It is 30 minutes by Land Rover from the local airstrip to Naboisho Camp, unless it is your first time on safari, in which case it is a 2 hour drive. Or so we are told by the local guide who has driven out to meet the little propeller plane in which we have just traveled from Nairobi. At first, I can't quite work out what this slightly enigmatic statement might mean, but two minutes later, and a few hundred metres from the airstrip away, when we spot a group of giraffes and I am standing on the seat of the car, head out of the open roof, taking the first of what will be hundreds of giraffe pictures, the mystery is promptly solved. Another minute later with only a further ten metres driven, two bull elephants come crashing picturesquely through the undergrowth. Our guide stops and resignedly turns off the engine completely - 2 hours suddenly began to seem like an optimistic estimate...
We do eventually arrive in camp though, and fortunately, just in time for lunch. The camp is a series of large canvas tents, the main communal area formed of two especially big tents supported by wooden beams, and completely open along both the front and back sides. Beyond the tents, there is a circular area of clipped grass in the centre of which grows a tall native fig tree. A long table is set for lunch under the tree, and on another table a picnic buffet is spread atop a pale chequered table cloth. I no longer recall what I had expected 'safari food' to be like (lots of things from tins perhaps?), but the genteel little summer picnic scene played out on a small patch of manicured land, otherwise completely surrounded by the African bush, made for a very pleasant surprise. Comfortably seated in a canvas camping chair, tucking into fresh bread, chicken salad and homemade chutneys, pouring a lunchtime glass of wine from a beautiful sea glass carafe, it is easy to forget that the camp has no fences, and that where the clipped grass stops, and the long grass starts, a host of as yet unseen inhabitants lurk - inhabitants to whom I might constitute a similarly tasty lunch!
The next morning, at the less civilized time of 6am, we are back under the fig tree readying ourselves to head out into the long grass - on foot. Unlike the larger national game parks, such as the Mara, Naboisho is a conservancy, or a large parcel of land, owned by a cooperative of local herds-people, under which a different set of safari rules apply. One of these rules is that you do not need to stay in a vehicle, you can go on guided walks if you'd like. We'd been recommended walking in the bush as a great way to appreciate some of the smaller flora and fauna, as well as a means to get a view of things from the perspective of the game animals themselves.
This morning though, talk was no longer of bird life and micro-fauna, but focused on the much more macro issue of what we were to do if charged by an angry lion. 'Clump together as a group,' we were told, 'Make yourself as large as possible,' 'Be sure to always stay facing the lion,' and, most importantly, 'Whatever you do, don't run. Only food runs'!
This difficult-to-enact piece of advice was accompanied by another equally difficult one, concerning a more unexpectedly dangerous animal: 'If a bull buffalo decides to charge you, you must quickly climb the nearest tree,' we were matter-of-factly informed. Our guide provided a deft on-the-spot demonstration of this by shimming effortlessly up the branch-free trunk of the fig. 'You seem to have done this before,' we observe worriedly. 'I have been charged by buffalo hundreds of times,' he proudly confirmed, arms spread wide for emphasis.
Fortunately our closest pedestrianized buffalo encounter is at a distance of over a kilometre, which turns out to be safe, but not so safe as to omit the need for another quick tree-climb practice demonstration on one of the alarmingly few trees available out on the high open plains. The lions, thankfully, stay out well out of sight on this particular morning. After having borne witness to the ferocity of fighting between competing lion families the evening before (from the safety of a vehicle), and having endured a sleepless night of lion roars that seemed to emanate from just outside the flimsy tent walls, I was not sure that I was up to the task of staring down a charging lion. Besides, being lunch, as opposed to writing about it, is one food blogger irony too far!
Picnic Curried Chicken
Safari lunches were either at camp itself, on the long table, under the fig, or, if on a day-long game drive, packed into a large hamper and set up under another similarly scenic tree out on the plains. The following lunch is a bit of a tribute to the Naboisho picnic experience that aims to also pick up on some of the regional flavours as well as make use of some of the ingredients that are locally grown and widely consumed within Kenya. At the same time, the colonial flavour of the activity of safari-ing itself comes through in the style of the dishes, and in their presentation, so that the absurd feeling of the 'civilized' summer day picnic transported to the African plains is preserved.
