The Shuk: Tastes of Israel in Nairobi

They called it an Israeli culinary celebration. It certainly was. Last Saturday and Sunday Baraka Israel and the Embassy of Israel put on an excellent presentation of Israeli food and wine at Dusit2.

When I first came to Kenya in the late 1960s, Israel was one of the prominent supporting countries. Who better, for example, to give advice on water resources and irrigated agriculture in arid lands than the Israelis, who had made incredible development achievements with these in their own resettled areas.

But how many young Kenyans know that one Israeli resettled area could well have been in Kenya? Back in 1903, the British government actually offered to the Zionist movement over three million acres of arable land on the Uasin Gishu plateau. The story is graphically told by Elspeth Huxley in her book, White Man’s Country. The Zionists were looking for, as one of their leaders put it, ‘an antechamber to the Holy Land’.

Though the Zionists were themselves split on the idea, in 1904 a Zionist three-man commission visited Kenya in order to make a recommendation. Up on the plateau they walked and they climbed through the forest – something they were not used to. During the night a herd of trumpeting elephants crashed close to their camp; in the morning, they came across an intimidating column of Masai warriors. Some say the British settlers, who were bitterly opposed to the proposed scheme, might have instigated these unsettling encounters!

Anyway, the Zionist commission put in a negative recommendation. They said they preferred ‘to continue to risk massacre and mutilation rather than to endanger the attainment of their ideal by permitting the movement to be shunted into a siding.’ If the British offer had been accepted, and this ‘siding’ had become an Israeli colony (the term Elspeth Huxley uses) how different would Kenya be – or the African continent, for that matter?

Sorry for this indulgent excursion into history – I am supposed to be writing about the Israeli food and wine event!

I must admit, though, that I knew little about Israeli cuisine. But, before going along to the Shuk event, I did a little research. In one article I read, I came across the statement that the Israeli breakfast is ‘the Jewish state’s contribution to world cuisine’. I have always thought that honour should go to the English for their ‘full English’ bacon and eggs. But then I remembered the sumptuous breakfasts served at the Artcaffe Restaurants – a huge platter of eggs in spiced sauces, salads of chopped vegetables, breads, soft cheeses and jams.

And so I went to the Shuk with an open mind and, fortunately, an empty stomach.

The Nairobi food tour was like a mini version of the famous Shuk marketplace in Jerusalem. Its venue was ideal – by the pool of the Rouge Deck at Dusit2. And it was a sell-out. I say mini-version, but there were 15 different food bitings to savour and 20 wine tastings to try. On entry, you were given a bitings card with small tear-off vouchers. (Since my wife doesn’t drink wine, I had a chance for 40 tastings!)

We began abstemiously by sampling four of Israeli olive oils, with crusty bread and, of course, olives. Then, while my wife explored the vegetarian offerings, I went for a double portion of the Shawarma: thin layers of chicken in a pita bread wrap, with a mix of spices and topped with Tahini made from sesame seeds and blended with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, black pepper and Dead Sea salt.

Each food station had a nice description of what was on offer. I particularly liked the calling Falafel as ‘balls of happiness’. They are fried patties made from hummus, vegetables, spices and, again, dripped with tahini. However good they are – and they were very good at the Shuk – it was something of an extravagance to say that they are ‘food of the gods’.

The Halwa, however, came pretty close to being gods’ food. I was surprised to learn this sweetest of sweets is actually healthy. I guess that this is because it is made from tahini, though it is tastily mixed with chocolate, vanilla and nuts.

And the wines? I tasted quite a few. I liked especially the fresh Golan Chardonnay, the fruity Israeli Riesling, and the rich Teperberg Cabernet Sauvignon. But I assure you I didn’t use even a third of my forty vouchers.

Noam Orr of Baraka Israel has established quite a following in Nairobi for his charismatic wine tasting performances – many of them at Dusit2. This Rouge Deck event, I think, has been his most ambitious so far. And I feel sure that the Shuk was only the first of more Baraka food and wine festivals. When it comes again, make sure you don’t miss out.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation