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A Very Mbuzi Christmas

written by Eugene Mburu 19th December 2014

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“After all the work I’ve put into this nyama (meat) I should at least get a whole leg to myself!” exclaims Carrey Francis Ronjey, staff writer at UP Magazine, as he extracts large pieces of meat from a blistering hot Cookswell oven. The occasion is the Yummy Christmas party and the location is the magazine’s managing editor’s house. Despite a tense moment when the butternut squash was charred in the Cookswell – an innovative Kenyan charcoal oven which is fast becoming popular in the backyards of our country’s foodies, the table is set and dinner will soon be ready The purpose of the dinner is twofold: first to celebrate the end of the working year with a bang. Second, to better understand the journey that an important element of the Kenyan Christmas dinner must undertake, before in reaches the hot coals of our barbecues.

From the thorn-bush covered lands of Garissa in the North, through a bumpy road on the back of a pickup truck, to the noisy market of Kiamaiko in Nairobi, it is a long and dusty voyage Kenyan goats make every year, in order to meet their creator. Mbuzi, Swahili for goat, is to the Kenyan Christmas what turkey is to an American Thanksgiving. The adventure of the juicy rib that sits on your plate next to that steaming wedge of ugali, is an interesting one. In order to find out more, Yummy magazine decided to make its way to Kiamaiko market in Nairobi’s Eastlands, where these unfortunate creatures are unceremoniously “parked” as they are inspected, prodded and haggled over by prospective buyers. According to Charles Mandi, who accompanied the Yummy team to Kiamaiko in order to help select a good candidate for the meal, Kiamaiko is the best place in Nairobi to purchase live goats.

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The majority of the goats that end up in this loud market of dubious hygiene, populated with Somalis, Boranas and other assorted Kenyans, have been shipped in from the North of the country. While this may seem surprising given the aridity of that oft neglected region, Mandi says that this is precisely why the Somali goats are so tasty. “The best goats for meat undoubtedly come from the North Eastern part of the country,” says Mandi, knowingly. “They thrive in precisely those arid conditions. They are happy. That is why the meat is so good”. This cloven-hoofed, long-bearded and short-tailed animal, has an interesting place in Kenya’s culinary culture. Transcending boundaries of tribe, class and income, it has over the course of half a century, become the standard for good times and camaraderie that traditionally accompanies a Christmas meal. In the glorious chaos of the market, where the deafening yells of owners and sellers mingles with a loud and insistent bleating, no oneappears moved by the impending demise of these beasts. No one except the sentimentalists in the Yummy team, who can be seen pulling and pushing their new acquisition with heavy hearts onto the back of a Probox station wagon. Meanwhile, Mandi is on the phone with his own butcher who, he says, will do a cleaner job than the people working in the abattoir a few feet away.

When the now deceased and quartered mbuzi is finally delivered to its final destination, a flurry of activity begins in the kitchen. A large plastic bag is produced, into which the meat is put. Ronjey, the chef du jour, proceeds to then massage large quantities of a marinade into the meat. Although reluctant to share the secret of this special sauce, he eventually confides that the secret to making a good marinade is to get the right balance between sweet, tart, salt and oil. He tells us that normally he would have used a plum jam but that all he had was a jar of mango chutney which he proceeded to mix with honey, olive oil, rosemary, garlic, salt and balsamic vinegar. While the meat is marinading, about four hours total, the rest of the meal is cooked. In order to somewhat reflect the multicultural dimension of the Yummy office, a selection of both Kenyan and American dishes are being prepared. The Kenyans insist on having ugali, while the Americans will not be content without a traditional cornbread. A spicy kachumbari (tomato salad) dressed in olive oil, accompanies the dishes and a large amount of sweet potato gratin, sukuma wiki and corn on the cob are piled onto the table with a delicious pumpkin pie sitting in the wings. By the time people are tucking into large chunks of hot and steaming meat, it would appear all sentimentality has been forgotten. That said, it’s hard to feel sorry for a goat, once half of it is in your stomach.

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