Susan Wong discovers that there is more to Koroga restaurants than just heavenly aromas and amazing food in a laid-back atmosphere. It’s the feeling of community that comes with it that elevates this dining experience from just dinner with friends to something more special.
Life is filled with many traditions: going to the coast on holiday, staying out on Friday night until the morning with your squad, enjoying a monthly deep tissue massage and for some, testing their culinary skills as they enjoy lively banter at a ‘Koroga’ restaurant. When you know that at the end of it all, you’ll feed your soul with delicious food and great conversations, what could be a better tradition than that?
Some meet for Koroga—which in Kiswahili translates as “mix”—once a week, others once a month, and for novices such as myself, only whenever they receive an invitation from their Indian friends. The place of choice this time was a new joint called Mint Shack. Opened only in April, this super popular restaurant is located on Peponi Road and is identifiable by a tiny sign above an unassuming gate.
The restaurant is a spacious hideaway, simply decorated, humble, raw in texture and quite bare except for the bar area and several gazebos, canopies, huts and open structures that fill the garden. The menu, such as it is, comprises of ingredients for your Koroga, plenty of starters, drinks and so on.
To start, as Chef Alex began to set up his cooking station of ingredients and spices, a plate of tender, moist and juicy chicken, which was deep fried, called Poussin Chicken Wings, quickly disappeared. I immediately ordered seconds. The Malai Chicken arrived beautifully caramelised with honey brown bits while still juicy. Topped with a sprinkling of fresh coriander, this dish was also devoured in a matter of minutes. My favourite stuffed flatbread from the region, Keema Chapati, arrived in a large rectangle, subdivided into many pieces. The stuffing of minced lamb with onions, garlic and a bunch of spices was sandwiched between two layers of chapati, cooked until slightly crisp. Finally the Stuffed Mushrooms, cooked in high heat to sear the exterior until golden brown, delightfully arrived with some cheese and was steaming hot! Beware of the explosion of juices in your mouth, because it might just burn unsuspecting tongues.
You can smell what may well be the best restaurants in the world long before you step through the door. This is true when it comes to Koroga restaurants as well. It’s not the harsh smells of lighter fluid or bitter charcoal, instead Koroga aromas are sweeter and with subtle fragrant traces of spices. By cooking on a jiko, a traditional metal or clay cooking container used with charcoal or small pieces of wood, the food is always gentle and enticing thanks to its slow-cooking prowess.
Perhaps you regard yourself as something of a good cook; you know about the power of indirect heat; you understand that patience is important when cooking with spices. At Mint Shack, you can show those skills off. But, if you’re not confident with your abilities, bring your own chef or better yet, ask for one at Mint Shack to cook-up a delicious Koroga at no extra cost, while the restaurant’s Head Chef Pravin keeps whetting your palate with delicious appetizers.
As our Mutton Keema and Chicken Masala bubbled away, owner Binai Shah introduced me to some avid Koroga-goers. Past the bar, near the back of the property, was a large group of friends who’ve known each other for 40 years. The lively bunch gathers once a month to catch-up and they bring their own chef to watch over the pots as they concentrate on the chatter and bursts of laughter. Next to them another group of men, much younger, surrounded a poker table while their self-Koroga bubbled away in the corner.
As I headed back to our banda, my nose smelled distinctive whiffs of garlic, ginger, onions, Garam Masala, coriander, cumin, chili, cinnamon, bay leaves, cloves and cardamom. Gathered around the pots were my friends and the colourful Masala Dabba (spice tiffin) was still open just in case Chef Alex needed to add more spice.
The sound of bubbling pots and occasional stirring is the perfect ambient music for interesting conversations that take me around the world and challenge me on topics like food, film, travel and even new business ideas. By the time you’ve laughed enough, you’re hungry and more often than not, that’s the time your Koroga will also be ready. Our table became instantly quiet, and we immediately we dug into bliss.
A neighbouring table decided to send over a sample of their Koroga dish, and as a novice Koroga-goer, the feeling of community was amazing, whether it was among your guests or with complete strangers. And that’s the defining moment when I realised that Koroga is very different. It’s all about intuition, interaction, trying new things, bonding, being free and eating well. It’s the kind of place that keeps Nairobi human.