  The valrhona chocolate was tasty, but not a substantial improvement over traditional chocolate glazes.  One caveat I must include is the blackout cake doughnut.  If you are a chocolate lover and have a gallon of milk by your side, you should try this doughnut.  It is by far the most decadent, indulgent and rich doughnut I have ever consumed (in a good way…I think).  
Doughnuts are a food that strike an evolutionary nerve with people: our bodies are adaptively designed to crave fats and sugars (foods that are difficult to attain in a natural setting) and since we can get these crucial ingredients whenever we we want these days, it seems inevitable that the doughnut be created to meet every possible culinary weakness we have.  I am definitely included in that group…but next time, I’ll just go to the doughnut shop down the street.
The Doughnut Plant
379 Grand St.
Far to the east and several blocks north of E. Broadway

Wild Ginger Kitchen

I consider the Wild Ginger Kitchen an oasis of sorts.  It once served as a culinary beacon of light for me and I won’t forget my gratitude.  My fiancee and I were wandering aimlessly through SoHo (an organic and romantic way to find a good place to eat, though probably not the most efficient) and for whatever reason, felt uncharacteristically picky.  Italian, everyone’s standby, wasn’t as appetizing as usual and the heavy fare we passed at every other storefront looked like bricks waiting to be swallowed.

We ended up walking down Mulberry in the heart of tourist’s Little Italy.  Not intending to eat in the neighborhood, I vigilantly attempted not to make eye contact with the foaming-at-the-mouth Italian call boys each restaurant employs to lure unsuspecting tourists into its mediocre culinary interior.  Still, as a couple walking arm in arm, we were prime targets to be called at,  be sung O Solo Mio, and to be physically approached by the circus vendors from the other side of the street.
We kept walking.
Though we had half-decided to eat at a dozen locations, we couldn’t come to a consensus and ventured on.  Our stomachs began to get the better of us and just as we had weakly decided to walk to a favorite location in the West Village we reached the corner of Mulberry and Broome.  There, just down from the corner, seemingly backlit with heavenly light, was Wild Ginger.
An unassuming exterior leads to a transformed interior of exposed brick, bamboo and soft candle light.  Immediate friendly service and comfortable seating completes the intimate atmosphere.
The Pan-Asian cuisine of Wild Ginger is exclusively vegan.
Okay, hold on carnivores, stay with me.  I know what most people think when they hear the word “vegan”: turn the page, tofu, bland, keep walking, I’ll get a hot dog and wait for you at the corner.  I promise you, this is not what you expect.  The options at Ginger Kitchen are loaded with such succulent and inviting flavor that even the most staunch, anti-tofu carnivore would bat his/her eyelashes at these entrees.
For starters, the reliable standbys are here: taro and yam tempura, spring rolls and miso soup, all of which are exceptionally executed.  However, the seitan skewers and tempeh come highly recommended.  The seitan is lightly glazed in a sweet hoisin sauce and served with red and green bell pepper and onion.  Seitan (sat-tan), for those of you who don’t know, is wheat gluten at its simplest and a carnivore’s delight at its most decadent.  Once the wheat gluten has been isolated it can be simmered and marinated in whatever flavor you want it to take and with its “meaty” texture and high protein content, it makes for a filling and flavorful main course.  Tempeh, on the other hand, is a traditional Indonesian creation made from a variety of fermented grains tightly packed into a firm cake.  Once the tempeh is thinned and fried, it takes on a hearty texture and is heavenly with a BBQ sauce, hoisin glaze or (one of my personal favorites) added to a Caesar salad.
Entrees at Wild Ginger Kitchen are surprisingly reasonable given the portion size (expect to pay $12-14).  The chefs specialize in the preparation of soy cutlets: soy protein that has been lightly breaded and fried and mimics the texture of chicken.  The most impressive demonstration of this mouth-watering treat is in their General Tso’s “chicken” and the mango soy cutlets with plum sauce.  General Tso’s chicken is served with a traditional spicy (but not too spicy) sauce over a bed of perfectly steamed broccoli.  The mango soy cutlets include the cutlets, fresh mango and a variety of stir fried veggies in a mildly sweet plum sauce.  I challenge any carnivore to eat these dishes and complain about missing the meat!  Perhaps my personal favorite at Wild Ginger is the jade mushrooms.  Shitake mushrooms are lightly fried and coated with a thick sweet plum sauce.  Served over a bed of kale, served slightly al dente, the crispy mushrooms begin to melt in your mouth and are perfectly balanced by the salty greens.  With some hot sake on the side, these dishes become utterly cravable.
The next time you’re wandering aimlessly in New York, remember Mulberry and Broome and make Ginger Kitchen your dinner destination…you won’t be disappointed.

Wild Ginger Kitchen

380 Broome St.

(On the NE corner of Broome and Mulberry)

July 2018
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