Day 35: Kenya
Africa is a continent so far away from basic understanding in the United States. We probably have more stereotypes and less actual information about it than any continent in the world. Australia may be close in stereotypes and Antarctica may be close in lack of information, but all together, Africa is a big fat mystery. We have a passing knowledge of places like Egypt, South Africa, Morocco and the like, an image in our head of what The Democratic Republic of Congo might look like and an assumption that the Serengeti is somewhere over in the east. We’ve heard of Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Sudan and Madagascar thanks to Kanye West, Don Cheadle, George Clooney and Jeffrey Katzenberg and a lot of people know what Ethiopian food tastes like. But beyond that, we’re kind of grasping at straws. Even getting ready to eat different regional African foods is an exercise in total ignorance. If I grabbed the average person off the street and asked them the difference between food from East Africa, like Kenya, versus West Africa, like Ghana, would they know? Would they have any idea what either of them ate? If I offered them the same scenario with Taiwan and Pakistan, what would they say? “I don’t know. They probably both eat rice”. And they would be right. They probably could guess that Taiwan was more like Chinese food and Pakistan was more like Indian food, even if they didn’t know Pakistan was in Asia. But today is about jumping in to the world of East African food and seeing what the hell that means.
Ngoma in Los Angeles, CA. Right away this restaurant is amazingly inviting. Bright colors, walls that seem freshly painted, beautiful pictures and a friendly staff. Bosque, GirlfriendBites and I sit down and start to look over the menu. It’s broken down into East and West, but today we’re focusing on the dishes that are eaten in Kenya. Bosque drinks a very flavor compressed, fruity, red beverage called bissap, which comes from a type of hibiscus. I opt for the somewhat sweet passion fruit juice. The restaurant is very empty, which I think explains why the food is taking a long time to arrive, as they probably don’t have many of the sauces going on the stove at this point and likely have to start from scratch. The waitress was impressed with my pronunciation of the dish which now makes its way to our table— ugalina sukuma wiki. Ugali is basically a ball of starchy white cornmeal that you pick up with your fingers and use to dip into the sauce. It’s a tad crumbly and difficult for picking up pieces of anything substantial, but that may not be the point. It is served along with chicken cooked in a thick, red spicy sauce that tastes like the East African version of barbecued chicken— which it may well be. On the side is the sukuma wiki, a dish of collard greens with tomatoes that I dare anyone to call bitter or unpalatable.
A vegetarian dish of chapati and dengu seems to have a strong Indian influence and feels like you’re having a plate of roti and lentils. It’s a useful side dish against the powerful chicken, but would be disappointing as an entree. It does come with some perfectly fried plantains, too. I make my way over to the plate of what seems like goat spare ribs, called nyama choma. They taste appropriately gamey and buttery, but the restaurant gives you enough of them to probably get a little exhausting if it was my entire meal. On the side are more collard greens and a dish called kachumbari, which, if served next to a bowl of tortilla chips, I would easily assume was a very tasty pico de gallo.
Our check takes a while to come and then to be processed, but the three of us are in such a pleasant environment and enjoying each others company, so it’s really no bother at all. After a lot of time spent dissecting small differences between fairly similar cuisines, there’s something kind of exhilarating about eating something totally off the radar. Of course, there are similarities to other cuisines and some influences are apparent, but it really is a different world of flavors. Being able to sit down somewhere inviting in the heart of Los Angeles and eat from a wide range of well executed regional African dishes is a real pleasure and one I recommend everybody get around to at some point. It might not wind up being your favorite cuisine in the world, but it’s a shame not to find out.
5358 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Food Breakdown: 2 non-alcoholic beverages, 3 entrees
Distance From My House: 5.6 miles