One of my best friends is bumming around Europe for the summer. Just because. Check out her blog and join me in my envy. It’s ok to hate her, just a little bit.
And of course, when I say “bumming around Europe” I clearly mean “eating her way across the continent”:
It’s freezing cold, but the snow finally arrived with two days to spare, so I will stop complaining about wanting a refund.
There have been a multitude of high points, and I still have more than a week at home. All the regular sappiness: family and friends, warm homes and hearts. But also:
And of course, the joys of fast Internet connections, to bring us gems like this:
“PONIES?!?!” (via Goulet.)
Yesterday was winter solstice — time to celebrate the return of the light. Happy holidays to you and yours.
I love houseguests. Aside from an excuse to cook big family dinners (accompanied by more wine than usual), hosting friends is the push I need to stray from familiar stomping grounds. Kristy was visiting from Mombasa over the weekend, and she soldiered through some “slight malaria” to have some serious fun.
Saturday was a trip to the National Museum. I head there regularly to stroll around the botanical gardens, but this was the first time I laid out the shillings to actually go inside.
The museum has an extremely extensive collection of birds, as well as some interesting art, exhibits on the origins of mankind and the development of Kenya, and the requisite hall of taxidermied animals.
On Sunday, we saw animals that were actually alive. And when I say saw, I mean got hipchecked by a baby elephant and got covered in giraffe spit.
The David Sheldrick Trust is an elephant orphanage located on the outskirts of the city, near Nairobi National Park. Elephants are fiercely loyal and family-oriented, so the only time a baby elephant finds itself alone is when its mother is dead or severely injured. The trust rescues and raises young elephants that have been orphaned by natural causes (unlikely), human greed (likely), or animal-human conflict (also likely), such as farmers killing elephants that encroach on their land. The elephant-keepers raise the orphans, socialize them, and then after a few years they begin the years-long process of reintroducing the young elephant into the wild at Tsavo National Park.
There is a fantastic episode of The Nature of Things about the Sheldrick Trust, here. It’s equal parts heart-warming and fascinating, as is attending the 11 am feeding at the trust.
After the elephants, we headed to the Giraffe Centre. It’s run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, in an effort to protect the Rothschild giraffe. They have an info centre, walking trails, and a raised platform where you can come face-to-face with the giraffes that live at the centre.
When I reached the top of the stairs and emerged onto the viewing deck, I was momentarily paralyzed. A giraffe was staring right at me, and — not going to lie — I let out a little shriek of joy.
Giraffes are way cool. Their faces feel just like a horse’s. Their little antennae might look soft, but they’re actually fur-covered horns. Their tongues are huge.
When we cleansed ourselves of giraffe spit, it was time for lunch in Westlands. Gorgonzola cheese, avocado, pesto, bacon on a baguette — as if the day couldn’t get any better. Plus, bonus: it barely rained all weekend.
My food strategy is simple: eat real. I don’t go for a lot of packaged or processed foods. No shame, friends. It’s just that I like to cook. I think it’s fun. I think things taste better from scratch. And I think it’s a good way to challenge myself. However, “real” foods are not always low-calorie. Such as… butter… cream… maple syrup… cheese… almost-mooing ribeye. Just a few of my favourite things.
Cooking (ok, fine, eating) gives me a sense of stability, so I tend to do it more when I travel. I also find myself wanting to sample all the new snacks I come across, much of which are far from diet food. Examples in Kenya: bhajias (battered, fried potatoes w/ cilantro and tumeric), battered and fried sausages, fried samosas, fried tilapia (head still on!), fried chicken (head removed – thankfully), mandazi (fried dough… theme?). Also the local pizza chain makes a killer Hawaiian.
Gaining a few extra pounds is no big deal, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, right? Normally, yes. However. I’m going home to Canada for Christmas, and it is entirely possible that none of my jeans will fit. Somehow I don’t think my forgiving Kenya wardrobe — skirts, dresses, wraps — will be so useful in a Canadian winter.
Therefore I am making a few last-ditch tweaks: less wine/fat/carbs, more water/vegetables/lean vegetarian protein. Strangely, what’s keeping me going with the health-craze is perusing recipes for disgustingly rich holiday treats… the kind that only North Americans can dream up. (Such as my personal favourite LeBreton Flats, made entirely out of Breton crackers, melted chocolate, butter and brown sugar. I also came across a recipe today that involved baking mini chocolate bars into globs of cookie batter and then covering them with frosting. YES.)
