In the midst of the upgrade on saturday, we decided to get some lunch. We’d worked all day getting prepared for the big moment when I realized that I was freaking out like every client with whom I’d dealt in the past two years. I’d held meetings, printed out project plans, and had a strict timeline in place, all thrown to the wind for lunchtime.
Reluctantly, I agreed to go along. Everything was moving as planned and there were three of us who could install client workstations. We (the installer, the IT manager and the IT assistant, two guys from accounts, and myself) piled in a giant Toyota Land Cruiser used for Safaris.
We traveled along Ngong Road, and I began to think we’re headed for the Nakumatt. But we took a different turn off the roundabout.
I had no idea where we were gonna eat, but I tried to act cool. It was as if I was being accepted by these guys and to look disgusted or scared at their choice of dining establishment would not be good.
So we pulled up to a butcher shop and we all got out. Kidneys were sitting piles of blood in plexiglas in half hotel pans. Entire sides of beef were hanging in a cooler that didn’t look so cool. A guy was a hacking away at an unidentifiable cut on a displaced tree stump. The walls and tables were wooden with some dirty mirrors and pastel-colored formica, respectively. The place was lit only by the sunlight pouring through the entrance and wouldn’t’ve passed one of those letter-graded California sanitation tests by any means.
Flies were all over everything.
I suppose I should clarify. It seems flies are everywhere, uh, everywhere. But there’s something about flies on food that we don’t like in the west. I remember hearing when I was a kid that flies expectorate on whatever they’re about to consume. Like believing swallowed gum stays in your stomach for a week, I know it’s probably not true.
I still don’t swallow chewing gum.
We walked in and I could feel the eyes up the mzungu. It’s not like I felt unwelcome or that I was uncomfortable. It’s like you don’t expect to see an iBanker at a bar in alphabet city or a old woman sitting in a college lecture. I was just out of place
Of course I probably looked a bit scared. Anyone else ever eaten in a butcher shop? As it turned out there was a kitchen in the back, so at least my fly covered meat would be cooked.
We walked into the back to wash our hands and I got a glimpse of the kitchen. The floor was bare cement and the ceiling went straight up to the wooden rafters and the corrugated metal roof. Innumerable small pots simmered and boiled away on a large range while prep cooks stood behind a counter (presumably) chopping vegetables. I tried not to look around to much so as not to appear to be surveying or judging.
We’d only returned to our table for a moment before a woman appeared presented steaming roasted meat upon a wooden chopping block with little piles of salt at the corners. With a large knife in one hand and our meat in the other she proceeded to chop it up.
Everyone started digging in. Literally. The thoroughly cooked pieces of charred meat were picked up with fingers dipped in the edge of the salt piles and popped in anxious mouths all around the table.
As a former line cook and restaurant manager I could not help being a little horrified at the sanitation at service, and now consumption.
I suppose it didn’t help that the butcher was still slashing through meat and bone with a hacksaw only 4 feet away.
Not to mention the flies.
I thought for a moment about saying I wasn’t hungry. But again, how would I feel if these guys came to visit me in the states and I took em to a taqueria and they said the same thing? They invited me as an equal and for me to act like I was above the meal, would essentially be saying that I was above them and their way of life.
Realizing I had already waited too long to start eating, my internal monologue smacked me around a little and said “Ahh, screw it.”
When in Rome, right?
The meat was really quite tasty. It was rich and heavy marbled, though without the fatty bits, it would’ve been dry and chewy. Spoken like a true hotelie, the simplicity of the dish held true to the natural flavor of the beef.
As the guys were gnawing on the bones of the first dish, the woman reappeared and replenished the board once again with her bare hands. After the second course I was nearly filled up, but it was apparently only the appetizer. Piles of meat and bones in a rust-colored sauce on plastic, translucent blue plates arrived next. As well as smaller plastic plates heaped with ugali.
Ugali is like the bread of east African cuisine. It’s basic, cheap, starchy, cornmeal flour mixed with water and served hot. The best way I can describe ugali would be that it looks pale like mashed potatoes, but has the texture of doughy polenta, with cous cous and grits. But without butter or salt. I’d had ugali before for lunch at base camp, but I’d eaten with a fork there. I began to think that the beef on the cutting board was an experience enough, and I was already practically full. So I sat back, belched silently to myself, and observed the guys.
They grabbed big chunks of ugali and rolled it around in their right hand and pressed pieces of meat into it with their thumbs. At first I’m not sure if I should do the same, but so as not to look like a fool for imitating, I decided I’d just do my own thing. The meat was tough, a bit sinewy, and probably could have could have been braised for quite a bit longer. The sauce was not as spicy nor flavorful as I’d anticipated, and I think it was tomato based. It was a little greasy.
This whole time I was being asked if I liked the food and of course I said it was delicious. But one guy stopped me and told me I was eating it wrong. I joked that any way one gets food to one’s mouth is the right way to eat. They laughed, but showed me how to use the ugali by pressing my thumb into the oval, creating a spoon, scooping up some meat, eating, and re-rolling it into a ball.
I grabbed some ugali and worked it in my palm holding it up to for the approval of the table.
As I made my ugali spoon there was a murmur.
As my thumb pushed some meat dripping with sauce into my spoon and my hand lifted to mouth, the praise was audible and positive.
Our consumption slowed as bellies told our brains we’d had our fill. As we laughed a bit more I didn’t care about the sanitation. As we stood up and washed our hands again, I cared that only that I shared a meal with friends.
That is until I saw the glistening entrails and unidentifiable cow-parts skewered on hooks, hanging on the wall, covered in flies.
At least I didn’t eat that.