Ask any expat East African what food they miss most and they’ll tell you nyama choma. In The Gambia, it’s known as afra; and in South Africa it’s what you have at a braai. All over the continent, roast or grilled meat is the heart of any big meal and, whenever possible, it is the meal.
A meat feast is also the only occasion in Africa when you’ll find men doing the cooking – charring hunks of bloody flesh clearly answering a visceral male need that kings of the barbecue the world over would admit.
Most people don’t eat meat often, subsisting on a simple starch dish for their regular meal of the day, so it’s perhaps not surprising that when the occasion demands or provides a banquet, meat is the main fare. In Kenya or Tanzania, unless you happen to be invited to a wedding or funeral, you’ll go to a purpose-built nyama choma bar, where flowing beer and loud music are the standard accompaniments, with greens and ugali (a stiff, corn porridge, like grits) optional. The choice is usually between goat and beef, with game meat such as impala, zebra or ostrich available at fancier places. If you select one of these, usually with an all-you-can-eat price tag equivalent to about a week’s average wages, you should cannily resist the early offerings of soup, bread and sausages, leaving space for the main events.
After roasting, your meat is brought to your table on a wooden platter, chopped up to bite-size with a sharp knife, and served with a small pile of spiced salt and a hot sauce of tomato, onion, lime and chilies. You eat with your fingers, of course. You’ll need a good appetite, strong jaws and plenty of time – to wait for your chosen roast, to chew and digest, to pick your teeth while downing a few more beers and to honour the dance requests that inevitably come your way, no matter how full you might feel.
Standard practice at meat bars is to go to the kitchen and order by weight direct from the butcher’s hook or out of the fridge. Carnivore, on Langata Road, is Nairobi’s best-known and biggest nyama choma bar.