In the following dish, the strong Indian influence in East African cuisine (arriving courtesy of the merchants and tradespeople who migrated from the sub-continent in the 19th century) is subject to a sort of Anglicisation. Like the classic example of this type, Coronation Chicken, this picnic chicken sandwich filling is made from a curry base, but adapted with ingredients not usually found in Indian curries, such as the pineapple.
The richness of the tomato in this dish makes it a really great accompaniment to the cornbread that follows, (cornbread does like a moist topping), and then there is the corn and tomato relish to up the ante on this particular flavour combination even further. Spicy, sticky and very more-ish, this curry is also tropical enough to lend itself to being made with prawns instead of chicken, and would also be good served hot, with some of the pilau rice from last week's Zanzibari feast for instance.
- 1kg chicken breast
- 10 tablespoons of sunflower or canola oil
- 1 medium-sized brown onion – finely chopped
- 3cm piece of ginger – finely grated
- 2 red chillies – the first de-seeded and finely chopped, the second finely sliced to garnish
- 2 cloves garlic – crushed
- ½ teaspoon of turmeric
- 2 teaspoons of curry powder
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon of whole cloves (approx. 8 individual cloves)
- 4 tablespoons coconut cream
- 4 tablespoons mango chutney
- 200g cherry tomatoes – chopped into eighths
- Salt and black pepper
- 4 tablespoons of tinned pineapple chunks (or 2 rings of tinned pineapple) – roughly chopped into small segments
- 3 limes
- Small bunch of coriander leaves to garnish – roughly chopped
- 1 spring onion to garnish – finely sliced
Grind the whole cloves into a powder using a mortar and pestle, then toast this alongside the other ground spices (cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, and curry powder) in a dry frying pan over a medium heat. When the spices become fragrant, (usually after about 3 minutes or so), remove from the heat and set aside.
In a wide casserole pan, (one that is big enough to accommodate the chicken), heat 4 tablespoons of the sunflower oil over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and gently fry this until it begins to colour slightly. Now add the grated ginger, chopped red chilli, and crushed garlic. Fry everything together for a further 4 minutes, stirring frequently so as to prevent the garlic from burning. Once cooked, scrape the mixture out of the fry pan and into bowl. Put this aside for now.
Prepare the chicken by carefully removing any tendon, and then chopping the meat into bite-sized cubes. Using the same pan as for the onion mixture, heat the remaining 6 tablespoons of sunflower oil over high heat. The idea now is to lightly fry the chicken, until it golden on all sides, but not cooked through. Depending on the size of your pan, it may be necessary to do this in batches, as the pan does have to be hot to get a good sear and overcrowding reduces the temperature.
Once all the chicken is looking lovely and golden, reduce the heat to medium-low, and re-introduce the onion mixture to the pan, along with the toasted spice mix. Stir until everything is combined, then add the mango chutney, and coconut cream. Simmer for a further two minutes, before adding the chopped tomatoes. Sprinkle in some salt and this stage, (approx. 2 teaspoons), along with a generous grind of black pepper.
This dish is intended to be almost jammy in texture as opposed to a liquid-y curry. Having said this, depending on how juicy or otherwise your tomatoes are, it may be necessary to add up to about 100ml of water at this stage. Proceed with caution though, if you think you need it, add about half this, and continue cooking for a further 5 minutes or so before you add any more as the tomatoes will continue to release more water as they cook.
Once you’ve added any necessary water, cover the pan with a lid, and, keeping the heat at a simmer, continue to cook for 15-20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
To finish, stir through the pineapple segments, and squeeze in the juice of two of the limes. Mix everything through and do a quick seasoning check – add more lime, salt, or pepper to taste if you’d like.
Sprinkle with some chopped coriander, sliced spring onion, red chilli, and lime wedges to garnish, then serve alongside the warm cornbread, and sweet corn relish. (I like to slather my cornbread with butter before adding the chicken and relish but am aware that this is not necessarily behaviour I should encourage in others, (it does taste especially good though!), sorry). The chicken is equally nice served hot, if you'd prefer to eat it that way, but best not to serve freezing cold and straight from the fridge, leave it out to warm up a bit first.
