Nairobiâ€™s fusion food trucks, edgy cocktail bars and gourmet burgers now rival Londonâ€™s, writes Kate Wills
A cluster of filament bulbs swings above a table of scenesters busily rearranging their octopus baos for an Instagram picture. Itâ€™s a scene that hardly surprises these days. Except that I happen to be in a Nairobi shopping mall â€” albeit at the award-winning seafood restaurant Seven.
â€œWhen people think of Kenyan food itâ€™s probably of nyama choma, which is basically barbecued goat, and also ugali, which is like Swahili polenta,â€ says Nairobi-born Kiran Jethwa, star of Channel 4â€™s Extreme Food and Sevenâ€™s owner. â€œWhen we opened this place in 2010 it was the first of its kind; the standard of restaurant youâ€™d find in London just didnâ€™t exist over here. But there was a real appetite for good food, and over the past few years some really exciting things have started happening.â€ Jethwa could be the Kenyan Jamie Oliver â€” heâ€™s effusive and charming and currently working on a project to get vegetables into the diets of Nairobi schoolchildren.
The Kenyan capital has shaken off its perilous image (it wasnâ€™t called â€œNairobberyâ€ for nothing), and is fast gaining a reputation for its exciting food scene. Social media, the large number of expats based here and the rise of a well-travelled Kenyan middle-class mean Nairobi is now a city where youâ€™ll find a cornucopia of culinary experiences. You can pick up a freshly baked sourdough loaf from bakery Bbrood, order a cold-brew coffee and avo on toast from brunch spot Wasp & Sprout, and browse handmade nut butters at the Organic Farmerâ€™s Market in the suburb of Karen.
Tapping into this food revolution is Nyama Mama, a new restaurant which aims to give traditional African food a modern makeover. Cocktails are served in copper mugs and the vintage car posters, wall-mounted woven fans and artfully arranged bright, geometric-print cushions could be straight out of an interiors magazine. Food is served until 4am â€” catering to a young, work-hard-play-harder crowd â€” and the menu is mainly sharing plates offering a twist on classic Swahili fare, such as ugali fries with garlic sauce, chapati quesadillas, sautÃ©ed sukuma wiki (a Kenyan version of kale) and barbecued pork belly marinated in Tusker â€” the local beer. â€œWe wanted the restaurant to be an unpretentious, fun, modern-day African roadside diner,â€ says Priyan Kolapara, director of operations at Nyama Mama. â€œWe have a few more restaurant concepts opening in 2017, with the aim of making Nairobi the London of Africa.â€
Talking of London, Nairobi night spot The Alchemist wouldnâ€™t look out of place in Shoreditch. This outdoor bar, club and food court is strung with festoon lights and liberally sprinkled with cool kids. Thereâ€™s a brightly painted Routemaster, a tattoo parlour, a boutique and now a host of food trucks parked on-site. The most interesting might be Mama Rocks, set up by two Kenyan-Nigerian sisters raised in south London. Theyâ€™re dishing up gourmet burgers â€œAfrican styleâ€, which come with chilli mango sauce or kachumbari (Kenyan salsa), and coconut chicken wings in a guava reduction.
Hopping aboard the food truck trend is Jâ€™s Fresh Bar & Kitchen. This is a great spot to sink a Dawa or four â€” Kenyaâ€™s national cocktail of vodka, honey and lime juice means medicine in Swahili, so drinking several of them must be good for you. Jâ€™s Fresh Bar complements its gastro-pub menu (devised by Julian Nicholls, who trained under Gordon Ramsay) with a Mexican food truck outside, and the tacos have been so popular that Jâ€™s Scottish owner Johnnie McMillan has plans to open a Mexican restaurant in the city later this year.
Nairobiâ€™s modern, multicultural outlook is reflected in the diverse cuisines on offer. Sushi-lovers can head to Japanese-Korean favourite Furusato, while much-loved Asian-fusion restaurant Talisman is worth a visit for its feta and coriander samosas and Chilli Passion martinis. Kenya is also known for its world-class Indian food, a legacy of the Indians who came here a century ago to build the railway linking Uganda and Kenya. The Diamond Plaza, in Nairobiâ€™s Indian Quarter, is a real gem. Chowpatyâ€™s tangy chana masala, plus a chewy, buttered naan from Anils, and a fresh ginger sugar cane juice from Fresh â€™nâ€™ Healthy will keep you happy.
Anyone interested in the journey from farm to fork should take a day trip to Brownâ€™s Cheese, 45 minutes from the hustle of the city in the hills of Tigoni. Tours of this family-run dairy are offered Thursday to Saturday by Delia Stirling, whose parents set up production in 1979 because they missed being able to get a good brie (they were born in Kenya but their grandparents were British). Her parents brought the starter cultures over to Kenya in their suitcase and now their award-winning cheeses are sold all over the world. After a pungent tour of the factory, you sit down to a cheese-tasting lunch with organic salads. Save room for ice-creams in flavours such as salted caramel, coconut and lime.
The first thing to bear in mind when eating your way around Nairobi is the traffic; Â set off well before youâ€™re Â hungry. And donâ€™t be disheartened when your Uber pulls up at a mall â€” this is where many of the cityâ€™s best restaurants are found. But thatâ€™s all part of the charm. As Kiran Jethwa points out, the Nairobi food scene has not yet hit peak hipster. â€œItâ€™s not like people are doing mandazi cronuts,â€ he jokes â€” mandazis being deep-fried Swahili doughnuts. But it might only be a matter of time.
True Luxury Travel (020 3137 1247; trueluxury.travel) offers food tours of Nairobi from Â£1,450pp, based on two people sharing for three nights. Includes B&B, transfers, private guiding, lunch, dinner and return economy fights from London with British Airways.
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