“More like Ninety nine percent, man!” exclaims Chris Cellini. We are talking about oysters and I have just ventured that ninety five percent of Kenyans have never tasted them before. “The figure is probably even higher than that,” he says, adding that this is a statistic that he and his business partner Guy Brennan are determined to change.
Since opening for business a couple of years ago, the Indian Ocean Oyster Company (IOOC) has made it its mission to bring Oysters out of their shell, if you can excuse the pun, and into the mouths of Nairobians. Cellini and Brennan are both passionate about their endeavour and are buoyed by the firm belief that over the next year or so, this protein rich mollusk is set to take the city’s foodie scene by storm.
“Oysters are excellent for the environment, a great source of nutrition and are delicious to boot.” The enthusiasm Brennan has for oysters is evidenced by the way his voice rises whenever he mentions them. Also evident is his enthusiasm for the specific wild oysters that are abundant in the mangrove forests at the Kenyan coast. These are the only oysters the IOOC is interested in, because, as they are both keen to underline: different oysters have different flavours. “We like to refer to it as merroir,” states Brennan. “Whereas a vintner speaks of the terroir (the environment in which grapes grow) as adding a certain distinct character to their wines, we say that merroir (Mer being french for sea, Terre being earth) is the character the environment lends to a good oyster.”
The Kenyan merroir– characterised by rich effluent, predictable currents and warm waters- means that the wild Indian Ocean oyster is a particularly unique treat for even the most discerning of connoisseurs. “After you put it in your mouth you have to let the oyster masticate,” enthuses Cellini. “Let the emotion come over you. The aroma…the flavour. Experience them.” There is the same reverence in his voice describing this process that an oenophile would have describing tasting an exceptional wine.
This almost spiritual way of savouring the dish may be one of the big factors behind the misconception that oysters are a rich man’s delicacy, the preserve of the well off. Not so, according to Cellini. “They were originally known as a poor man’s food. They were everywhere- it was a cheap and easy meal,” he explains. Their reputation as a rich man’s hors d’oeuvre is unfortunate, but remains a common misconception. You can buy a jar full of oysters on the beach in Mombasa for a Ksh 100 but few people are actually aware of this, a fact that might also be related to their perception as haram (forbidden) in the Muslim culture that exists by the coast.
Because they are not very filling and require a lot of work to clean and shuck (removing the edible oyster from the shell), over time they developed into a delicacy that in some parts of the world can see certain choice oysters (like the Kumamoto oyster or the Sydney Rock oyster) fetch up to Ksh 500 each.
“When harvested right and the market is not far from the source as is the case here, there is no reason for oysters to be priced so ridiculously,” Brennan says. “We are currently running a promotion at Sierra Brasserie, where for Ksh 500 you get a beer and two oysters.” Considering that that lovely choma sausage outside most of our favourite after-work spots cost about the same, this should be within reach of the average Kenyan. Presently this is the only cart they are running but hope to add to their roster in due course.
The camaraderie between these two men was forged by a shared love of this seafood. “I grew up in Malindi and every time I visit, I must come back with dozens of oysters,” reports Cellini. “More like hundreds!” exclaims Brennan. They speak to an emotive experience, of a taste that will evoke memories of good times. This is not simply because of the oyster’s reputation as an aphrodisiac (science shows that this claim may have some basis in reality). Their passion for the emotive power of this edible mollusk is making them look at how to spread their enthusiasm for it in new and effective ways, hence the formation of the IOOC.
IOOC’s efforts to change the way people look at and appreciate oysters is bolstered by their approach to serving their catch. Introducing the cart format made popular in France by oyster sellers who sell fresh oysters on pavements outside restaurants and grocery stores will encourage more people to try an oyster. Right from a night on the town to a lazy afternoon indoors, these marine goodies are sure to perk you right up. There is no special way to cook oysters. You could just down one alive with a touch of lemon or settle for a full platter of grilled oysters at your favourite seafood spot. After all, as Brennan aptly puts it,“You can’t really be a food critic until you have tried oysters. It’s more than a taste, it’s an experience.”