Cornmeal is a staple in Kenya, (maize arriving in East Africa in the 15th century along with the Portugese) and is used to make one of the nation's most ubiquitous dishes - ugali. A white mash of pounded meal mixed with water, ugali is the usual accompaniment to Kenyan dishes of roasted or stewed meat - arguably a kind of 'Kenyan corn bread' in the sense that it plays the role of a bread in the traditional Kenyan diet, (though physically it is really more akin to a polenta, but without all the butter and cheese). For this Kenyan picnic spread, I've used cornmeal to create a rich and crumbly cornbread that is somewhere between a bread and a savoury scone - the Britishness of scones fitting in quite well with the safari ambiance to my mind. Usefully for a picnic food, it also keeps very well, and should taste fresh for up to three days, (if you still have leftovers after this time, a boost in the microwave does wonders).
(Makes one medium-sized loaf)
- 350g self-raising flour
- 200g cornmeal
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 25g caster sugar
- 2 teaspoons of salt
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon of honey
- 100g butter, plus some extra for greasing
- 400ml milk
- 170g tinned corn (drained weight), so a 200g tin
Put the oven on to pre-heat to 200˚C, then prepare a loaf tin by greasing the sides rather generously with butter.
In a small saucepan, melt 100g of butter over a low heat, and then set aside to cool slightly.
Now set up two bowls – a really big one, and a slightly less big one. In the really big bowl, combine the dry ingredients – so, the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, caster sugar, and salt. Give these a quick stir to combine.
In the second bowl, prepare the wet ingredients. First, crack in the eggs, beating these together briefly with a whisk. Then, add in the honey, and the cooled melted butter.
Using a food processor, give the drained corn kernels a quick blitz – you don’t want to completely pulverize them, just partially, so that there are no whole kernels left, but the mixture is still a bit chunky. Depending on your food processor, this should take around 10-15 seconds. Once blitzed, add to the wet ingredients bowl, along with the milk. Give everything a good stir together.
Now pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix to combine. Be gentle at this point, as over-mixing is not good for the texture of the cornbread. Make sure to get right down to the bottom of the bowl though, as it’s always a danger with a batter like this that the top is well mixed, while the bottom is still floury. Once everything is combined, the batter should have a sponge cake-like consistency – thick, but soft and pourable. If your particular mix is feeling dry, add a little more milk to loosen.
Just before you are ready to bake, pop the loaf tin in the oven to heat. After about 5 minutes heating, remove this from the oven and quickly pour in the batter while the melted butter is still very hot. Expect a satisfying little sizzle at this point. Place the tin back in the oven and cook for 35 minutes, rotating the tin at the timing mid-point if your oven tends to heat unevenly. The bread is ready when a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Cool on a wire rack before turning out on to a tray. The crumbly cake-like texture of this bread is what is nice about it, but it also means you may need to take a little extra care in cutting. I would suggest using a serrated knife carefully in the usual sawing fashion until you are through the crust, but then cutting slowly straight down, to stop the loaf breaking.
Serve hot or at room temperature, with the other picnic bits. (For a yummy next-day lunch, try grilling a slice until almost toasted, then covering with some butter and a few slices of cheese, and popping back under the grill. Serve with any left-over sweet corn relish, and a few freshly sliced spring onions. Kinda Kenyan Rarebit!)
Sweet Corn & Tomato Relish
I am not entirely sure what distinguishes a relish from a chutney. There is probably a formal definition to be found somewhere... It is my vague feeling though that a relish should be more tangy, and maybe a little more crunchy too. So, for crunch, this relish includes celery and red capsicum, and for tang, the tart cherry tomatoes, as well of course, as a good splash of vinegar.
(Makes two of the 150ml-sized jars pictured)
- 25g butter
- 1 red onion – finely sliced
- 1 stick of celery – finely chopped
- 1 red chilli – de-seeded and finely chopped
- ½ a red small pepper (capsicum) – de-seeded and finely chopped
- 60g raw sugar
- 1 teaspoon of turmeric
- 150g cherry tomatoes – diced
- 1 cob of corn
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 100ml white wine vinegar
To prepare the corn, place this into a saucepan of boiling water and blanch for 3 minutes, before draining. When cool enough to handle, strip the kernels from the cob using a sharp knife. Run the knife over the pile of kernels a couple of times, just to break the individual kernels apart from one another a little and create a varied texture.
