Cheetahs and cocktails
Kenya is full of unexpected dining experiences at all hours
FORGIVE me for feeling faint. At Carnivore, about 4km from the centre of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, the waiters, in zebra-print aprons and jaunty straw boaters, circulate around the tables brandishing swords on which is skewered an array of unusual meat, from ostrich and camel to crocodile and the frankly unappetising prospect of ‘‘ox balls’’.
Then comes the Dawa man. Hanging on straps around his neck is what looks like one of those old-fashioned snacks trays you used to see at the cinema. But instead of chocolate-coated ices, Maltesers and popcorn he’s offering a potent cocktail of vodka, fresh lime juice, sugar, honey and ice. It’s enough to blow off your (safari) socks. Dawa, it transpires, means medicine or magic potion in Swahili.
Carnivore is a bit of a circus with its huge fire pit over which the meat is cooked, its costumed staff and smoke-sharp air. But since its 1980 opening it’s been a big success and the concept is fun in a one-off novelty kind of way. Its Tamarind management company also runs seafood restaurants in Nairobi and Mombasa, food cruises on dhows in Mombasa and the Tamambo Karen Blixen Coffee Garden adjacent to the Out of Africa author’s former home, now a museum in the Nairobi suburb of Karen.
Since 2004, game has not been served (crocodile is the one exception) at Carnivore due to a change in bush meat regulations, so don’t expect, say, giraffe on a stick, impala spare ribs or warthog sausages but, like a Brazilian churrascaria, the meat comes on an allyou-can-scoff basis.
In the centre of each table is a holder of sauces into which the various meats should be dipped. For crocodile and chicken there’s a garlic sauce, while for beef it’s a tikka masala. The fruit salsa is for pork, wildberry for camel and ostrich, and mint for lamb. ‘‘The chilli goes with everything,’’ laughs our waiter, giving the two-tiered display a vigorous spin for good measure. There’s a token amount of salad for the feeble-hearted and a welcome starter of minestrone and plenty of warm brown bread to mop up juices.
Our waiter is shocked when we place the table’s little white flag on its side as a sign we have had enough. ‘ ‘ Not surrendering already?’’ he cries in disbelief as a colleague tries to push in with a swordful of chicken livers.
It’s a big restaurant, seating more than 400 diners, and with the Simba Saloon nightclub attached. Best tables are in the rear garden courtyard with open sides and well away from the smoke and sizzle of the roasting pit. There’s also a shop with surprisingly good souvenirs. I buy my husband a zebra-print barbecue apron but don’t dare look for a cookbook.
Meantime, in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, safari cuisine is altogether gentler on game drives with Andrew Kingori, head field guide with the family-owned Wildlife Safari company. We are staying at the 10-tent Mara Explorer camp, which is appropriately comfortable and friendly rather than grand-luxe, and its staff are given to merry surprises.
‘‘What are those people doing? They are not allowed to leave their vehicles in a national park,’’ shouts Kingori late one afternoon on a safari drive from camp. He points to a flat-topped acacia tree in the distance. Sure enough, we see figures moving. Are they tourists gone dotty with the heat?
As we approach, Kingori can’t contain his laughter. Then we realise it’s the camp’s kitchen staff who have set up for us a table of sundowner drinks and sizzling snacks. An askari, or watchman, stands discreetly to one side, his eyes sweeping the savanna for any sign of movement. Only 10 minutes earlier, we saw lions, elephants and a cheetah passing close by our vehicle.
Next day, we have been up since dawn on an excursion rich in animal sightings.
Just when we decide things could get no better, we turn a corner and enter an enchanted glade where Mara Explorer chefs Vincent, James and Steven, with white uniforms and sunbeam smiles, have set up a breakfast buffet table covered with a red-checked Masai blanket.
The rumbles are not from our stomachs but a deep waterhole below the riverbank where a pod of hippos snorts and snuffles. A hot- air balloon whooshes overhead and a lilac-breasted roller lands, like a slip of lavender silk, on a branch above my head. It seems millions of miles removed from the madness of Carnivore but one constant is the friendliness and hospitality of the big-hearted Kenyans, the exhortations to eat up and eat some more.
Kingori is worried I don’t ever eat enough on our tour, and this morning I have eschewed a pile of best-quality bacon in favour of a banana. ‘ ‘ You are one strange Mma Banana,’’ he says with a sigh and goes off to find me two more. As I peel the skin, I hear the chitter-chatter of baboons. I am not going to share with them. Susan Kurosawa was a guest of Wildlife Safari and Emirates wildlifesafari.com.au emirates.com/au tamarind.co.ke
More Kenya features by Susan Kurosawa at theaustralian.com.au/travel
Sundowner drinks and sizzling snacks with a view of the savanna, courtesy of Mara Explorer’s friendly staff
Mara Explorer chefs set up a safari breakfast