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Due to the circumstances of my youth I grew up partly in the rich consumer society of Germany and partly in a needy doctrinaire communist country in the Balkans. Later, I lived for years in Apartheid South Africa; eventually-like millions of others - becoming a victim of it.

In other times when I had to lower my voice while speaking the truth I learned to appreciate the importance of free speech, security, and freedom of the press. Although I valued protection from the misuse of power, like many others I tended to take it for granted-until experiencing the misery it brought to myself and my family.

Decorative Elements from Africa

This, however, after the knowlege acquired travelling across East Asia from Pakistan to Borneo, and several years spent living in a strict Muslim society,on the island of Lamu, has taugth me one thing:...what ever the circumstances, whatever the political or cultural system... it is people that count!

The menu of life everywhere offers happiness and drudgery, joy and misery, heroism and deceit, greed and compassion. The ingredients often differ and the portions may vary, but this rather eclectic diet of diverse European, Asian, and African experience has also taught me another basic truth: people of all nations, convictions and religions have one thing in common:

...and to share it in good company.

The last supper, by Elimu Njau

But before we come to Chakula (food) some personal observations about my two physical and spiritual homes.

The Western press is neccesarily although unfortunately biased towards reporting on African events emphasising the wars, state corruption, communal violence, and endemic poverty. The style of reportage, however, all too often perpetuates ingrained if obsolete prejudices about the 'Dark Continent'-at a time when Africa is undergoing a fundamental transition in the space of generations that took centuries in the presumably enlightened continent to the north.

No doubt; one encounters all the above aspects...

YET! There is also Africa the COLORFUL CONTINENT... very colorful indeed, bursting with energy, endowed with an enormous will for survival; the Africa of strong social structures, half-jokingly refered to as: "African socialismus." There is the sensual Africa, full with joy of life, music, dance and above all: There is the deeply spiritual Africa, distinguished by its tolerance and respect for otherness, and the WISDOM OF FORGIVENESS!

The Crucifixion of Jesus, by Elimu Njau

Much of the continent's vitality is reflected in the Africa of many odours, ranging from the subtle scents of the savanna to the stench of rotting garbage in overcrowded city streets. But for me, the slap of the latter is quickly driven from mind by the mouth watering smells wafting my way from street cooking, alerting one to road side kiosks, sign-posting the grills of Nyama Choma butcheries, and marking the kitchens of jolly well feed mamas. Such aromas advertise the treats to be found in the premisses of posh and not so posh Restaurants and eating Houses.

Our relentless chase in the developed world for ever new and latest trends has made us discover the joys of the crossover and fusion cooking. Daring chefs mix and join what ever strikes their fancy, often with very admirable results, but only until the next fad strikes and fashion dictates us a new trend.

But what is for the modern western gastronomie often a passing gimmick, is part of the evolution and foundation of the still evolving national cuisines in countries like South Africa or Kenya, where many cultures live within one boundary and ancient traditions and colonial legacies have left a lasting mark.

I would like to illustrate this development on the example of Kenya. Here we have first of all the staple foods of the many tribes, like for instance the Irio of the Mount Kenya peoples. A mixture of mashed potato, maize, beans, and fresh greens, I have also included this dish following the recepie of my Kikuyu mother-in-law Thabita Nguyo in my own cooking.

Wilko with family and friend         | Thabita Nguyo

The Luo from Lake Victoria specialize in fresh and dry fish (omena),with ugali (Polenta style maize porridge)the standard staple food across the whole region. The WaKamba love muthokoi (legumes mixed with hulled maize); the soup made from yam roots is unique to the Meru. Local variations on common dishes abound-although the mixture of cow milk and blood preserved with cow`s urine consumed by Masaii warriors has to the best of my knowlege not made it into the main stream of Kenyan cooking.

The Swahili of Kenya's coast are famous for the region's most sophisticated indigenous cuisine, highlighting the use of coconut, tamarind, rice and exploiting the tastes offered by the diversity of fresh fish.

The wonderful lightness and variety of the Swaheli dishes reminds me of the mediterranean cooking but with very different ingredients!

British-style fish and chips, sausage and eggs, plain vegetables and sticky Robertson`s Gravy-though not exactly gourmet fare-have become common components of many Kenyans' diets. The small Indian community, in contrast, has exerted a much greater influnce: curries, chapati, samosa, and the assortment of sweets collectively referred to as tamu-tamu are now ubiquitious in East African cities and towns.

The common denominator making all this food taste good,it should be noted, is the fresh and unadulterated farm produce, fruits, and meat. If from the outside they may appear not so perfect in look as their European equivalents, they are far superior in taste and flavour-the meat produced in the country's extensive rangelands qualifying for special mention.

Talking about meat brings me to Kenyas and East and Central Africa's most vibrant gastronomic institution: The Nyama Choma places, Nyama choma means roast meat, and while beef is standard, goat is the main attraction.

The best roast meat is found in simple down to earth settings, but also in more up market joints that comprise the African version of the German Beer Garden.

Nyama Choma Beer Garden

The cuts are displayed either hanging or in cool counters..The customer chooses what he likes, and instructs how it should be prepared: grilled, braised, or boiled; and orders different side dishes to go with it, such as ugali, mataha, and kachumbari, a salad of tomatos, onions, coriander and lots of chilli peppers.

The appearance of a waiter with a jug of hot water and bowl for washing the hands signals the meat is almost ready. Then the food is ferried on platters to the table, where an attendant expertly cuts up the roast meat on a board in front of the guests.

Traditionally, he tastes the first piece, although sometimes a hungry guest will risk a finger joint by snatching a morsel from under the fast-chopping cleaver.

Wapishi Chefs

Instead of dessert, the satiated people may dance enthusiastically to the catching rhythms of a live band, in-between washing down the meal with quiet a few beers!

These days, establishments dedicated to the nyama choma experience, mostly provide a playground for the kids,and feature live bands and shows by acrobates, comedians, or other enterainers. This is just a modern variation on the African tradition where eating is a social act, and a lively and entertaining experience all around.


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