Heat the butter in a small saucepan over a medium-low heat. Once melted, add the sliced onions and cook very slowly, stirring these around occasionally. By cooking slowly, we are attempting to caramelise the onions in their own sugar, so after around 15 minutes, they should have begun to colour, and have softened significantly. Now add the celery, and continue to cook slowly. Ten minutes or so later, add the chilli and the chopped red pepper (capsicum), cooking everything together for a further 5 minutes. Keep stirring occasionally to ensure that nothing is beginning to stick or burn.
When everything is looking soft and well-caramelised, add the sugar, and stir this through. Then add the turmeric, diced cherry tomatoes, corn kernels, salt, and the vinegar. Sir everything together, and simmer for 20-30minutes until you have a sweet sticky relish.
Sterilise your glass jars by placing these, along with their lids, in a large pot of cold water and bringing to the boil. The water, which should cover the jars, needs to be brought to a rolling boil. After 10 minutes boiling the jars will be sterilised and can be handled carefully using metal tongs or an oven glove.
Fill the jars to as high as possible with the relish before sealing tightly. The jars can be stored at room temperature, but once opened need to be refrigerated. Un-opened jars should last for up to three months, but once opened, consume the relish within 3 days.
‘What would you like for sundowner?’ This an important and oft-asked question on safari. The first time it was put to us, we had yet to arrive at camp, and were still bumping along in the Land Rover on the way from the airstrip. Our driver had been casually filling us in on the scary and important stuff – ‘the camp has no fences,’ ‘if you need to leave your tent at night, make sure you are accompanied at all times by a guide,’ then suddenly she stopped the car, turned right round, and said in a low and very serious voice, ‘Now – I need to ask you... what do you want for sundowner?’
At first, it is fair to say that I did not quite appreciate the significance of the sundowner. But, on that afternoon’s game drive, when the sun was setting and were about to leave the safety of the vehicle for the first time to have a drink on the rapidly darkening plains, I quickly understood the advantage proffered by a strong dose of Dutch courage. Surprised, and at a bit of a loss as to what to choose the first time I was asked, I chose a straightforward G&T, but by the end of the trip, our choice beverage had been well established, and when asked, it was always ‘A Dawa please.’
Swahili for ‘good medicine,’ Dawa is like a Caprioska, but with honey – and you’ll be surprised at the difference this makes. On our way out of Nairobi, I bought some special Dawa mixing sticks as a souvenir, but these are also an important element of the drink-making process I think. There is something key to the character of the drink in extracting the honey from a deep tub by twirling it on the stick and then swiveling it about as you drink. Many improvisations are possible though, so set about finding some suitable tools, and get mixing.
(Makes one tumbler)
- 1 lime - cut into quarters
- 1 tablespoon raw sugar
- one 'dip' of honey - (as measured out very inaccurately with the mixing stick)
- 2 shots of vodka
- Ice cubes to serve
Using the mixing stick, muddle the lime quarters and sugar together in the bottom of the glass, extracting as much juice as possible from the lime in the process. Add the ice to the glass, then pour over a generous helping of vodka. Dip the mixing stick into a tub of honey and mix what you manage twirl onto the stick through the vodka and lime. Enjoy outside the safety of your vehicle.
(Medicinal benefits not guaranteed)
Fresh Ginger Beer
In the Land Rover drinks cooler, there were always a number of different types of local ginger beer available. The first one I tried was sweet and mellow, I liked it; the next variety was more gingery, I liked it even better; but the best of all was third – it was called Stoney Tangowezi (what a great name) – and was almost eye-wateringly ginger-flavoured and spicy. The recipe below is a tribute ginger beer, and it will have to do until I can convince the local supermarket to stock the real thing…
(Makes approx. two litres)
- 1 litre of water
- 200g fresh ginger – coarsely grated
- 150g raw sugar
- 1 litre soda water
- 5 limes - juiced
Boil the water, then add the grated ginger and sugar, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Leave this aside to infuse for 20 minutes (but no more as the infusion will get really strong - much more than Stoney Tangowezi strong - which is saying something). Strain the mixture, discarding the ginger shavings, and then cool in the fridge until ready to serve.
To make a large jug, place ice cubes at the bottom and pour in the ginger infusion, followed by the soda water and lime juice, stirring to combine. Or, assemble glasses individually by pouring in half/half ginger infusion and soda water (or whatever ratio you find perfectly gingery), and adding lime juice to each to taste. Sublimely refreshing after a spicy and sunny safari lunch.
And lastly, another one of my many giraffe pics...