Dunga, Tafadhali! (The Budding Gourmet’s Guide to Lunch in Nairobi)

17 Mar

Workers the world over look forward to that hallowed period of time called lunch-hour. During these sixty golden minutes, people fill their bellies, strike up lasting relationships, and have a bit of time to carry out extra-curricular activities without incurring the wrath of their employers for being out of the office during working hours.

Nowhere is this hour more cherished than in Nairobi (indeed, I am writing this post within that sacred time). Kenya is a country where employees are famed for their ability to arrive in the morning, hang their coats, strew some papers on their desks and vanish for the day. Some employees have perfected the art to the point that a day’s work consists merely of replacing yesterday’s coat with today’s, and placing the papers on the desk in a more modern state of disarray. This onerous task is performed at the crack of dawn to avoid awkward encounters with inquisitive colleagues. In such a country, the chance for some legitimate time off is jumped at.

Lunchtime in Nairobi, for many, is not whiled away at the New Stanley Hotel. Nor is it spent ensconced in the lounges of the Nairobi Serena. There is a huge demand for affordable lunch in Nairobi. To cater to this demand, anywhere an office/college/factory/workshop springs up in Nairobi, it is almost inevitable that there will be a long, low-slung mabati establishment providing sustenance to famished employees. Some of the best meals I’ve eaten have come from these roadside taverns.

If there is one word that can be used to describe these haunts, that word is “thrift”. Even the entrance is likely to be small; one generally has to stoop to get in. The interior is generally quite dark, and takes some getting used to, owing to a shortage of light. This all-pervading thrift ethic can even be observed in the use of floor space. As little floor space as possible is taken up with tables. This saved floor space is used instead for chairs. It is not uncommon to find a multitude of 5 or so people elbowing their way through their midday victuals at a table meant for a more romantic 2.

The nomenclature of these places can range from the puzzling to the creative. I have never been able to understand the reasoning behind the name of a small chips-and-soda at Campus that was called “The Hidden Agenda”. More recently (not by much!), a new establishment has sprung up along a road I frequent called “Snuggles”. There is an even more intriguing slogan next to this name: “Let’s snuggle”.

There are a couple more facts which the tourist to Nairobi would do well to be informed of. Generally, the cashier’s office lair is situated near the exits. Bad debts are rare in this business as one cannot abscond without paying. Also, prices are likely to be highly variable in nature. I am not talking about month-on-month inflation here. I have been in places where the first chapati will be 10 bob, and subsequent ones will cost a sudden 20. Forewarned, friends, is forearmed.

The rest of this article will devote itself to the explaining commonly-used terms in these restaurants.

1. Dunga

Chapatis can be served either just the way they are, or if the eater so prefers, they can be served rolled up and speared on the end of a fork. This is a personal favourite. Many is the time I have allowed myself the simple pleasure of having my teeth sink softly through multiple luscious layers of chapati arranged as just described upon a fork…

2. Kando-Kando

Some establishments provide lunchers with the choice of whether to have all their food on a tray, or to have the main course served separately from the stew (kando-kando). The choice may seem obvious, but these Scrooges of the restaurant business have found ways of serving precious little on very narrow trays. The solution is to ask for kando-kando so as to obtain credible portions of each.

3. Nyuma Mbili

This is a term I was told evolved from a place that served fish and ugali exclusively. The main course and the stew being cast in stone, the only thing the client can choose is which half of the fish he would prefer. If the eater prefers the front part of the fish – kichwa – or the rear – nyuma – he may order a full meal by simply stating the relevant fish-half. Nyuma mbili hence means two full ugali-and-fish-tail meals.

4. Supu Escort

All too often, while eating, the happy gastronome will be brought up short by the unhappy circumstance that his ugali has outlasted his soup. At no extra cost, the eater can remedy this unfortunate situation by applying for Supu Escort. This is just what it sounds like – a bit of soup to aid the remaining ugali smartly down the hatch.

5. Ugali Wembe

This is a solution for the reverse of the circumstances related above; should your soup outlast your ugali, then this sliver of ugali, at no extra cost, is for you.

Bon appetit, mes amis.


Posted by on March 17, 2006 in Life in Kenya


20 responses to “Dunga, Tafadhali! (The Budding Gourmet’s Guide to Lunch in Nairobi)

  1. Jaba Boeku

    March 17, 2006 at 3:40 pm

    Tru Tru…

    If there was an IPO on these ‘thrifts’ I’d be the first to sell off my entire assets just to cash-in.
    Given that “Bad debts are rare in this business as one cannot abscond without paying.”

    … there is good reason the share price would def sky rocket!!!

    There is no reason not to cash in! They require little capital. What one would need to do is keep a sharp lookout for marauding NCC bulldozers. I can offer help with the name…

  2. Whispering Inn

    March 18, 2006 at 2:52 am


    Jamaa, this is good stuff!

    Now I see why M is so keen on sharing your good writing with his army readers (or groupies, as he calls them).

    M is too kind…

  3. afro

    March 18, 2006 at 10:53 am

    cool post!

    **for non kenyans Ugali = polenta.

    Use this

    Err… Kenyans Polenta = Ugali.

