One of the weirdest, if inexplicable, culinary mysteries in Kenya is why we don’t eat plantain as a common starch.
I first tasted plantain at Dacha, the hotel at the Namanga Border, on the Tanzanian side, when I was well into my mid-30s. Nothing in life will ever prepare you for the delicious decadence of plantain. Nothing in life goes down well than a plantain and hot kienyeji chicken. And no one makes it better than those Tanzanian women at Namanga.
How could something so sinfully sweet as plantain be so hidden from Kenyans and the government never bothered? Like nobody shared the secret. Because let us face it, Bantu foods are a bit on the bland side. Ugali is uninspiring, even if you cooked it with your favourite margarine and garnished it with goat butter, and then oiled it with mushroom soup. Mukimo is frankly a flat food. Nothing you can do to it to make it better. We can talk about cassava as a superfood, but in terms of taste, cassava has no known flavour. Well-made bananas can make for good starch options, but banana varieties lately seem to be cloned from water.
We have the Indians or the Pakistanis to thank for inventing the chapatis. More importantly, whoever exported rice to Africa saved us from the culinary disaster of atrocious starch options in sub-Saharan Africa. Lest anyone gets me wrong, more so, the ugali fundamentalists from Western Kenya, I have nothing against ugali. I eat it in copious amounts. I like it with a good serving of beef stew with a healthy serving of pepper, it goes down well. But it is the pepper and the spiced beef that rescues the ugali’s singularly mediocre taste.
But thank heaven I discovered plantain. Even though rarely on most hotels’ menus, wherever I find it, I automatically gravitate towards it. And presently, the only hotel I know that serves good plantain portions in the CBD is CJs, at the junction of Koinange St and Biashara St.
CJs Changed the Game
Before we knew it, Somali Restaurants had taken over the city, kicking out nearly all watering holes for the secular Nairobians who like their tipple. Dining in Nairobi is now a City Centre affair and drinking, a suburban affair.
Starting in 2005, restaurants have undergone a metamorphosis and in terms of design, we have been doing exceptionally well. No doubt. In the 2010s, various clubs could spend a fortune in interior design, proper lounge chairs, and clean toilets, but that meant, beer ended up costing an arm and leg, and whisky the cost of your kidneys in the black market, somewhere in Asia. But it was a good thing because, for the first time, the customer became the king.
For hotels, there were a few that got the design right, but until Charlies’ opened where Nakumatt City Hall (which has since been shut down, paving the way Pronto) used to be and CJs on Koinange Street, glitzy, glassy designs were not something you associated with the CBD. Charlies’ went with coronavirus, and that means CJs remains the best-designed hotel in the Nairobi CBD, presently.
I like the cavernous, high-roof interior. The glass exterior gives it an upmarket vibe. And the person who was given the assignment to pick chairs opted for the best. Whether you are taking the lounges or the stand-alone chairs, they are all cushy and they will be very kind to your back and won’t hurt your bottom. They are well-spaced, giving room to meet as a group and banter over a good meal, or if solo, you can squeeze into an independent chair and table and while away the hours. Do you know those clubs where the chairs are so horribly made, you can’t enjoy the meal and a drink without breaking your back and you have to book an appointment with a masseuse afterwards?
A date at The CJs
The first date I ever did at CJs was sometime in late 2020. I took this Pharmacy student at the University of Nairobi, that I was eyeing. She was a tall, light-skinned, exceptionally beautiful girl, the kind that you take to CJs. She came with her friend. Quite a looker too. It was one of those hurried Covid time evenings where you ate, one eye firmly on the clock, lest you get bludgeoned by an overzealous police officer.
The two young lasses were good vibes, and they liked the place, its food, and its ambiance. But I may have been too infatuated to concentrate on the food.
I always wanted to go there solo to enjoy the food.
A solo date when you are famished is something I like. I eat very fast, which is something I can’t do in the company of anyone, let alone a woman. When you have company, you tend to be inhibited. Moreso, if you are a big feeder who likes to eat the whole serving, without any pretense of civilized modesty that forbids gluttony.
And that is how I ended up at CJs in late October.
Hunger status: Famished.
I was shown to the upstairs lone table, and the waiters, ever so courteous, handed me the menus. It was such a big, bookish menu, and I was too starved to read it. I asked the waiter what their best meal is, and after going through the rooster, ranging mainly from chicken, fish, and beef, he recommended their chicken special.
We settled for their grilled Caribbean Jerk chicken. Basically, sizable two drumsticks (broilers), one extra piece of breast or thigh that is grilled to perfection (according to their menu, and you can take their word for it), served with salsa, ranchero sauce, and garden salad. For starch, the advertised one was fries, with three pieces of deep-fried plantain. Or you could opt for an all-plantain starch for an extra Sh 150. I have eaten enough fries in my life, so, why not try plantain? Being a fan of avocado, I took an extra serving of guacamole. Their ranchero sauce is made from a mixture of tomatoes and onions, fried and boiled, and then mixed with mysterious herbs and spices. I liked it. For the juice, I went for a cocktail of beetroot, carrots, and oranges. Beetroot always gives me this illusion that it is a healthy thing, despite the shitty taste, but who knows? Maybe it is.
When the food arrived, it is food porn at its best. The waitress who served me gave me a look of bewilderment,
“Wewe ndio unajua kukula,” she told me, approvingly, like a wife who wanted some for the night and had outdone herself so that there will be no excuse. To which I laughed, and I told her,
“Mimi ni Mluhyia!” To which we both laughed. She left me to attack the food.
I started with the chicken, and it was exceptionally good. You wouldn’t feel ripped off when you savour it with the sauce. It was worth every penny. Their portions of plantain can make you worried about your weight-loss program. I devoured the meal, enjoying everything on the plate, and ten minutes later, it was the miserable bones on the plate, as I downed the thick, delightful juice.
In Ekegusii, we say, ‘enda nesese’, which translates to, “a stomach is a dog., It can’t be satisfied. I was so hungry a short while ago, and now I was full like I will never eat again.
I will go back to sample their menu until I exhaust it. Did I say that there are beautiful women over there too? Next time, I hope I will be in the company of a lady with beautiful thighs.