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A railway to culinary identity

While experiencing some local restaurants in Nairobi, Kenya, I was intrigued by the strong Indian culinary influence. Digging into the reason, I found an unexpected answer.

The development of the Uganda Railway

A key to the development of Kenya’s interior was the construction of a railway from Mombasa to Kisumu, on Lake Victoria, that started in 1895 and took six years to complete. For strategic reasons the British government then decided to link Mombasa with the British protectorate of Uganda. A major feat of engineering, the Uganda Railway was completed in 1903 and was instrumental not only in modernizing the area but also in shaping the local cuisine 100 years later.

Indian influx

Around 32,000 workers were brought from British India for the manual labor of the railway construction. Many stayed, as did most of the Indian traders and small businessmen who saw opportunities in the opening of Kenya’s interior. Rapid economic development was seen as necessary to make the railway pay for itself, and the government decided to encourage European settlements in the fertile highlands, which had small African populations. The railway opened up the interior not only to the European farmers, missionaries and administrators, but also to systematic government programs to counteract slavery, witchcraft, disease and famine. This paved the way for the Indian community to move and commute through the East African routes and develop the culture of spices and farming for vegetables, tea, coffee and more along the way.

A direct Indian influence on the local food

Indian cuisine has influenced Kenyan food, and several Indian classics have become typical Kenyan dishes. For example, chapati, a flat bread, is very common on Kenya’s dinner tables. Samosas, meat-filled fried dumplings, are sold everywhere, from street-side vendors to fast-food restaurants, and they make a tasty snack. Githeri is a stew made from maize and beans (a version of Indian-styled stew). It is a hearty, filling dish to which many different vegetables and sometimes meat is added. Goat is a popular meat. But when it comes to nyama choma, meat roasted over a wood or charcoal fire, it is always beef. As with samosas, nyama choma can be found almost anywhere.

With Anand Nair, who greatly contributed to this post and my introduction to Kenya
With Anand Nair, who greatly contributed to this post and my introduction to Kenya

But still with unique local products and recipes

The names of the dishes sound like a travelogue on their own: likhanga (chargrilled guinea fowl), isindu isiche (marinated qualis on skewers) or eshituyu (rabbit). This does not even address the exotic vegetables and herbs that grow locally: likhubi (cowpeas leaves), tsisaka (cat’s whiskers leaves) or emirro (crotolaria leaves).

My usuu (porridge served in calabash) appetizer
My usuu (porridge served in calabash) appetizer
Followed by some fried flying ants
Followed by some fried flying ants
Food preparation at restaurant Amaica, which means “cooked on hot stones”
Food preparation at restaurant Amaica, which means “cooked on hot stones”

In a nutshell, the culinary identity of a region or a country is a fascinating domain to investigate. Through a simple dish or dinner, you can learn a lot about history. This is one of the reasons food and beverage is so fascinating to me and a fantastic prism to understand other issues. I assume this is the case for many other specialties as well.

It can help understand the development of a country, human migrations, geographical and climate changes and slow as well as ore rapid modifications to lifestyles, just to name a few. How would I have discovered the importance of the Uganda Railway in Kenya’s development, if I would not have been challenged by this particular dinner?

I am curious to hear if anyone knows similar scenarios!

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