  4. Milonare

    March 19, 2006 at 12:22 pm



    Ati Supu Escort and Ugali Wembe – You my friend are absolutely hilarious hehehehehe


  5. Guessaurus

    March 20, 2006 at 7:45 pm

    I would definitely go for nyuma mbili – I was never one to eat anything while it was still giving you the evil eye 😀

    This is good stuff – Supu escort? LOL that is deadly – the ugali wembe I guessed straight-up. Would it be scary to say that I have never heard of any of these terms – time for re-education, I would think 🙂

    Silver spoon? I’d be happy to provide “re-education” services…

  6. Guessaurus

    March 22, 2006 at 2:45 pm

    If you are asking if I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, au contraire my friend – just has been out here too damn long – hence the re-education. Will be camping on your doorstep once I step off the plane – if only to have some sima na omena 😀

    You, Guess, are one nice person. I was home thinking “I’ve got to get to work early and change that comment, how could I tell someone they were born with a silver spoon in their mouths?!” Not that there’s anything wrong (personally I hope I can give my kids a veritable silver pitchfork while I’m at it). But someone could take offence. So thanks for being nice so about it.

    Am similarly loathe to eating things that are leering at me out of one dead eye, and fish-brains are not my forte (I can tell this without having to try it).

    Sima na omena will be educating me, too 😉 I await the opportunity.

  7. Afro

    March 22, 2006 at 7:29 pm

    meant to ask, how do you pronounce your blog name?

    KRENYAN. Kenyan with an R in between somewhere. I’ll explain it, possibly, some time. I encourage guesses from all except M. It’s not too hard…

  8. Mutumia

    March 22, 2006 at 8:40 pm

    kusema kweli, your post needs no supu escort for maximum muenjoyo. It goes down just right. Funeee post. I loved it!!

    This has got to be one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever had on my writing (not that there’s much to choose from!). Ahsante sana.

  9. Prousette

    March 23, 2006 at 1:13 pm

    Some education for some of us, nyuma mbili I have never heard of and dunga, lakini the rest were easy to guess from the context.

    The more respectable places/eateries are overpriced and take too
    damn long to deliver food to the table. A typical Kenyan would need to
    eat in 20 minutes flat and spend the other 40 in "development matters."
    You have a lovely funny way with words.

    Is there some sort of compe ati "who can say the nicest things to Chrenyan"??? *Blush* Thanks, Prousette!

  10. Shiroh

    March 23, 2006 at 1:33 pm

    Hey Krenyan, i don't think it was really wise of you to write this post without consulting me.

    My favourite one lakini is Mos Mos, which has become quite modern this days.

    The one near where i work have deadly nyama choma. That is the reason too why you should do deworming every 3 months.

    Good Post

    Mos mos? Errr… educate me! I hear you on the nyamchom. Never dewormed, I'll consider the advice LOL.

  11. Guessaurus

    March 24, 2006 at 9:30 am

    I am rethinking that statement and taking a fence (offence), the gate and any dogs hanging around barking mad – LOL just kidding…

    I am easy (no, not that way) and choose what should or shouldnt offend me. It never occured to me that you meant that in an offensive way, but then again I have been told that 'I believe in angels' isnt a good stance to take always – hmm, write more posts and then I can decide. Watch this space 😀

    As for fish brains – No! I will not try them for anything (and seeing as they are not reknowned for their brain power, does that mean you have to eat a whole 'school' to get a plateful?

    You've already been nice, too late. Believe in angels-it makes you one!

  12. Mama Mia

    March 24, 2006 at 10:15 am

    hilarious piece ….

    about the R in Chrenyan …. er, maybe R is the first letter of your name ?

    Thanks about the piece… Nope! My name doesn't start with an R

  13. Afro

    March 24, 2006 at 1:54 pm

    All this time i have been reading it as Shrenyan kinda like a shredded kenyan…:)
    Krenyan it is!

    Many, many adjectives have been used to describe me in my brief life. But "shredded"! That's got to be a first LOL! But you're closer to the mark than anyone else… it's a portmanteau of something else and kENYAN.

  14. Mymmoh

    March 28, 2006 at 10:44 pm

    Seriously, I call that street – er read mabati joint education. Someone told me they mainly serve beans with Chapos. Is this true? and they "insult" people by asking "nani mbuzi" to inquire who ordered the goat stew? The insult is definitely intentional as they watch peole dressed in suits respond with an eager "mimi!". Anyone want to argue as to what extents we will go to fill our stomachs? Can't deny that these people have outstanding sense of humors.

    I haven't been called a goat… yet. Chapati-beans is certainly a common item on the menus, but it is better that you eat this only if you are a sole proprietor because you are likely to suffer from severe flatulence in the hours leading up to 5 pm and your colleagues are unlikely to see the funny side when you seek relief. That said, the menus are very varied: matoke, kienyeji, githeri, chapati, rice, matumbo, managu, beef (stewed or fried), fish, liver, managu just to name a few…

  15. acolyte

    June 15, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    This post has brought some happy memories and has me drooling at my desk like an idiot esp since I have to make do with the tripe they serve here in stato in the guise of food!

  16. Silhoutte

    April 23, 2007 at 11:59 am

    This certainly captures nairobi work life in general and the lunching enteprise in particular pretty well. But I seem to have a sneaky feeling that that is not what it is all about. If I am right that you are addressing yourself to the humour and spirit of improvisation endemic, in a positive kind of way; that seems to peel uncontrollably and evolve unmistakably, then my friend you address yourself to a topic most profound, in a style most prolific and impact most enduring!!

  17. Priscilla

    November 7, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    would like to know the nutritional value of Matumbo…help my baby loves them


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