WHEN SWISS MET SWAHILI

HI Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - STORY SALIM AL AFIFI • PHO­TOG­RA­PHY SUP­PLIED

Vanessa Mehri was born Swiss but raised Swahili. How this shaped her food dream is truly amaz­ing.

Dy­ing and go­ing to food heaven is some­thing that hap­pens to me ev­ery time I in­dulge in Swahili food, es­pe­cially when I dive into my ab­so­lute favourite dish, cas­sava in co­conut cream. Com­ing from a back­ground that blended Swahili and Omani cul­tures to­gether, I don’t get to try au­then­tic food from the land of gold as much as I get to eat rice dishes here, as these treats have be­come cel­e­bra­tory dishes that my mom only serves when we have a ton of guests in our house­hold, or if we feel like get­ting creative in the kitchen. I’m talk­ing sweet ba­nanas bathed in co­conut good­ness and a bit of chili, red kid­ney beans dipped in pools of or­ganic palm oil with fire-hot pili pili moni chili, and crushed cas­sava leaves stewed with home­made peanut but­ter, send­ing me straight into a food coma. This week, I had the plea­sure of meet­ing Vanessa Mehri, who is as pas­sion­ate about food as I am.

How did I meet Vanessa you ask? I was on my daily In­sta­gram rit­ual, scrolling (and prob­a­bly judg­ing) ran­dom folks on­line, when I came across a video of Her High­ness Sayyida Mayya Al Said who was stand­ing with an uber-cool young Cau­casian woman. She spoke flu­ent Swahili in a thick, killer ac­cent, as if she were from the is­land of Zanz­ibar. In­trigued, I just had to meet her. Af­ter a cou­ple of cof­fees with Vanessa and her hubby, I learned that she was Swiss-born but Kenyan-raised. She moved to Mom­basa with her mother at the age of four af­ter they’d vis­ited and fallen in love with the land and its jovial cul­ture. She was then en­rolled at an all-Kenyan school where she stud­ied and learned Swahili. To­day, Vanessa cracks up the Kenyan lingo like no­body’s busi­ness, although she might racially be­long to Switzer­land, cul­tur­ally, she is a Kenyan at heart. “My friends nick­named me an in­side out Oreo: You’re white on the out­side and black on the in­side,” said Vanessa in gig­gles. But that wasn’t all that fas­ci­nated me: It was her love for mak­ing the na­tion’s food.

When Vanessa was lit­tle, spend­ing some time ex­per­i­ment­ing in the kitchen was atop her list of fun things to do. She even tried mak­ing masala tea at the age of six, but ended up burn­ing her mother’s favourite cur­tain. Grow­ing up, she was in­flu­enced by the cus­toms of Kenyan cook­ing and de­vel­oped a taste for their co­conut-filled dishes. She be­gan putting her hands to work and try out lo­cal treats, pay­ing vis­its to vil­lages in the in­te­ri­ors of Mom­basa and learned from the best on how to make proper Swahili food. “My fam­ily al­ways made me cook for them, as they love the food I make,” she ex­pressed.

Af­ter get­ting mar­ried and hav­ing a child, Vanessa started cook­ing food for cor­po­rate com­pa­nies, which ig­nited a fire of want­ing to make her pas­sion a fruit­ful vo­ca­tion. She be­gan writ­ing sto­ries for life­style mag­a­zines be­fore pub­lish­ing Swahili

Food Made Easy, a cook­book that of­fers you recipes of the best Kenyan dishes and desserts, tweaked with a bit of a Swiss touch, and made so easy, that ev­ery­one can fol­low them. Her goal is to in­tro­duce Swahili food to western cul­tures. “We have Thai food out there, we have Chi­nese, Ja­panese, and Mex­i­can too, why can’t Swahili food have its place out there as well?” asked Vanessa, adding that her Euro­pean de­scent might en­cour­age peo­ple in that part of the world to start watch­ing her YouTube videos, read her cook­book, and start ap­pre­ci­at­ing the good­ness of Swahili cui­sine.

What sets African food apart for Vanessa is that it’s made with mostly lo­cal and nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents. “They take what they have and utilise that, that’s what I like about Swahili food cul­ture,” said Vanessa. The young woman also tried food mar­riages wherein she’d mix Swiss and Swahili cui­sine. Her dear­est ex­per­i­ment is pair­ing choco­late desserts and pud­dings with chili and car­damom. It is a taste I am yet to savour, but look­ing for­ward to. Meet­ing Vanessa made me re­alise that it is not al­ways about where you come from, it’s about where you are and how you’re in­flu­enced by the en­vi­ron­ment you grow up in. Her heart be­longs in Kenya, for­ever and ever.

KEEP UP WITH VANESSA MEHRI Web­site: swahili­food.com YouTube: Swahili­food In­sta­gram: @swahili­food Get her Cook­book +968 9977 1164

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