I love meat. I always have. Sometimes people do not just understand just how much I am committed to my relationship with meat. If you do not want me to visit you again, make me bad meat. Either undercooked or overcooked. I will never step into your house again. That is how you can ensure that my relationship with you is severed completely. And I am not talking about any meat. I am not talking about fish or mutton or goat. I mean beef. As a kid I would keep my mother company in the kitchen on the days that she was cooking meat, and my role was simple; to taste. I’d offer to help out in slicing the onions and tomatoes just so that I could hang around the kitchen. Then I would taste whether the beef is tender enough, whether the salt is enough, whether the Royco is just right and whether the spices have mixed properly. And in case there was bone marrow, it was known that that was my part. Very few joys in this world compare to nibbling the outer meat of a bone marrow bare, then placing the open end in your mouth like a trumpeter before sucking all the fat into your mouth.
[If today the president was to taste my mother’s osubuko, he would declare this day a national holiday]
Then came Maranda High School. Tuesday evening, Friday evening and Saturday lunch time were meat days. We went to great lengths for top layer. We would attend the evening assembly with plates tucked under our sweaters just so that we did not have to go back to the dorm like the rest of the school, but instead, run directly to the Dining Hall. It was a Maranda tradition for the deputy schoolboy to say “Disperse” at the end of an assembly session. No single soul was allowed to move a muscle before the deputy school captain said “Disperse.” And the moment he did, it was like an Olympic gun gone off. Imagine over 800 students sprinting down a stretch for the sake of top layer. I was unapologetically one of them. There were times when we were caught running for food and were marked for a later woeful date with the Boarding Master. On other days, we would run for top layer, scramble for it at the entrance, and then some mean Dining Hall prefect would go stir the sufuria of soup, thereby mixing all the top layer with the horrible water underneath. On those days we would have run and sweated for nothing. But at the same time, there were days when we ran and got the coveted prize, and that would make the struggle worthwhile.
My obsession with meat has stayed with me ever since. In campo, I would not accept pilau at the cafeteria if it did not have enough meat. Surely, what is pilau without beef if nothing more than spicy coloured rice? Ask my boys. You do not touch my plate when I am eating beef. Our friendship would end. Aki I swear.
There is a particular way I eat also. If you served me ugali and sukuma and beef, I will eat the ugali and sukuma first, and then hadho the beef by itself. If you serve me pilau, I will deliberately finish the rice part first, before descending on the nyama. But then there are idiots in this world who, when they see me saving my beef for last, they imagine that I am full and so they shamelessly offer to help me with my meat.
“Magunga, are you going to finish that, or should I help you?” Most of the time this is not even a question. It is a notice. Because they say that while already extending their fork towards my plate. The hellfire that is burning such people is still being heated.
Naturally, therefore, I fell in love with steak the first time I tried it. Growing up, when I was sent to the butchery, I knew steak was meat without bones. That is because every time I showed up at the shop and asked for nyama, the butcher would respond with a common question; “Nyama ya kawaida ama Steak?” But me I come from a long lineage of people who love chewing on bones. It is an heirloom that has been passed down from my forefathers all the way from Owiny. Meaning, Steak was never an option. But then I came to Nairobi and joined the parade of steak lovers.
I like my steak medium done. Not rare. Not well done. Medium. I cannot wrap my head around people who eat rare steak. I wonder why they have to go to a restaurant to eat something they can find at the slaughterhouse. Rare steak, to me, is too undercooked. You slice the meat and the insides are redder than a Jubilee political rally. You almost want to tell the cow that died ati Tuko Pamoja. And just like many aspects of the Jubilee government, rare steak leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Well done steak, more often than not, is burnt offering. Too coarse in your mouth. Grates your palate and hard to swallow. You eat well done steak and the next time you go to the loo for a dump, you poop while making the face that people who have never drank beer make when they taste it for the first time. And you see, that is why burnt offerings are supposed to be left for the gods. They are the only ones who can handle it. Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar and God what belongs to God.
Lakini seriously, well done steak is just nyama choma. There is nothing wrong with that, it is just that when I want nyam chom, I will go to Wambugus Grove in Westlands. You call the butcher guy to wekelea for you a kilo, then arrive a few minutes earlier to shoot pool, and as soon as you see the waitress approaching your table with a steaming jug of water, you know it is time to dance. If I want proper nyama choma, I would not go spend kitu KES. 2000 for a 300g piece of meat bana. Does not make sense. In any case, nyam chom is better with goat meat instead of beef.
So far, News Cafe has served me with the most delicious steak, followed by Sierra. Kwanza Sierra understands what I mean when I say I want my steak Medium. You cut the beef and you can see just a little red juice oozing from it. The inside is reddish. Almost as if the beef is blushing. You cut off a piece, dip it in mushroom sauce, and then bring it to your mouth. And by George! the moment your teeth sink into that piece of meat, all the flavours come out to play. There is a bash in your mouth. 28 day aged steak, seasoned with sijui God knows what, and mushroom sauce made sijui how, all come alive to ignite a carnival on your tongue. You chew the meat with your eyes closed before washing it all down with a cold Coffee Stout craft beer. And then repeat.
