I sit at Mama’s Home Dishes Restaurant staring at my plate of pilau and beef gravy with kachumbari and avocado on the side. The aromas from my plate and from the other foods in the restaurant do not tantalise me anymore. I have completely lost my appetite and as I stare at my plate, I see a mound of poison. A mountain of instant demise. The angel of death himself might as well be seated on my plate, sighing contentedly as he knows that I am already within his clutches.
And no. I am not unwell. I did in fact come in with a huge appetite as this is one of my favourite restaurants with the best African dishes in town. I had been invited for lunch by a client, a swanky Nairobi lady, to celebrate the conclusion of a business deal. The client was accompanied by her business partner, another swanky piece. My client had suggested the restaurant and, being one of my favourites, I did not object.
Immediately we sat down, the waiter appeared with a menu and I made my order with no more than a cursory glance at it.
“It is a meal I have eaten before,” I assured the ladies. “And it is the best pilau in town.”
“I will go for the roast chicken and plain white rice,” said my client. “I don’t want anything fancy.”
“Me too,” said the business partner.
As we waited for our food to arrive, the conversation went from business to politics and the scandalous lives of our local celebrities.
Now, dear reader, you must be warned that eating out with a Nairobi woman, swanky or otherwise, is no mean feat. It is like getting into a marriage. You must be physically, psychologically, emotionally and financially prepared.
Presently, the food arrives and I cannot wait to dig in. But before I even plunge my spoon into my simmering dish of delicious pilau, my client calls back the waiter.
“What is this?” she asks.
“Pardon madam,” says the waiter politely. “But it is your order. Roast chicken and plain white rice.”
“And these things on the side?” she asks.
“It is a salad,” says the waiter. “We always give complementary vegetables with all our meals.”
“Then if you must give me vegetables, please give me cooked ones,” says my client.
“Alright madam,” the waiter says apologetically.
“Me too,” says the business partner. “I cannot eat that salad!”
The waiter carries away their plates.
“You see salads are in fact my favourite foods,” explains my client. “They do not add inches to my waistline and they are packed with natural vitamins and minerals. But I cannot eat salads in a restaurant. Be it vegetable or fruit salad. I am not sure of the handling. I only eat salads I make on my own.”
I stare at my kachumbari. What does etiquette dictate in such a circumstance? Should I go ahead and eat my kachumbari or do I push it away in sympathy of my client’s delicate feelings towards restaurant salads.
“I also do not eat anything raw from a restaurant,” the business partner chimes in. “I just imagine how they do not wash the vegetables and fruits. Yuck! Those are just diseases in waiting!”
I definitely cannot eat the kachumbari now!
“And what about the avocados?” my client says. “Imagine how they have to cut it open, remove the pit and take out the flesh. Did they even wash the knife and spoon they used? I can’t!”
I look at my avocado on the side sadly.
“And that is not the worst part,” adds the business partner. “They always give free avocado on the side and clients ignorantly just eat it. Imagine the cholesterol in that thing! Goes straight to the arteries! Do you know the number of people who die of heart attacks these days?”
“Even poor people die of heart attacks these days,” my client says. “It is because avocadoes are cheap and they eat them with every meal.”
Goodbye avocado on the side.
The conversation is interrupted by the waiter bringing back the plates of food. The salad has been replaced with some fried green veggies.
“What type of vegetables are these?” asks my client.
“That is spinach and sukuma wiki,” says the waiter attempting a smile.
“And they have been fried?” asks my client sarcastically.
“Yes madam,” explains the waiter. “They have been fried with onions and tomatoes and a bit of salt.”
“I can’t eat fried food in a restaurant,” my client tells him. “Go and bring some boiled vegetables.”
The waiter moves to take her plate.
“Take her plate too,” my client orders, pointing at the business partner’s plate. “She also does not eat such junk!”
The poor waiter rushes away with the plates.
“I see you know me well,” says the business partner smiling. “I cannot eat foods that are fried in a restaurant. That is why I ordered the roast chicken. Imagine the kinds of fats they use to fry the food?”
Oh no! Now my pilau is under attack!
“True,” says my client in agreement. “I only use olive oil to cook my food. I cannot imagine the kinds of cheap fats they use in these restaurants. They have to make a profit, you know, and that is why they go for the cheapest, lowest quality products. Have you ever asked yourself how they can afford to use so much cooking oil in food and not go at a loss?”
I look at my pilau glistening invitingly in the bright Nairobi sunshine.
“And cheap is expensive in the long run,” says the business partner. “Imagine the hospital bills, gym membership and so on. All because of obesity! I would rather not eat anything fried at all!”
The waiter returns with the plates. He is still smiling but this, I am sure, is out of training and not out of his heart.
“Your plates madams,” he says. “Apologies from the chef. He has offered this complementary beef gravy so that the meal is not so dry.”
He puts two small bowls of gravy beside each of their plates and beats a hasty retreat.
The business partner takes a bite of her chicken and I sigh with relief. No more food reviews I hope. But my relief is short lived. She grimaces and spits out the chicken into a serviette.
“Waiter!” She calls.
He returns looking apprehensive.
“This chicken is too salty!” she complains. “How do you put salt in the chicken when roasting? What if a customer does not eat salt?”
“Maybe it is the marinade madam,” the waiter says almost in tears.
“I won’t even taste mine!” snaps my client. “Take it away and bring us chicken without salt!”
The poor waiter yet again rushes to the kitchen with the plates of food. I sigh as my appetite drops to below shoe level.
“Can you imagine!” the business partner says with a sneer. “They want us to die of high blood pressure! How dare they put salt in the chicken?”
“They should just let the customer add salt to their taste!” my client chimes in.
“But isn’t raw salt worse?” I dare chip in to the conversation.
“Compare barrels of salt being put in your food vis-à-vis a pinch of raw salt that I would add on my own,” says my client. “Which is more dangerous?”
I withdraw my comment and sit back secretly lamenting the loneliness of my treasured pilau. Oh, how I was looking forward to relishing you spoon by spoon. Enjoying your spicy, savoury, beefy flavours!
“I wish he would take away this beef gravy as well,” says the business partner. “I just can’t get red meat past my throat. Just the smell of it can give one cancer and add kilos to your midsection.”
Oh dear! The innocent gravy has not been spared!
“Nairobians really do eat aimlessly,” says my client. “How such a restaurant is still in business is a miracle! These people want to poison us and are making us pay for it! If it was another city, such a business would have been shut down before it even opened its doors to the public.”
I am now positively miserable.
The waiter returns with the chef in tow.
“Pardon madams, I am the Head Chef,” he introduces himself. “You seem to have a problem with the food?”
“We don’t seem to have a problem,” my client says. “We do have problems.”
“A bucket load of problems,” says the business partner.
“I am sorry to hear that,” says the Head Chef. “How may we intervene?”
“We asked Mr. Waiter over there to bring us roast chicken that has no salt,” says the business partner.
“Unfortunately we marinate all our chicken in the same sauce every morning and do not have any unmarinated chicken,” says the Head Chef apologetically. “Would you care to eat something else?”
“No,” the two swanky ladies say in unison.
“We are leaving anyway,” says my client. “This place was a disappointment!”
“I am sorry madam,” says the Head Chef. “Perhaps next time you will have a better experience.”
“There will be no next time,” says the business partner picking up her purse.
“Shall we?” my client asks me, indicating that we should leave.
“Not yet,” I say clearing my throat. “I still haven’t tasted my food!”