Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Supper time in Busia

Some people have asked what a day in our culinary life looks like.  In a lot of ways our options are more limited, but this also invites creativity.  So here's what a typical day looks like. 


Other than the lack of bagels or fancy coffee made by someone other than ourselves, breakfast in Busia is actually on par with or better than we ate at home.  This is mainly because I often cook a hot breakfast - usually banana pancakes or french toast (we're working through our imported chocolate chips for weekend pancake treats).  If we're running late, breakfast takes a slight turn for the worse.  We'll usually pick up queen cakes (bland and curiously continuously stale tasting muffins) or mandazi (oily deep fried dough that does a disservice its cousin, the donut).  Here's a duka (shop) we'll buy our breakfast on the go.

Where we get our breakfast

One of the more entrepreneurial guards at the office also sells samosas out of the guard post in the morning for 10 Ksh (12 cents), and if we're feeling a bit of intestinal bravery, we'll buy some of those. They're actually really tasty.


For lunch, our options are Msafiri (pictured below) or whatever we can scape together from last night's dinner or scrape out of jars of peanut butter at home.  

Where we eat our lunch

Msafiri is the only eatery within walking distance from work that serves more than 5 items and also does it quickly.  Its menu (really a marked-up piece of pink cardboard taped to the wall) is a pretty good representation of local cuisine, but that's not saying much for local cuisine. No one looks at the menu anyway since there are only about a dozen dishes made in Western Kenya and if you choose one, they likely have it stewing in a pot outsideBasically, most people get ugali, rice or chapati (like friend roti or naan) with a bunch of sides of vegetables -- beans, lentils, cabbage, sukumu wiki, katchumbari (salsa).  Sometimes there's nyama (meat) or kuku (chicken) and sometimes omena (like sardines) also on offerSometimes they'll throw in a mtoke (friend banana).  Sometimes they'll have watermelon for dessert.

The food is actually quite goodThe staff know us and inquire about Caleb and we enjoy practicing our SwahiliBut after just a few days of the same oil-heavy meal, a peanut butter sandwich actually seems enticing


Dinner is the hardest mealOK.  There's no option to eat out or order in when you're just not in the mood or too tired to make dinner. Msafiri you've had for lunch too many times already this weekYour refrigerator is the size of a television, and your pantry is about 4 shelves, so it's not like there are a lot of reserves to pick through to creatively throw together a mealThe upshot of this is that you are forced to buy fresh vegetables on the way home from work and cook them directly - the way nature intended  
Dinner fodder

But you quickly reach the end of your creativity cooking the vegetables and grains on offer from local farms.  Even if you had room in your kitchen the list of foods you'd have to travel 2 hours or more to get is huge and includes zucchini, mushrooms, green beans, dried fruit, lettuce, spinach, brocolli, any chesse other than industrial looking bright orange cheddar, any type of easy-to-cook chicken, fish or meat and canned beans.  (There are plenty of dried beans, but your stove runs on a jug of propane and a 3 hour simmer will eat up too much gas.)

If I wasn't working or looking after a toddler, I'd probably take this opportunity to learn how to slaughter and prepare a chicken, can my own vegetables, grow my own lettuce, bake my own bread.  I might even look into making my own cheese.  But since that's not going to happen any time soon, we try to get creative with what we have. 

Some of our staples are peanut noodles with greens, vegetable stir fries or curries, pasta prima vera, and potato and cabbage stew.  If we don't want to brave the store-front open air butchers, we can sometimes get minced meat, frozen whole chickens or a variety of highly processed meats (hot dogs, sausage, salami) at the one decently sized grocery store in town.  This expands our options some.  A few nights ago we made baked potatoes with meat chili.

We also have a great group of other expats who similarly struggle with the "what's for dinner" dilemma, so we share ideas.  We've learned about a great pumpkin lentil stew and a minced meat and apple stuff squash this way.  I'm also starting a "Busia cookbook" with contributions from the other expats.  So, hopefully we'll be able to expand our repertoire even more.

But other than forcing us to get creative there's one other advantage to eating in Busia.  When you do take those rare trips out of Busia and finally eat those foods you've been missing, the lettuce taste crisper, the cheese more flavorful and the ice cream more mouth wateringly sweet.  So, I'm going to count flavor enhancing as an advantage of our culinary life in Busia.   

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