Yesterday, Jaber performed at Kwani? Open Mic. She did not rush over her sentences like she sometimes does when nerves swallow her whole. She went on stage, sat on her stool and simply performed. Such a thing called for celebration. Great thing is, two of her other friends had come along to watch her perform, so after the show, we decided to eat out. Ideas were thrown around. Sierra and Artcaffe were mentioned, but dismissed because one of her friends does not like shopping malls. Then somebody said Brew Bistro, and nobody saw why not.
I have never had a meal at Brew Ngong Road. Actually, I have been there like thrice for drink ups and if I remember correctly, two of those were for happy hour. Buy one jug of Brew beer and get another one free. I had no expectations about their food, and since Jaber did not object to eating there, I imagined I was in safe hands.
Eating out is not just about the food. It is about the experience. I would consider going back to a restaurant with OK food if their service is great. A place like Kaldis on Kimathi Street rose to fame because of a waitress called Joy, and another one called Nellius. But if the food is OK and the service stinks like a stale lie, I am not going back there again. And that is precisely why I am not going back to Brew for food. The fact that I ordered steak did not even help my situation.
So the waiter brings our dinner. A burger for Jaber. Calamari for one of our friends, and another burger for the other friend. Then my steak comes. Next to it is a butter knife. I tell this chap to bring me another knife because that one won’t cut through anything. He disappears into the darkness. While I am still looking up at the soccer game going on on the screen, he comes back, mumbles something I do not quite get, places another knife on the table and then disappears again.
“What did the guy say?” I ask Jaber.
“Ata me sijui,” she says then goes back to her burger.
I look at the new knife. It is blunt. It is not serrated. I try to use it to cut my meat, but it merely glides on the surface without causing any sensible damage. I look up and call another waiter. I tell him that this is not a steak knife. What I need is a simple steak knife, and if he would not mind, could he please take it back and bring me a steak knife. He takes the knife and goes away. I sit and wait. Staring at my food. Munching a bit on the onion rings. I watch the game without following. Sometimes the band distracts me with a song I know, but whose words I cannot remember. I look around and everyone on the table is almost finishing their meal. Still, my knife does not come.
Then I spot the last waiter I sent for a knife. I call him and ask if it is possible to get a steak knife for my meal, preferably before Christmas. He says, and you will not believe this, that they are still looking for it.
“You are looking for a steak knife?”
“What do you mean?”
“Uhm, we are finding you one, sir.”
Att this point I am really trying to hold myself back from an outburst. Me I do not care to be called sir. In fact it even makes me uncomfortable because I think this guy is older than me. All I want is to enjoy my steak and be on my way. Why would a restaurant serve steak without a steak knife? No, seriously. It is like running a brothel without condoms.
Me I do not know whose job it is to ensure there is cutlery in a restaurant. I do not want to explode at anyone because I may explode at the wrong person. And then I would be an asshole. Someone may record my outburst and put it online, and then I would be equated to Lilian Muli. Kenyans on Twitter will roast me, well done, saying that I do not care about people’s feelings. That perhaps the wait staff had had a long day, or just a bad day like we all do sometimes. I will want to ask, “So why should I have a bad day simply because the Brew Bistro waiters had a bad day? Hmmm? Because, what? Misery loves company?” but nobody will want to hear any of that because according to society’s rule book on such matters, the customer is not always right. The waiters are.
By the time the knife finally comes, pigs are already learning how to fly. My appetite for steak is gone, my food is cold, my friends are down to their last bites, I am still hungry and frustrated. I ask them to warm the steak, and they do. Then I sit down to eat. The moment I slice my meat, the last string of patience I had left is gone. My steak is not even made how I had asked. I asked for Medium, but this is well done. I cut the steak and the insides are white. No blush. I want to call the waiter back to return the food, but considering how long it took to get me a knife, another plate of steak would most likely come after the next general elections. So I keep silent and chew on this meat that tastes like a bad attitude.
It is incredible how when I am pissed off, everything around me reminds me of the exact thing that pissed me off. I look at the telly and the winning team is wearing a white jersey. Jaber’s mates with whom we had come to dinner are smoking sheesha and breathing out strings of white smoke, making them look like tired dragons. I think of peaceful things like Mother Teresa and her recent sainthood, and the picture that comes to mind is an old lady wearing a resplendent halo and a white cloak. I try to think of even happier things like African literature, and soon enough Wole Soyinka comes to mind with his snowy hair. There is white everywhere.
I slice another piece of the dull flavoured steak and stare at the whiteness inside. I consider it for a while before putting it into my mouth.
Perhaps, under different circumstances, I would have enjoyed a well done steak. It has happened before. But now as I sit in this place, I cannot help but feel like I am eating a wedding dress.