Saturday, 13 September 2014

Kenya Flavours @ Swissotel Kolkata

We had braved a scorching May afternoon in New Delhi to catch a show of The Ghost and the Darkness. I was all of nine and my companions, my cousins M and B, 13 and 8 respectively. My grandfather had accompanied us but all the while the three of us pretended we were on our own. It made us feel like grownups. Besides, it was the first time that I was going to watch a film in the theatre . It felt like a definitive day of my life. My parents have never been the movie-going kinds and prior to that day I had not savoured the bliss of watching a film on the giant screen while chomping on popcorn and siping on chilled Coca Cola. This was back in 1996 and as far as I can remember

At first I had thought the film was a horror flick. My grandfather said, it was about a pair of lions. I was a little disheartened. I loved, still do,  horror films. Anyway, on the way to the threatre, we had gone to Priya Cinema hall in Vasant Vihar, my grandfather gave us a little background information, he told us about the Man Eaters of Tsavo.

Yes the film, starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer,  was about the two notorious lions of Tsavo, Kenya, who preyed on the labourers building the Uganda-Mombasa Railway at the end of the nineteenth century. At nine, the film was an overwhelming experience for me and few of the scenes haunted me for nights after. In fact the film is still a favorite, expert verdict notwithstanding. And ever since I have wanted to go to Tsavo. And as I grew up a Kenyan safari has been at the top of my wish list.   

But what I hadn’t much idea about was Kenyan cuisine. And when I, along with fellow members of KFB, received a invite to sample Kenyan cuisne at Swissotel Kolkata Neotia Vista’s Kenyan Food Festival, I was ecstatic. This was one food festival I couldn’t miss.  Chef  Zachary Ngugi Mugori, of FairmontNorfolk, Nairobi has come down all the way from Kenya to introduce Calcutta to the nuances of Kenyan cuisine.

We were at Mayaa, I picked a seat by the glass wall overlooking the marshlands and grazing fields of Rajarhaat, sounds exotic eh. On the table in front of me was an assortment of mouth-watering appetizers. I passed the grilled prawns with mango salsa with a heavy heart, but then there was the absolutely exotic pumpkin leaf wrapped stuffed with sweet pumpkin, goat’s cheese, cinnamon and honey, a subtly flavoured grilled chicken on skewers and piping hot potato croquettes with a green pea centre.  The pumpkin leaf wraps were striking, more so because I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I wasn’t too crazy about them and stopped at one. But the chicken skewers were quite good, in an understated, subtle sort of way. But I went berserk over the potato croquettes. Yes it is strange that I would go to a food festival serving an assortment of exotic Kenyan dishes and wolf down half a dozen potato croquettes, albeit delightfully flavoured and with a beautiful golden brown crust, but for a potato fanatic like me, I simply can’t help it. No reason stands in the way! PC, my friend and fellow blogger whole heartedly shared in my potato plunder. Did that make me feel less guilty? Well…

Since there was no hurry, I chatted a little, clicked a few photographs all in an effort to fortify myself for the buffet across the room. The cynosure of the buffet spread was definitely a whole young goat roasted to perfection. And its lure was irrisistible. But before that there was a delightful spread of salads, a selection of artisan breads and a giant pot of carrot and ginger soup to deal with.  I am not  fan of soups and I had no intention to fill up on it, not after I had caught a glimpse of the meats on offer. So I piled up some bread and a few dollop of butter and proceeded towards the salad.

Now I love salad. But I am a little choosy. I only eat salads that is in breach of the very aim of eating salads. So, I went straight for the Sweet Potato Crispy Bacon salad, drizzled a little of this garlicy dressing on it, reflected for a moment, and went for a second helping right away and made my way to the roasted goat. I am not a pro at carving meat , I am very clumsy, and so for the longest time I stood there, salivating all the while, trying to figure out how to go about it.  At this point, chef Pranay came to my rescue and offered to send the meat over to my table.

