Like any good Iowa boy, I was taught to keep my promises – even if they’re kinda silly. Six years and 142 countries ago, I made two rules for my little food project: 1) each meal has to happen within the five boroughs of NYC, and 2) it has to be prepared by somebody from that country.
But holy crap, this is getting tough. Several Kenyans have passed through my proverbial Rolodex; none have led me to a meal yet, and I’m 100% certain that there are no Kenyan eateries in New York City. But that miskaki stuff sounds awfully good – marinated meat and onions and peppers, served on a sizzling platter with basmati rice.
So screw it: Teaneck, New Jersey, here I come!
When I walked into Addy’s Barbecue, Addy was wearing an Iowa Hawkeyes sweatshirt, which I took as a positive omen, since I’m from Iowa and stuff. I trust a Kenyan in an Iowa shirt do the right thing with meat – or corn – and fire, and I’ll bet that he makes a mean burger or rack of ribs. But he also makes mishkaki, an East African version of meat kabobs.
In some parts of the Middle East and East Africa, mishkaki is served on skewers, but Addy’s version of steak mishkaki is a wee bit more dramatic: it’s served on a sizzling iron skillet, with tons of caramelizing onions and a few jalapeños. The beef had been glazed in cumin, ginger, and tamarind – among other spices – giving the sauce an extra hint of sweetness to balance out the jalapeños.
By now, you might be wondering: tamarind and cumin? In Kenyan cooking? But those sound Indian…? As it turns out, Indian flavors have influenced East African cooking for centuries. The Omani sultanate (mostly) controlled Zanzibar from 1698 to 1964, and Omani traders played a key role in the spice trade, introducing Indian techniques and ingredients to the Middle East and East Africa.
If that wasn’t enough, a large Indian diaspora was drawn to Kenya in the late 1800s, initially as workers on the Kenya-Uganda railway, also known as the Lunatic Express because so many people – mostly Indians – died in the construction of the route, including many who were eaten by a notorious pair of lions. People of Indian descent were forcibly expelled from Uganda in the early 1970s, but somewhere around 1.3 million people of Indian descent remain in Kenya today.
OK, enough history: I was eating a huge plate of seared, seasoned beef, served with basmati rice and a tamarind-topped salad, which makes it hard to think about history. Plus, there was a gigantic mango lassi…
There was just one problem: I was still in New Jersey. After I finished my plate of rib-eye mishkaki, I ordered some chicken mishkaki to go. Just so I could, you know, eat it in New York City. The bad news was that it was getting dark, so you can’t really tell that the mishkaki and I were in Herald Square:
So here’s the Kenyan chicken mishkaki in the 34th Avenue Subway station:
The chicken mishkaki loved traveling so much that it begged me for a trip to the Eiffel Tower. I said no, and ate it. The mishkaki, I mean. Not the Eiffel Tower.
So I guess the meal deserves an asterisk. I ate Kenyan food in New York City – it just wasn’t prepared in New York City. Close enough?
Anyway, Addy tells me that he’s working on expanding his menu to include other Kenyan items (ugali!), and might even be eyeballing an expansion into New York City. Go try his food, and tell him to hurry up and cross the river so I can eat Kenyan food more often… and get rid of this darned asterisk.
1199 Teaneck Road
I don’t love the asterisk, so if you know anybody from Kenya or nearby countries (Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Central African Republic) who might be willing to speak with me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter or Facebook.