Perhaps if we had not spent the rest of the afternoon at the United Kenya Club restaurant talking, then we would have noticed just how far gone the sun was. But then this is Elnathan. The man at the center of all conversation. He is nothing unlike anything I had expected him to be. From the photos I had seen online, I could have sworn on my unborn daughter’s umbilical cord that he was nothing taller than 5’7’’. The wide frame of his torso and filled up arms were to be expected. He is Nigerian after all, and those chaps are not easy to create. Ask God. They use up all the clay. So there we were, Troy, Jaber, Elnathan, Ahmed (Prestige Bookshop), Safurat (another Nigerian lady visiting) and I waxing on and on about nothing and everything at the same time. Amazing how Safurat has spent the 12 years of her life in Germany, but Yoruba is still heavy on her tongue. Me I cannot watch Caroline Mutoko’s YouTube show without succumbing to the temptation of replacing my ts with rs.
The world became dirty without us noticing. It wasn’t until Elnathan said he needed to change currencies that we realized his best chances of getting an open forex had gone with the sun. And you know how it is. Nightfall is an alarm clock for supper. The moment darkness creeps in, so does hunger. Dinner was needed.
Now you see, when I find myself in tao at 8pm looking for supper, I am just OK with stepping into a chips place and grabbing those greasy Sonford fries. Just sprinkle them with salt then soak them in vinegar and that’s that. But now we had visitors, and the way it is with visitors is that they are always looking for a place to experience authentic local cuisine. Surely, Elnathan and Safurat did not come all the way from Berlin to eat steak and chipo. That is why when Jaber led us into Kaldis, it just could not work. The only other available option was Kosewe. It is just next door, donge?
The way Kosewe works is that they have that menu board just in front of the cashier. Half the food on that list is never available. Kwanza sasa the way we had gone there a bit late (yes, 8pm is late for Kosewe), I expected worse.
“So what do you want?” I asked them. They looked at the menu like it was a Bible written in hieroglyphics and then settled on fish.
“Rice,” Safurat said.
Who even eats fish with rice surely!
“Elnathan?…will you have it with ugali?”
Of course Kosewe did not have fish stew. Just dry fry. “But we can beg the kitchen to give beef soup.” Jesus Christ. These people were going to swell my head with visitors jowa. Luckily, our two visitors did not mind having dry fry. I asked for athola and Troy sent for mbuzi. Jaber refused to eat. Last time she was here, her stomach refused to agree with the food. She drove for days.
In as much as I knew I was with Nigerians new to the city, there are certain things that I assumed. I assumed they knew what ugali was. Or that they knew the difference between Hostess ugali and Sorghum ugali (kwon bel).
The food comes and with it, confusion.
A few things to note first of all.
Number one; pepper.
Nigerians live for their pepe. I have never tasted their cuisine but from the stories we hear, these chaps like eating food that burns until you catch a cold. Eyes watering. Tongue ablaze with hell fire. Noses sniffing back juices – sounds like a coke addict. The only other people who eat like that are Indians. Otherwise it is not a Kenyan thing to put acid in food.
So si the fish came. Then I asked the madam to bring us apilo. She brought the one in kachumbari sauce. I tasted one spoon of it. Just one. And I swear it burned as if I had just licked Lucifer’s armpits. But then Elnathan tasted it and he was like, “This pepe is not even hot.”
Kwani Nigerians use apilo to make food ama they use food to make apilo?
So I asked the madam to bring me real apilo. The uncut one. The fruit, not a kachumbari. She did, and then when I gave it to Elnathan, homeboy was like “No. You see, with us we do not just eat pepe like that. Pepe is prepared.”
Mayie denda. These people cook pili pili? Is there like a recipe? And exactly how long does it take for these chaps to make dinner, if apilo has to be cooked? My interaction with apilo is usually that it is added to the stew when cooking. My dad on the other hand, used to bite it raw when eating, and I remember being so amazed at his badassery then. Now I have met Elnathan and he just trashed my old man’s record to the recycle bin like it was nothing.
Number two; soup.
So Troy ordered for mbuzi choma, right? It came with kwon bel and some kachumabari. Safurat looked at his plate and asked, “So what are you eating that with?”
Apparently, that is no way to eat, where she comes from. Too dry. But to be fair, this is not the first time a Luo dish has been criticized as being arid. Kyuks say that all the time. They want dhufu, always. A kyuk cooks for you and serves you el nino on a plate. It is known.
