Kenyan Food with Contemporary Twists

If I’m ever rich enough to open my own restaurant, I now know what it would look like. The interior designers of Nyama Mama’s flagship restaurant, at Delta Towers in Westlands, got it spot on. The dangling Edison bulbs and other faux vintage paraphernalia instil a sense of nostalgia without being pretentious, and the Kitenge fabrics reference the restaurant’s African roots.

Vintage car posters, bright red pepper grinders and painted pedestal fans provide a splash of colour to the grey brick exterior, and the terrace is light with a good amount of greenery.

Nyama Mama is a division of The Good Earth Group, and last weekend a friend and I sat down with the group’s Assistant Operations Director, Ashutosh Sharma, and the Assistant Executive Chef, Lesiamon Sempele, to hear the Nyama Mama story.

First, the name, which Lesiamon said was inspired by the notion that everybody’s mother is the best cook in the world. ‘If you look around you, you’ll see lots of pots and pans, cooking fat and packets of Unga on the shelves. We want to make you feel right at home, and to give the impression that the food has come straight out of your mum’s kitchen.’

There are plenty of traditional African, mainly Kenyan, dishes on the menu, but they’ve each been given an exciting, contemporary twist. Here are a few examples: Grilled halloumi with sukuma wiki and tree tomato chutney; Samburu watermelon and avocado salad; Spiced tilapia with smoky mayo; Mama’s matoke burger; Crispy Tusker BBQ pork belly with mashed sweet potato; Tomahawk steak with Cajun butter and kachumbari; Farmer’s pie (minced lamb and veggies topped with mukimo).

And then, of course, there’s Mama’s hit dish: Ugali fries with garlic sauce. According to Lesiamon, customers are often quite reluctant to try these, and some think it’s just a ball of ugali with a side of chips. In reality, though, they’re thick strips of ugali, with a crispy, chilli-dusted outside and soft velvety inside. We complemented these with a portion of chapati quesadillas with kachumbari and guacamole for starters. For mains we sampled the char-grilled githeri with avocado and kachumbari, and BBQ chicken legs with sweet jalapeno cornbread, homemade ketchup and a side of fried plantain.

These are new interpretations of food that most Kenyans have grown up with, but they shouldn’t offend for meddling with traditional recipes. Instead, this modern makeover is refreshing, and it also makes traditional dishes more accessible to those who aren’t so used to eating Kenyan food. There’s a playfulness to Mama’s menu, a reflection perhaps of the youth of the restaurant’s kitchen staff. Head Chef Lesiamon is in his mid-twenties, and was locally trained.

‘We’re always looking to reinvent, and we already plan to change our menu at the end of the month. We’re also open to suggestions from our kitchen staff, as everyone has a different background/ethos. The poussin chips recipe, for example, came from one of the other cooks because it was better than mine!’

Nyama Mama also adds a distinctive twist to classic cocktails, such as the Spiced Dawa Daiquiri (house spiced rum, lime and Kisampa honey syrup), Charcoal Manhattan (charcoal infused Bulleit bourbon, Martini Rosso and chai bitters), and Vodka Espresso (Ketel One vodka, Kenyan coffee and chai syrup). They’ve got very tempting milkshakes too, like the Nutty Rock (coffee macadamia nut milk, malt beverage, Kisampa honey syrup, banana and hazelnut ice cream).

I first came across Nyama Mama on my Instagram feed, when a friend posted a video at about 2am on a Saturday morning, so I knew it also catered to Nairobi’s late night crowd. Each week, they put on a series of themed nights, from Reggae, Burger and Beer Tuesdays, with a live reggae band, to Friday DJ Jam Sessions, playing everything from Soul to Urban and Afrobeats.

They also have live jazz performances on Sundays, and on Wednesdays host local musicians for Mama’s Jamhuri Jam Sessions. More then 20 artists are scheduled to perform in the lead up to the Jamhuri Festival in December 2017. Other tempting daily offers include Karibu Chai and Mandazi, or Samosa, and Masaa Ya Mama, or Happy Hour from 4 to 7pm.

Those who find themselves at Nyama Mama late on a Friday or Saturday night will appreciate the special late night menu, which is available from 11:30pm to 4am. Dishes include lamb samosas with pineapple chutney, honey pepper chicken wings and falafel with hummus.

And if you’d rather wait for a hearty breakfast the following day, there’s an extended brunch menu on Sundays, which runs till 4pm. Mama’s breakfasts also feature quirky interpretations of local recipes, and include fried chicken waffles, chai poached pear granola and the chapati breakfast burrito.

So if you’re up for a bit of jazz today, and a unique take on Kenya’s favourite dishes, head over to Nyama Mama Delta.

Published by Kenya’s Sunday Nation