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