Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Small Adventures of a Kenyan Orthodox Chef in Lent


I am Orthodox.  I live in a room on the Orthodox seminary campus surrounded by a chaotic part of Nairobi known euphemistically as an ‘informal settlement’.  I used to cook a lot, but my new single lifestyle and my new responsibilities make it much easier to eat badly. I have a tiny ‘kitchen’ comprised of an old gas stove that has knobs and dials but no markings and that looks rather like it did a previous tour of duty at a nuclear weapons testing facility.  It works, so I don’t complain.  There is a small fridge with a freezer on top, about four feet tall and maybe twenty inches wide on a good day.  It wheezes and groans all day and all night and generally sounds like a death rasp.  When it didn’t immediately keel over and die the first night I was here, I decided not to take its complaining seriously.  Then there is a large cabinet in which I treat as a pantry/store for dishes/drawer for cutlery, etc.  The top of the cabinet serves as my counter top where I do just about everything, from make my coffee to chop things on a cutting board.  The last time I stood relative to a countertop like this, I think I was 7 years old.  Unlike most kitchens, I have no water supply and no sink in which to do dishes.  Not to worry, because just through the door immediately past my tall cabinet is my bathroom/washroom/toilet/whatever your culture is comfortable calling it.  In said room is a very small sink.  It’s here that I fill my kettle for tea and do my dishes, laying them out to dry on the top of a small bookcase that serves as a bathroom cabinet and store.  Sometimes geckos skittle across my wall and floor looking for mosquitos. Because I hate mosquitos, I don’t mind having a few lizards around.  My kitchen is really just a glorified hallway to the bathroom with about 3x8 feet to maneuver around in.  But since I’m not called upon to cook for large dinner parties, it has served me pretty well.

That’s the set up.  Here’s the challenge.  Lent arrived this past Monday. I suddenly had a hankering for lentil soup (I’m not joking.  It’s an Orthodox/Lent thing).  But this sort of item is not on the menu anywhere around here, including the Archbishop’s table where I am often privileged to share a meal.  So if I was going to have lentil soup I was going to have to make it myself.  On the one hand, no problem.  I spent most of my life cooking on alternate weeks.  And in recent years I’ve tried a number of different lentil soup recipes ranging from compost fare to gosh that’s really tasty.  So conceptually it was a go.

However once I motivated myself into action this past week, I discovered that I had a big soup pot with which to turn my aspirations into a reality, but nothing to put in it.  By the way, I was using a recipe that’s found in Catherine Mandell’s When You Fast…  Recipes for Lenten Seasons (p. 60), a cook book I really like and which I have used with profit for a number of years.  But the list of ingredients was daunting:

Onions
Carrots
Celery
Oregano
Fresh Parsley
Bay Leaf
Canned tomatos
Brown lentils
Fresh Spinach
Red wine vinegar
Etc.

Ok, in a normal kitchen this all would be pretty standard.  But my kitchen is neither standard nor normal, and is stocked with stuff like Ethiopian coffee and Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix and important things like that.  This called for a major shop.  So major that for the first time since my return to Kenya in 2015 I used an actual grocery cart rather than a hand basket at the grocery store.

Shopping on this continent can be a challenge if one is looking for specific things.  In Ethiopia I regularly had to visit at least five shops to corral everything I needed.  Yes I said 5.  And here in Nairobi, even though we have our supermarket equivalents, it doesn’t mean I’m guaranteed to experience the pleasure of one-stop shopping.  Take, for instance, vegetable stock.  I got it in my mind that I needed vegetable stock for this cooking adventure.  But I checked Nakumatt, my local go-to grocery store of choice, but alas no vegetable stock.  Mountains of beef stock cubes and chicken stock cubes, but no veggie cubes anywhere.  I also discovered that both their spinach and celery looked as though they had both auditioned for a part as road kill and won.  So I just kept walking.  Though my recipe called for a teaspoon of oregano, if one has no oregano, one must buy a huge container of it to get a teaspoon of it.  And bay leaves, too.  I was thinking that these people had no carrots (how can your vegetable section have not carrots?), but then I discovered them hiding next to dairy.  I didn’t ask any questions.  I just took my bag of carrots and headed for check out.

So off to store number 2 - Zucchini, a very nice fruit and veg shop.  Their celery was in much better shape, but I looked in vain for spinach.  I also looked in vain for vegetable stock.  I was in the back corner looking longingly at the incredibly expensive dried prunes when I glanced at the refrigerated display shelfs and there, along with fruit juices and fruit salad was a few bags of baby spinach on the top shelf pushed to the back. Though tempted, I again refused to ask any questions and took my spinach and (after paying) ran.  

So I took my bags of Lenten soup supplies home and was immediately confronted with yet another challenge - what am I going to do with all of this stuff?  The canned things went into the pantry, the spices on one of the shelves above the cabinet.  But the vegetables, they had to go into the fridge.  My fridge has enough room for half a dozen eggs, a diet coke and a jar of pickles.  It being Lent, the eggs are gone, so that creates some space.  It was quite the effort, but eventually I got everything in the fridge and also managed to get the door shut without it opening again.

At this point, my schedule intervened, and the cooking I was planning on doing the next day got put off until the next and then the next.  I began to worry that all these vegetables I had so carefully selected were going to going to turn into rich dark loam in the bottom of my little fridge.  The good news is that I had a chance to check another grocery store - Chandarana - for vegetable stock.  Chandarana had no vegetable stock either, can you believe it!  So then I checked a heath food store we have here called Healthy U, which I usually avoid because it pretends that they and you are in Sweden and thus feels justified to charge you Swedish prices.  So I looked and amazingly enough they had vegetable stock.  It wasn’t Swedish, but it was Swiss which is even worse.  But since Kenya apparently was out of their own vegetable stock all across Nairobi at least, I paid Swiss prices and now am the proud (and significantly poorer) owner of imported Swiss vegetable stock cubes.

So today, Saturday, I finally had time to cook.  I was very proud of myself.  I had all the ingredients.  And so with Beethoven symphonies thundering away in the back ground, I chopped up all the vegetables.  I learned that chopping on the top of a cabinet at eye level is not optimum, but I persevered and got the job done.  I set off a nuclear chain reaction and got my stove going.  I added all the ingredients in their proper order and at the proper time. I simmered my lentils for an hour and added the last of the ingredients.  I put a stop to the nuclear fission experiment and I let the whole pot of lentil soup sit covered on the stove for the rest of the afternoon.  While I was out I went to yet another grocery store and bought the Kenyan version of a baguette, which if you are as far away from France as I am, it will do.  My baguette and I went home, I warmed up the soup, dished some out in a bowl, broke off a piece of baguette, gave thanks to the Lord and plunged into an awesome bowl of lentil soup.  One of life’s simple pleasures.  Only as with most things here it wasn’t so simple to accomplish.

I’m glad I like it.  My bowlful made no dent in my ginormous pot of soup.  There is a lot of it left.  I will be eating on it most of if not all of next week.  My current challenge is what to do with the very big pot of lentil soup cooling on my stovetop.  My fridge is tiny, my pot is big.  So I’m still working on this one.


In the meantime I just went back over the recipe and discovered that nowhere does it call for vegetable stock, Kenyan, Swedish or Swiss.  I went through a lot of trouble for my Swiss vegetable stock.  If I ever finish my current batch of lentil soup, I’ll have to find a recipe that will be enhanced by adding my special Swiss stock.  Fortunately, Lent lasts a long time.  Which just means plenty of opportunities for further Lenten culinary adventures.