Number three; the menu.
When Troy’s order came, the first person to comment on it was Elnathan.
“What is that?”
“Oh, why didn’t you guys say there was goat?”
“But it was written on the menu!”
“Right there!!” pointing at the menu board, “where you ordered your fish from.”
“Aaaai. Where?” Mr. Best-selling Author all of a sudden cannot read?
“Ah. It is there at the bottom. It is clearly written Mbuzi Choma and Mbuzi Stew!”
Number four; double serving.
When Safurat’s rice came on a separate plate, she took a spoon and served a portion of the same rice to a side plate. Then ate from that. Is that a Nigerian thing? I mean, si the food is all yours? Why are you serving twice?
Lastly; the lost engine.
If you are a Luo and you have been thinking of going to Nigeria, please do not. Naija people will give you stroke and heart attack nono. Did you know….aki I do not even know how to say this without crying….did you …can you imagine…heeeeeee….can you believe that they do not cook their fish with the head? As in they cut out the head of the fish before cooking it. Yaani how heartless can a human being be? Surely, if you cut out the head of the fish, can you even say with a straight face that you are eating fish?
Let me tell you something. There is a particular way in which fish is supposed to be eaten. A method to the madness. It is even in the UN Declaration. Those who have read Article 18 (b) know what I mean. The rest are those who suffer for lack of knowledge.
First off, fish is not eaten with anything else other than ugali. Not rice. Not chips. Not potatoes. Not chapatis. Fish is eaten with ugali. Kwon bel, preferably. Anything else is pantomime and terrible comedy.
Second, fillet is not fish. Please, let us not disturb one another. Go argue with your village chief. Fillet is NOT fish. The moment you mutilate a fish by removing the bones, you have turned that poor animal into something else. And you should be ashamed of yourself. Part of eating fish is putting the bones in your mouth, and then gingerly sucking off the meat without pricking your tongue. Why do you imagine Luos are generally better kissers? It is because we have been teaching our lips how to be tender, careful and yet deliberate ever since we were old enough to stand on our own two feet.
Third, if you are going to eat fish with fork and knife, please, do not even bother. Do us all a favour and ask for warus. Fish is eaten with bare hands. When it comes, you eat the ugali with the kachumbari or mboga, then you concentrate on the fish. You start out with middle. Then you proceed to the tail. You MUST eat the tail, otherwise what are you even doing? Then you overturn it and repeat.
The head is always left for the last part, and this is where Nigerians fail. Safurat says her people think that eating the head of fish makes you stupid. Well, Safurat, tell that to the people of Gem who have the highest population of PhDs per square kilometer in the whole of Kenya. When eating the head, you first deal with the eyes. Those ones you can swallow without chewing. Then you suck flesh from those intricately woven bones that your tongue cannot reach. When you are done with all that is when you now descend upon the engine. The gills, that is. I hate to quote Porn Hub, but the rule is ‘you have to swallow.’ No for spitting out the engine.
And I am not just being finicky about this. I am a Luo bana. For us eating fish is not just about filling your belly. It is about respect.
Eating with these two Nigerians caught my mouth zero. Food is political. You may miss a lot when interacting with a person from another country. But the moment you sit down with them to share a meal, that is when you understand truly just how different we are. Give a Nigerian a bowl of soup and ugali. He will take the soup and pour it on the ugali and then use a spoon to eat the mixture. Give a Kenyan the same and he pinches an othonje of ugali, moulds it with his palms till it is nice and round, pokes a depression into it with his thumb, then scoops the soup with it. You cannot really hide who you are or where you are from at a dinner table. Your upbringing, your culturing, all come out to play when you eat. If you were brought up by my mother, you will finish food from you plate for the fear of insulting those who are starving. If you grew up in Migosi, you will find it weird to eat in other people’s houses. If you grew up in a house like ours, you will let old people serve first, then serve last, then hurry to finish first so that you get the nyama remaining in the bowl. Such are the people who grow up to become those assholes who shamelessly take the last slice of pizza without asking.
Food reveals who we are.
And you know what? It is all fine. Takes all kinds to make a world. But then Elnathan did not come all the way from Berlin to remind us about the politics of food. If you are around this evening from 6pm, come to Goethe Institut and you will see why.