After 20 years away from Mombasa, Photographer Pareet Shah rediscovers the wonders of Tamarind Dhow which has definitely not lost its old school charm.
I am sipping a Dawa while watching the boats sail gracefully by and enjoying the sun’s fading light as it bathes us in golden hues. I can’t think of a more iconic place to be in Mombasa than the Tamarind Dhow. After spending 20 years away from the coast, my family and I moved from London back to Mombasa in the summer of 2015. Moving back home after time away is always bittersweet – fond memories and familiar places are often replaced by the evils of modernisation. Mombasa’s finest restaurant Tamarind, however, has always held a special place in my heart: this is where we would come for family or friends’ birthdays and memorable celebrations.
Tamarind Mombasa was created in 1972 by Kenyan born Chris Seex, whose aim was to create Africa’s finest seafood restaurant. In later years, living accommodation in the form of Tamarind Village, a casino and various amenities like swimming pools and bars have stylishly been added. The white washed walls and high arches add to the Arab architectural influence but what really takes one’s breath away is the picture perfect setting – it is majestically built on a cliff overlooking the picturesque Old Town of Mombasa, with only the azure Indian Ocean separating the two.
As we enthusiastically check into Tamarind Village, we are pleasantly welcomed by the ever-smiling Peter the porter, who is kind enough to provide us ice cold towels which cool us from the mid-morning ambient temperature of 34C. The lobby, dominated by bold paintings and a casual Lamu-style décor, is a peaceful oasis away from the hustle and bustle of Nyali. Our two bedroom apartment is furnished with artifacts purposefully dotted all around the apartment. The oversized balconies and open plan living area are planned for Mombasa’s hot and humid weather. In the company of the ocean breeze, the sheer curtains dance against the beautifully polished mahogany wooden door frames – my mind starts racing with visions of a bright airy bridal photoshoot.
At precisely 10am, we join Head Chef Gabriel behind the main kitchen to observe the important daily routine of purchasing seafood. Whilst I naively imagined this process to be a truck delivering a prepackaged crate of lobsters and crabs, I could not be further from the truth. Several local fishermen patiently line up, showing off their freshly caught crabs, lobsters and prawns from their baskets for Chef Gabriel to select from. Being a vegetarian, they all look the same to me but he explains in detail how to look out for the best specimens whilst also describing the importance of wanting to support the local fishing industry. Upon questioning the fishermen, I establish that the seafood on display was caught early that morning between 4:00am and 6:00am. Some of that will be on patrons’ plates that lunchtime. How’s that for freshness?
Following this routine spectacle, we get to watch chef Joseph at the Clifftop Terrace expertly roll out fresh sushi with ripe avocados and succulent cucumbers glazed with crispy tempura, and with his razor sharp Japanese sushi knife, dexterously slice it for us in bite sized cylinders. By this time, our stomachs are rumbling and the meal does not disappoint. I spent 2 weeks in Tokyo last year and had sushi almost everyday. The quality and freshness of the sushi we had at the Clifftop Terrace is as good, if not better, as that I had in Shinjuku, Tokyo.
After lunch, our children are lured to the azure blue Harbour pool like bees to honey, and in the harsh afternoon Mombasa sun, there is perhaps no better place to be than that. Whilst they splash around in the pool, we have a short afternoon siesta poolside, shielded from the fiery sun by palm fronds and constantly cooled by the ocean breeze only to be awakened an hour or so later by the smell of freshly brewed coffee.
Fueled by a strong espresso, I am next taken out to sea by boat so that I could photograph the splendour of the two dhows operated by Tamarind. Dhows have always evoked something in me – I don’t know if it is the rustic weathered wood, or the supposedly lucky red, black and white painted eye (known as oculi) or the wild imagination of these magnificent crafts sailing the Indian Ocean to Zanzibar and beyond, aided by the Kaskazi winds. My imagination is stirred, and I find myself taking photos of what I could only describe as the most magnificent sea-going crafts being lit up by golden rays for the better part of an hour. As the light gradually fades, I am gently reminded by Captain Salim that we should probably head back to shore as my cocktail is waiting for me at the Clifftop Terrace. Oh, the finer things in life!
Having savoured a couple Dawas, we make our way to dinner where the candle on the table accentuates the glow on my wife’s face. A splendid reminder of how quickly we have tanned in just one day. Our meal consists of two vegetable dishes (vegetable wasini and vegetable masala), which are bursting with flavour, especially the coastal influences of coconut, tamarind and fresh chillies. Our non-vegetarian friends at the table comment on how fresh and delicious the crab claws and seafood casserole are. The serene meal is only interrupted by the gentle whisper of the ocean waves which can be heard when the melodious resident band, The Eclipse, take a breather in between belting out one song after another. A tip I had been given before dinner was not to share my dessert and am I glad that I ordered my own tiramisu! It is hands down the best I have tasted outside Italy. Thoroughly satisfied and in a food coma, I am ready to retire for the day, but upon some strong peer pressure, we accompany some friends to the casino upstairs which is surprisingly bustling with both locals and tourists trying out their luck at the tables.
Most people generally associate Tamarind with a dhow or a dawa, or both. It is however much more than that. I have found my little escape in Mombasa, my home away from home when I need that extra R&R. I am also really pleased that it has definitely not lost its old school charm.