Archive for the 'Kenyan Food' Category

08
Aug
08

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 
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