I have come to an absolute, if a bit sad conclusion that the solution to our bland continental culinary cuisine does not lie in the big foreign brands that are setting shop in Nairobi with annoying consistency.
Honestly, all that glitters is not gold. Whereas most of these foreign brands get it right on the choice of their furniture, the overall atmosphere; when it comes to what matters the most, food, most of the time, they can be underwhelming. I have scarcely eaten at a five-star and or any of these fancy establishments and looked forward to going back.
In fact, the best nyama choma I ever ate was not in a five star, served with some meaningless sauces. It is probably at some dingy joint at Kamakis on the Northern bypass, served off a chopping board that is home to some prehistoric protozoa. The meat was sizzling, scrunchy, and whereas that is where I caught my mandatory H.pylory, it was worth it.
I have always wanted to test Big Square’s famous ribs. A few corporate female friends have praised the ribs, but the last people you want to trust with good taste for food are corporate women.
When it comes to good food, I have often argued that continental Africans are positively bland. Especially Bantus, who only had boiling and roasting as their means of cooking with salt and Magadi Soda (is it sodium carbonate?) as the only spices. But I want to retract this nonsense I have held for so long. Because at the very least, our foods are flavourful, even without the spices and sauces. Our greens, our meat and everything tests original, because it was always fresh, picked at the right time.
I recently learnt that if you want meat to taste best, it is perfect to get it when the animals is freshly killed and don’t wash the blood off, as we are wont to do, fearing as we do that the meat is dirty. Also, keeping meat in freezers often takes a great deal of taste from them. Living in towns often robs us so many good things.
Our ancestors had a good understanding of food. For instance, if you want to kill a goat back in Kisii, it was common to feed it certain twigs and the large yellowy flowers (Coreopsis maritima, I think)) that grow on the roadside. We value goat bile, what we call Onchuri. Which serves as a sauce for matumbo. With salt and pepper, it is culinary witchcraft. Each society had a way of pre-preparing their food, and the result were brilliant. My favourite still remains slow roasted huge cock drumsticks, that could be roasted for more than a week…It was food for patriarchs.
And that is the difference between African cooking and the rest of the world. The rest of the world, the food is prepared off-the freezer, hence it has to be doused in all manner of oils, sauces and spices to make it palatable.
White people essentially have dead palates. Numbed to death by GMO foods, and that is what their restaurants bring with them. And girls are very good at adapting foreign culture and cuisine. And that is why a corporate woman would rather sip bland Java tea, than walk down to Sizzling to enjoy a cup of properly made masala tea.
A Big Square Platter
Big Square enjoys pride of place as a middle-class eatery. You will definitely love the sitting arrangement, as the seats are spaced out, giving you privacy to enjoy a conversation, especially if you are in a group. However, the Big Square at Shell Petrol Station along Mombasa Road does not have cushioned seats, and the wood can work your ass proper, if you intend to sit there for long.
But this past Monday, I was not there to enjoy the ambience, I wanted to taste their famous ribs. I asked the waitress what she would recommend, and she said their honey-glazed pork ribs will knock me off.
“I am Muslim, so no pork for me,” I bluffed, and in good humour, she told me, I don’t look anything like a Muslim. Some guys have said that I have some a Somali look, something that flatters me, no end, but that only happens when I have a beard, which is currently shaven.
It tasted like any frozen broiler chicken will taste after a year of storage. The taste of pork was indistinguishable.
The profiling aside, I am an Adventist and we have a very strict gastronomic regime, dictated by Mosaic Laws, which forbid pork. I have broken the law, like three times. But despite pork being decadently awesome, when well-fried, it is one indulgence that I have forgone many a time, in line with my religious doctrines.
I have eaten pork like twice before. Back in college, while discovering the magic of beer, and girls and heartbreaks, we would go to Nairobi West Mall, for cheap beer and the best pork in Nairobi. The guys at the mall, used to fry the pork, like that is the only thing they were born to do.
But the only red meat that makes sense is goat meat. I thought I was going to get the goat ribs at Big Square, and here the waitress was telling me that their specialty is pork.
I was disappointed. I pondered if I should try the pork or forego it altogether, but I decided for a review, I would make an exception. She gave me two options, I could go for the ribs exclusively, or go for a platter that has a bit of everything. They call it a medley or something.
I chose the platter that had three pork ribs, some 2 pieces of lamb, and one piece of chicken. There was an option of rice, fries or onion rings for the accompaniment. I am addicted to fries, so that was a given. But I wanted something, just in case fries backfired. Because, lately, in Nairobi, few restaurants can serve you good fries. So, I picked on onion rings, which I love, but normally avoid, because it is always a rip off. But the waitress assured me that their onion rings will be worth my Sh 250.
Now, some good and bad news
The good news is that, their onion rings are finger-licking good. I will try them once again, certainly. Now, when you have a medley of foods, sometimes you don’t know the order to start with. Since I wanted to know the big deal with their pork ribs, I started with them, and that is where the bad news comes in.
Usually, the first bite can tell you if you are going to enjoy the food or not. The first bite was underwhelming. The second, even more underwhelming. The pork tasted like flat beer. Unremarkable. It tasted like any frozen broiler chicken will taste after a year of storage. The taste of pork was indistinguishable. You know that it is meat you are eating, but it could be meat of any animal. So, I gobbled the ribs, more to fill my tummy than to savour it. I didn’t feel the honey over the ribs.
Usually, I prefer my ribs a bit on the dry side, but their ribs were not dry. I am not sure if it was a bad day or that is how they make them every day, but I will not be ordering pork ribs there anytime soon.
Then, some interlude of good news. Their chicken was awesome. Did the waitress tell me that they marinate it with lemon and garlic? It was scintillating, even for someone sworn to hate broiler. It was a huge drumstick, juicy and rollicking good.
For the lamb, I am a Kisii, and we don’t eat sheep at all, unless for sacrifices, which no longer take place. We are the goaty side of things. The fatty smell of lamb can be overwhelming. I didn’t enjoy it as much, even so, I believe, prepared differently, I could have enjoyed it thoroughly.
As for the fries. They are the typical fries to expect in such places. No x-factor. So far the best fries I have enjoyed were at Zipang Club at Nextgen.
Was the experience worth it? Not at all. Certainly, if I ever end up in Big Square, I will go for the chicken. And I will not dare order beer. A White Cap goes for Sh 380. I am not related to Kirubi or Njonjo.