At the table there was no stopping me. I slathered obscene amounts of butter on my bread and savoued them with the delightful potato salad, chewing on the crunchy bacon with utmost pleasure. Between mouthfuls of bread and salad, I struggled to hold a meaning conversation with PC. And then the meat arrived, cut in big chunks and drizzled with caramelised jus. The minty roasted meat coated with the delightfully flavourful caramely jus was definitely was definitely one of the highlights of the meal. I craved a second helping but then chided myself. There were several other dishes to go through. And I needed a 
fresh plate.

A fresh plate in hand I sauntered down the table, checking out each dish, debating on which one to try first. I stopped at the Ugali. I knew Ugali, cornmeal cakes that are a staple in his part of Africa. I had read about them and I was looking forward to trying them. Chef Mugori joined me at this point. He stacked a few Ugali cakes on my plate, and on top of it he spooned over some Sukuma Wiki. He took a few steps further down the table to the platter of Kachumbari, a salad made with finely chopped tomatoes, onions and cucumber. The Ugali, chef Magori told me, is savoured through out the country, It is had with meats (grills or stews), milk, fresh or fermented, or milk mixed with animal blood. The Sukuma Wiki, basically collard greens, seasoned and sauteed with onions, loosely translates to “take through the week,” chef Magori said.Its affordable and hence can be had every day of the week. It is the daily food in Kenya. In Calcutta, the chef used spinach to recreate the dish.

I moved on to the meats. There was grilled quail and aubergines, beef medallions served with vegetable in its natural juices, reduced to a flavourful jus and grilled lamb chops served on a bed of fried potatoes in a similar, yet differently flavoured, jus. Chef Mugori was piling my plae with meats whilst talking about the regional versatality of Kenyan cuisine. The spread he had designed had elements from different parts on Kenya. The Nyama Choma, grilled meats are chiefly the bastion of the nomadic Masai tribes who are primarily engaged in aial husbandry, and were continually on the move following their herds wherever they went. Hence they are largely dependent on animal meat which they can grill on open fire in the wilderness. Chef Mugori pointed towards the Bekti fillets in tamarind and coconut sauce and grilled prawns further down the table, “those dishes represent the coastal region of Kenya. Game birds like quail is consumed extensively in the western part of the country. Incidentally, Kenya food also displays elements of Indian cuisine. Indian migration to Kenya began with the transportation of indentured labourers to Kenya during the construction of the Uganda railways (yes the Tsavo connection too) and many of them chose to settle in Kenya. Gradullay the number increased and today Kenya has a sizeable Indian population who have also influenced the country’s cuisine. The Coconut rice, plantains  in a peanut sauce and a flavourful lentil curry were dishes with significant Indian influences chef Magori said.

 Back at my table the amount of food on my plate intimidated me. But this was no time to be inhibited. I chose to dig in. The tender quail meet easily fell of the bone and with a slice of grilled aubergines and dunked in its light, subtly flavoured jus it was nice. Though I wasn’t particularly crazy about it. The beef medallions were cooked just right, soft, a little chewy and oh-so-juicy. It’s natural jus was beautifully caramlised and the grilled vegetables, peppers, Kenyan beans, onions and brocolli added a crunch to the dish. I savoured it with my Ugali and sukuma wiki for that authenticity kick. I had planned to return for the vegetarian dishes, but by the time my plate was polished clean I was gasping for breath. There was the dessert section to sample still, and I decided to give the lentils and plantains a miss. Desserts are important and I was not missing them. 

Chef Magori chose to exhibit Kenyas indigenous fruits  as part of the days desserts. The dessert section comprised sweet potato strudels that were strictly okay, kashata, a deadly sweet and chewy coconut cookie, a shocking green in colour, an assortment of fresh tropical fruits and the best possible conclusion to a delicious meal, a pineapple crumble served with chocolate, vanilla and mango sauces. The pineapple crumble, with its crunchy, crumble outside, and soft, gooey inside is one of the best desserts I have sampled in a long time. I instantly declared it my favourite and despite numerous warnng from my stomach, I took a second helping of. If I go back for a second round of Kenyan goodness, it will be above all for the pineapple crumble. 

Go check it out! 

Festival details
When : Till September 16, 2014, Dinner only
Where: Café Swiss, Swissotel Kolkata Neotia Vista
Pocket pinch: Rs 1600 plus taxes / person.

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