Compile a list of the world’s top foodie destinations and it’s a pretty safe bet that Kenya wouldn’t make the cut. Up until now, the country has failed to gain any kind of glamorous status for its food culture, predominantly because traditional eats are created to be filling and inexpensive.
Staple meals like ugali – a doughy porridge made from maize flour rolled into balls and teamed with goat stew – are the go-to diet for locals. Side dishes might consist of irio – a mash of corn, beans, potatoes and greens – or leafy vegetable sukuma wiki (which means ‘to stretch the week’, signalling that it is generally affordable and available all year round).
So by these benchmarks, it’s understandable that Kenya isn’t occupying a top spot on the discerning foodie’s bucket list. But times are changing, and thanks to the capital’s flourishing diversity, there’s an exciting restaurant scene beyond the ugali.
Nairobi is home to a varied population of races, ethnicities and edible influences that are centuries old. As far back as 1496 the Portuguese landed on Kenyan shores bringing with them foods from Brazil such as pineapples and chillies. Later, with the arrival of more Europeans, came cucumbers and tomatoes. At the turn of the twentieth century the British enlisted thousands of Indians to build the railway line and so too arrived spicy dishes, chapattis and more.
Today, these influences continue to grow and develop at a rapid pace in line with the development of Nairobi itself. There is pop-up dining, ‘naked’ pizza with a healthy edge and urban eating in a trendy setting. You can even have a tub of almond or cashew butter delivered to your door. Fancy a piece of the pie? Here are six of the best places to experience Kenya’s gastronomic transformation in Nairobi:
A weekly go-to for locals and expats alike, Habesha has earned its reputation as the best Ethiopian restaurant in Nairobi through a combination of great service, a homely atmosphere and delicious food. The traditional Ethiopian cuisine is served with injera, a giant spongy flatbread that arrives on a silver tray filling the whole table. Accompanying dishes such as shiro (a smooth chickpea stew) and wat (spicy curry with a variety of spiced vegetables) are placed on top. The real charm, though, is in the setting as dinner is served around a rustic flaming fire pit.
Traditionally Indian and strictly vegetarian, Chowpaty is immensely popular with both vegetarian and carnivorous foodies, and championed by locals as offering ‘the best Indian food outside of India’. It’s a simple, no-frills place in terms of decor situated in Diamond Plaza – Nairobi’s answer to little India. But, frankly, looks don’t matter little when the food is this delicious. Try the dahi pouri – crunchy balls of spiced veggie goodness served with cool pouring yoghurt, to be scoffed whole. These little bundles of joy go excellently with the creamy mushroom tikka masala, a garlic naan and some cracking paneer. The best spot to soak up the atmosphere is from one of the outdoor street stalls.
Undisputed by many as offering some of the best food in Nairobi, Talisman promotes itself as an elegant gastrolounge situated in affluent Karen. The food – a fusion of European, Pan-Asian and African – is no doubt excellent; from the crispy feta and coriander samosas served with a gingery soy sauce to the blue cheese salad with a sweet maple dressing. The atmosphere is romantic and the outdoor seating tranquil with pretty surrounds. Though do avoid Friday nights when shady characters come out in droves and it becomes more sleazy pub than elegant bar.
Meaning ‘street’ in Thai, Soi is possibly Nairobi’s most gleamingly sophisticated restaurant. A new kid on the block that forms part of the DusitD2 hotel complex, it offers a funky, modern ambience with low-hanging carved wood lamps and cosy booths scattered with cushions. Expertly cooked dishes by the resident Thai chef include sweet papaya salad, crispy spring rolls, crunchy pak choi and zesty green curry. Going hungry is not an option as the portions are huge, so order lightly or expect to take home one heck of a doggy bag.
A charming little world-food restaurant, About Thyme is hidden in the woodland of Nairobi’s Westlands area. The menu here is diverse and imaginative, the dishes elegantly presented and the flavours top-notch. The best time to visit is Sunday brunch when you can enjoy the most popular item on the menu: baked eggs in a creamy spinach sauce, teamed with slices of crispy toast. Bag the square table with the comfy seats and puffy cushions in the shade.
An Aladdin’s cave of traditional African food, Le Palanka is proof that Kenyan food can be delicious. In fact, their menu encompasses influences from across the continent – from Kenya to Mali and Cameroon to the Ivory Coast and more. A popular favourite is the DJ curry – a sweet and spicy dish with the crunch of fresh vegetables. Traditional sides include fried plantain with a caramelised edge, West African jollof rice and sweet potato and plantain mash. The decor is traditional and full of colour, with giant fire pits, tented tables warmed by chimineas and a stone bar that looks like it’s straight out of the Flintstones.