Charity Keita heads down to Lamu to discover more about the intersection of Swahili and Indian food.
As I bite into my delightfully spicy sh samosa, the boat gently rocks from side to side indicating that the tide has begun to change direction. We are anchored on a coral reef next to the rolling mangroves of Manda Toto island, a couple hours sail from Lamu town.
I came to Lamu on a mission to discover more about the intersection of Swahili and Indian food. Today I am having an impromptu Swahili fish barbecuing lesson on a creaky old dhow, under the scorching midday sun. It is actually much more enjoyable than I’m making it sound.
As the smell of white snapper grilling in a masala rub wafts over me, I allow my mind to wander. I’m thinking about how Diwali is just around the corner and that this year I de nitely need to convince some of my Indian friends in Nairobi to invite me to join them in part of the festivities. Thinking about Diwali is making me hungry, so I reach my hand into the brown paper bag and pull out another samosa.
I can’t help but wish I could have been a y on the wall this morning, watching the mama who cooked this. I wonder what combinations of spices she used. Are they her own special recipe, handed down over generations? I have never seen “samosa masala” sold in the market, so it has to be something only those in the know can conjure up. I realise I don’t know much about how Indian food got to Kenya. I’ve always assumed it was introduced around the time the Brits started hauling in Punjabis and Gujaratis to help build their Ugandan railway.
A quick poll of my fellow traveling companions, who are quite a well- read lot, reveals however that they believe the Indian influences in Swahili food far predate the arrival of the English. I am informed by Josiah, the most knowledgeable foodie of our group, that Indians had already been engaging in commerce with the Omani kingdom of Zanzibar in the late seventeenth century. The introduction of foods like biryani, chapati and samosas are, he tells me, a logical development of subsequent trade up and down the Swahili coast. He goes on to inform me that much of what we consider our indigenous foods, from maize to rice, coconuts, mangoes, pineapples and lemons, were all brought to the country at some point over the centuries, mainly by the Arabs and the Portuguese.
It is hard to imagine the Kenyan food panorama without the addition of these avoursome foodstu s. I mention out loud that without them, we would be reduced to eating little more than boiled vegetables. Josiah interjects that as his parents have gotten older, they have in fact reverted to the diet of their Kikuyu forefathers. He tells us that they feel the diet is adding years to their lives. Sure, we could turn it into a trendy twenty rst century diet I respond to him. I’m sure it would be huge in California. In the meantime, however, who would like to share the last spicy fish samosa?