Kenya's Answer To Barbecue Is Part Celebration, Part Test Of Manhood
In Nairobi, Kenya, when friends want to celebrate a birthday, the end of bachelorhood or a graduation, they often go out for goat. This communal and culinary tradition in Kenya is called nyama choma — literally, roasted meat. While it's usually goat, some places offer beef, chicken and lamb. If you know where to look, you can even get illegal zebra and and wildebeest meat.
In between assignments covering failed states and marauding rebels, our East Africa Correspondent John Burnett volunteered to investigate nyama choma (which we place in the "tough assignment but somebody's got to do it" category). Burnett hails from Austin, Texas, or, as he calls it, "the epicenter of the smoking arts." Now nyama choma is not technically barbecue because it's not slow-smoked, but it is grilled, so he says, "close enough."
On a recent lazy Saturday afternoon in Nairobi, Burnett is invited to join three old college chums at the Sagret Hotel's popular nyama choma place. When they arrive, clusters of friends and families are devouring roast goat at tables all around, and drinking Tusker beer — East Africa's version of a Bud — with gusto.
The friends choose their fresh kid goat cuts from a refrigerated glass case — hind legs, ribs, and glistening plates of offal. And then "a sweating cook named Mwangi bastes our order of blood sausage and intestines in a tray of salt water, then throws it on the grill over glowing coals," Burnett reports.
When the cook brings over the charred hors d'oeuvres, Eric Mungai, a computer services entrepreneur, explains the mystique:
"So anytime there's nyama choma everyone's happy, I guess it's like barbecue [but] you don't barbecue for yourself, you call some friends, family over. It's not something you do on your own. It's considered to be a communal thing," he says.
Nyama choma is also ritual. When a man from the Kikuyu tribe marries, he must use a knife — often dull — to sever the roasted goat shoulder joint cleanly, while everyone watches. That's why Mburu Karanja, a beer marketer at a nearby table, is here. He's about to be married, and he needs to practice his knife skills.
"What if you don't do it in one cut?" asks Burnett.
"It's unthinkable. The wedding can be called off. It's actually a test of your manhood," Karanja replies.
Socializing and meat eating go hand in hand in Kenya. Nyama choma dens are packed on Saturday afternoons. Some men eat so much nyama choma that they're developing painful gout, Burnett reports. But they see it as a badge of honor.
"Now that we're living in modern times, people want to have meat as much as they can. It's something very desirable, but its not that affordable. It is suitably called 'the rich man's disease' [so] it's not that common," says Kamau Gachigi, an engineering professor who was sitting at Burnett's table.
Eventually, the roasted goat legs arrive, and the grillman slices them up quickly and cleanly — skills that would impress any bride's family.
The eaters roll up balls of ugali, a polenta-like corn mush, and press it next to the nyama choma. Then they dip it in salt and dunk it in a spicy, tomato relish called kachumbari, Burnett says.
"The succulent meat is as good as the best Mexican cabrito I've ever tasted," Burnett says. "Maybe better."
He was not as thrilled with the blood sausage and guts. "I really wanted to spit the grilled intestines out on the floor," he tells The Salt, "but I didn't want to offend my hosts."
Back at the Sagret Hotel, the schoolmates and their new friend from Texas left the meal and "slouched off into the balmy African afternoon feeling stuffed, satisfied, and connected ... in a way that only a fantastic feast can bring about," Burnett says.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In Nairobi, Kenya, when friends want to celebrate a birthday, the end of bachelorhood or a graduation, they eat goat. It's a communal and culinary tradition in Nairobi called nyama choma - literally, roasted meat.
NPR's John Burnett sent us this postcard on Kenyan barbecue.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A lazy Saturday afternoon in Nairobi finds three old college chums at the Sagret Hotel's popular nyama choma place. They sidle up to a refrigerated glass case, inside of which are displayed piles of various cuts of fresh kid goat - from hind legs to ribs to glistening plates of offal.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
ERIC MUNGAI: He's asking about the (unintelligible). He asked about the blood sausage because I'd ordered it earlier and it's ready.
BURNETT: Should we start with that?
MUNGAI: Yeah. Why not?
BURNETT: Eric Mungai, a computer services businessman, orders in Swahili, then stakes out a table. Under thatched awnings, people are clustered around tabletops covered with bottles of Tusker beer and plates of roasted goat, which they're putting away with enormous gusto.
In the kitchen, a sweating cook named Mwangi bastes our blood sausage and intestines in a tray of saltwater, then throws it on the grill over glowing coals.
(SOUNDBITE OF MEAT GRILLING)
BURNETT: The grillman brings the charred hors devours to the table and cuts them up for the friends to snack on while they introduce the foreigner to the culture of nyama choma. Eric Mungai.
MUNGAI: Anytime there's nyama choma, everyone's happy, but I guess it's a lot like barbecue. You don't barbecue for yourself. You call some friends or family over. It's not a thing that one does on one's own. It's considered to be a communal thing.
BURNETT: Nyama choma is also ritual. When a man from the Kikuyu tribe marries, there is roasted goat at the wedding feast. He's handed a knife, often dull, courtesy of his new in-laws, with which he must sever the shoulder joint with the entire wedding party looking on. This comes from Mburu Karanja, a beer marketer who's about to be wed. He was holding court at a neighboring table with friends so that he could practice the all-important nyama choma slice.
MBURU KARANJA: You have to be able to cut through the meat, cut through the ligaments, cut through the ball and socket and through in one swoop.
BURNETT: With lots of people watching?
KARANJA: With people watching, yeah.
BURNETT: What if you don't do it in one cut?
KARANJA: Oh, it's the unthinkable.
BURNETT: The wedding can be called off?
KARANJA: Yes. It's actually a test of your manhood.
BURNETT: All over Nairobi on this Saturday, nyama choma dins are packed with people quaffing Tusker and devouring grilled meat. Some places offer beef, chicken and lamb. If you know where to look, you can even get illegal zebra and wildebeest meat.
Kenyans eat so much nyama choma that it's affecting their health. Kenyan men who overindulge on roasted meat and beer can develop gout. But rather than fretting over the painful joints the condition causes, it can be considered a sort of badge of honor. Gout is, after all, known as the rich man's disease, says Kamau Gachigi, an engineering professor who's sitting at our table.
KAMAU GACHIGI: Now that we're living in modern times, people want to have meat as much as they can. It's something that's very desirable. But, as I said, not everybody can afford it. So it's still suitably called the rich man's disease. It's not that common.
BURNETT: After 45 minutes, the roasted legs of goat arrive on a cutting board. The grill man, with quick, skilled slices that would impress any bride's family, debones the meat and cuts it into bite-sized pieces. With our fingers, we roll up balls of ugali, polenta-like corn mush, and press it next to the nyama choma, then dip it into little piles of salt and, finally, dunk it into a spicy, tomatoey relish called kachumbari.
That is so good. That is really good.
The succulent meat is as good as the best Mexican cabrito I've ever tasted, maybe better. An hour and a half later, we push back from the table and slouch off into the balmy African afternoon feeling stuffed, satisfied and connected in a way that only a fantastic feast can bring about.
John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.