Chef Ray Cournede reminisces about his years spent working at the Kenyan coast and his excitement for advancements in sustainable seafood with the opening of Kenya’s first organic crab farm.
To all of you heading down to the coast this month, all I can say is…lucky you! Kipini prawns, Malindi sole, Kilifi oysters, Lamu Crab, the fresh ‘catch of the day’ at restaurants that pretty much came out of the ocean and into the fire, as well as all that other appealing stuff like warm breezes and sand between the toes. Lucky you!
For me, when it comes to produce anywhere in the world, the coast is about as exciting as it gets. Having spent three years at Peponi Hotel in Lamu, I got to experience what our wonderful coastline has to offer, not just in terms of fresh seafood but also with the rich Swahili influences and techniques found there, and the creative use of coconuts and spices. I spent weeks interacting with local Lamu families and learning the methods and flavours they use in their cuisine, and I enjoyed every bit of it.
With fresh seafood, preparation, even at home, is easy. The important thing is to let it speak for itself. Don’t over complicate it, don’t over season and don’t mess with it. Having said this, working in a restaurant at the coast doesn’t come without challenges:
The Heat: This tends to be unbearable, especially during the pre-rainy season when the humidity can just about kill you. When you add ovens, stoves and smokers to the equation, it makes for a very hot place to work in.
Vegetables: Serving a fresh and vibrant garden salad is a logistical issue in itself. We used to fly in vegetables every other day, but if you ran out, that was it. Restocking wasn’t as simple as just dashing to Zucchini with a grocery list.
After the unrest in 2011, every hotel at the coast took a monumental hit. Our beaches emptied, people had to downsize to survive and so many people lost their jobs. It was a very sad time. However, out of the darkness comes the light because are survivors after all! A few people decided to get pro-active and think outside the box.
Che Shale, north of Malindi, is usually known for its castaway chic hotel and kitesurf school. Recently, however, it has also attracted crab aficionados with Kenya’s first organic crab farm. Developed by Justin Aniere, the crab farm grows mangrove crabs, with special emphasis on healthy grow-out conditions. Tanks are constantly aerated and water kept at optimal temperature and parameters. Crabs are fed a regular high-protein diet consisting of snails and small fish. The mangrove crabs can grow to a size of 1 to 1.3 kilos before they are ready to be served. But the real celebrities at the Che Shale crab farm are the Soft Shell Crabs that get carefully harvested at a specific size following moon cycles. Soft Shell Crabs are a seafood delicacy that are very hard to find in Africa. In order to grow in size, any crab goes through the process of molting, where it comes out of its shell and can be eaten in its entirety.
For someone with a Thai/Asian background, I cannot tell you how exciting this is! Sustainable seafood is the way forward in this day and age. Our oceans are being emptied and we need to find ways of conserving what’s in them. Whatever you do, please be responsible! And on that note, never order the “baby lobster”.