No matter where you go, people are people, and food is food. That’s one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is this: people are PEOPLE. And food is FOOD. The whole is always more than the sum of its parts! Take Kenyan cuisine, for example, with all its layers, nuances and history. We live in a globalized world, so it shouldn’t surprise us that some of the best loved Kenyan foods were shaped in part by the influence of other countries’ traditions. Cultures have been rubbing shoulders for centuries, and food acts as almost a litmus test of how pervasive these interactions can be. Does this exchange of ingredients and techniques mean that all food is the same, then? I, of course, would argue that this uniquely multi-cultural era is a golden time for cuisine, as recipes and ideas spread from one part of the world to another, enriching the experience of food for everyone.
Of non-native cultures interacting to form Kenya’s distinctive style of cuisine, the influence of India is arguably the only one strong enough to comment on. Back in the 19th century, when railways were forming connections from country to country, a huge population of Indian workers migrated into Kenya. They made up the majority of the railway labor force, and there is still a significant Indian population in Kenya to this day. Their presence is shown enthusiastically through the variety of spices used in Kenyan food, such as curry, cumin and coriander, and through the acceptance of foods like samosas and chapatis into the repertoire of food considered traditionally Kenyan!
However, Indian influence has certainly not resulted in Kenyan cuisine’s loss of identity. The original base was, and still is, Kenyan. Reflective of a largely agrarian population, Kenyan food generally involves some pretty hearty ingredients – potatoes, cornmeal, beans, beef, kale, plantains, and a lot of stews – and Indian spices, along with lots of chilies and peppers, complement these dishes well, giving them the perfect kick.
Kenyan culture, and thus cuisine, also has internal diversity. The presence of a coastline means that the dishes on one side of the country involve a generous amount of seafood and, perhaps, more influence from other cultures than those of the more land-locked and agricultural parts of the country. Kenya itself also contains extremes of both tradition and modernity, with very little physical distance separating, for example, tribal villages and the busy hub of Nairobi. The subtle interactions of these extremes show up in Kenyan cuisine, and the food of our chef Jackie, who isn’t afraid to give her dishes a personal spin. However, the original “audience” for the food is never forgotten.
The majority of Kenyans work in agriculture, and this makes for a distinctive diet with the goal of a body fueled for hard work. “I cook some really traditional foods,” says Jackie. “Stuff for the people on the farms –staples, things that are really affordable and filling as well as delicious.” And of course, nailing down a perfect image of any country’s “traditional” food is near impossible. As Jackie says, it’s really the “traditional” food of a family or community within the larger context of culture that is produced from individual to individual. Jackie’s cuisine, then, is a product of her Kenyan culture, her family, and her own individual tastes – a winning trio.
Like I said, people think food is just food, and some is. A dish can be nothing more than sustenance to be wolfed thoughtlessly down. But real food - food with a personality, a soul, a history, whatever you want to call it - food like Jackie's food, with its unique story reimagined at our capable chef's hands - is FOOD.
- Hallie Brinkman is an intern at MarketShare