So, in the meantime…
Spiced Lentil Rice
This makes enough for a decently-sized dinner for two, if you add some other dish (stir-fry, curry, big salad?). Or just scale it up. In my sad little case, it made dinner for one + leftovers. Awwwwwwwwwwwwwsadface.
Add to a medium saucepan, over medium heat:
- a splash of olive oil
- 1/2 c lentils (I used green)
Saute the lentils for a minute or two, then add:
- 1 + 1/2 c water
Simmer for 10-15 minutes, until lentils are beginning to soften. While the lentils simmer, dice:
- one medium red onion
- 3-4 green onions
- half a head of garlic
Heat in a skillet over medium heat:
- a blurb of olive oil (so precise)
Then add your onions and garlic. Saute until soft, then add:
- 1-2 tbsp garam masala (or a cumin-ish curry-like spice mix sort of thingy… yeah)
- chilli powder, salt, and pepper to taste
Once the spices seem to be getting a little toasty (you may need to add more oil to prevent sticking/burning), add:
- 1/2 c raw brown rice
Toast the rice for a minute or two, then add the whole mixture to the lentils. Be sure to scrape in all the good stuff that stuck to the pan. Add water to cover. (A little too much is better than not enough, you can always boil it off.) Then add:
- 1 medium tomato, chopped
Simmer for about 30-45 minutes, or until the rice is cooked. When you think it’s close to being done, add:
- a whole ton of fresh cilantro, chopped… or less, if you’re not obsessed with it like I am. (It’s 12 cents per bunch here! I can’t stop! Someone get me help.)
- optional: more spices/seasonings, to taste
- optional: I made mine too spicy so I added 1 tsp raw cane sugar to counteract the mouthfire. Tomato paste would also do the trick.
If everything’s cooked and soft but it seems a little soupy, either boil off the excess water or just remove from heat and let it stand for 10 minutes. I had it with kale burgers (recipe tomorrow maybe, still tweaking) and salad… but I’ve also eaten it on its own, with just tamari (and an episode of The Wire).
Zanzibar. Just the name evokes images of spice traders, slave ships, Arab sultans, and palm trees shading white sand beaches. These are all accurate — or were at one point in time.
Zanzibar has been on my life list for years, and I finally crossed it off last week. I had an amazing time there… although surprisingly not because of the beaches. I don’t know if it was just because I visited in the rainy season, but I was underwhelmed by the shoreline of Unguja, the main island in the Zanzibar archipelago. Don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely beautiful, but I wouldn’t say the beaches I saw were a cut above Kenya or Sierra Leone.
Stone Town, however, blew my mind. Navigating the maze of alleys, shaded from the sun by crumbling coral stone buildings, it feels like a slave trader or Persian prince might be right around the next corner. Breathing deeply, your lungs fill with hundreds of years. I spent hours just getting lost and found in the narrow streets.
Second highlight: I gorged on seafood. Lobster, tuna, shark, octopus, squid, king prawns…
My second night in town I had a memorable birthday dinner at Swahili House, a rooftop restaurant on one of Stone Town’s tallest buildings. As the sun sank over the ocean, we could hear children playing in the streets and the call to prayer echoing over the rooftops. There was a warm, dusky breeze and a full moon. I’m still not convinced it was real.
My friend/guide/host in Stone Town gave me a trip to Prison Island for my birthday. The giant tortoises who live there are pushing 150 years old, which made me feel better about slipping another year closer towards infinity.
I also took a spice tour. I thrive on making a mess in the kitchen, and I tend to be heavy-handed with the seasonings. Learning about spices in their raw forms gave me a whole new layer of enjoyment when I pop the lid off a jar of cinnamon.
My last afternoon in Zanzibar, I rode out the rains in the slave chambers at the old slave market. After the abolition of slavery the British built a church on the site of the market, but a couple holding cells remain. Although few Zanzibaris were sold into the trade (their labour was needed on the island), Stone Town was a hub for the East African slave trade.
After a glorious week, I flew out just as the sun was sinking on the horizon. As we cruised north-west at 31,000 feet, I had a perfect view of Kilimanjaro almost directly below my window.
Zanzibar was wonderful, but descending into Nairobi’s web of light pollution (you can see the traffic jams from a remarkable altitude), I realized I really missed this city. Yeah we don’t have white sand beaches or the catch of the day, but there’s something to be said for reliable electricity, grocery stores and, most of all, the sleeping temperatures at 5000 ft.