Nairobi, known as a cosmopolitan and culturally diverse African capital, boasts a thriving assortment of Chinese restaurants. It is a testament to China’s cultural and financial influence in Kenya, embraced by some, while bringing uncertainty critique for other native Kenyans.
Mbathi Kimani, a local, owns Hong Kong Kitchen, a joint tucked away in Safi Soki mall in south Nairobi. The hole-in-the-wall restaurant flanks a recently completed section of Ngong Road, a major construction project done in collaboration with Chinese firms.
The road is a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to create infrastructure to enhance land and sea trade routes from Asia to Africa.
Belt and Road projects have brought a new wave of Chinese immigrants to Nairobi in recent years, some of whom have opened local restaurants.
“The Chinese restaurant competition here is tough. There are quite a number of us for a rather niche market, but I wanted to give it a try,” Kimani told VOA.
He owns three Chinese restaurants inspired by his travels to Hong Kong in the 90s and 2000s. He was so impressed by the efficiency and organization he witnessed in Hong Kong and thinks Kenya can benefit from that model.
He also enjoyed the food there and is replicating Hong Kong’s Cantonese food at his Nairobi restaurants. Kimani found while some local Kenyans like Chinese food, others don’t embrace it.
He tried opening a Hong Kong Kitchen along Mombasa Road, where the population has a lower concentration of expatriates than the other locations. “After just one month, it wasn’t doing great––people in that area weren’t as keen to try the food,” Kimani explained. They’ve closed that restaurant for the time being, but business is steady at the other three locations across town.
Kenyans’ mixed appetite for Chinese cooking parallels the locals’ relationship and perception of Chinese presence in their country. While some Kenyans welcome the benefits of jobs and roads created through Chinese investments, others are more cautious and even critical of the the cost of doing business with China, in terms of debts.
Co-existing in Kenya
Kenyan’s mixed perception of the Chinese and Chinese food in Nairobi also comes from how the two cultures co-exist.
Marvin Akinyi, a 29-year-old Kenyan who works as a biology lab assistant, said he finds it strange how workers from mainland China tend to keep to themselves but attributes it to the language barrier.
“Perhaps, if I had more Chinese friends, I’d have more chances to try the food,” he said in an interview with VOA.
Akinyi gave Hong Kong Kitchen a try once. “It was good,” He continued, “but just very different from what I’m used to. I’m not sure I would try it again, especially since most of my friends are Kenyan. We are used to getting nyama choma [grilled meat] at the same bars rather than trying new places.”
Fusion of flavors and cultures
In the kitchen and the dining rooms, some Kenyans are experimenting with fusing traditional Kenyan cuisine with Chinese ingredients and flavors, and liking what they taste.
A 29-year-old Kenyan chef, Malachi Mwaniki, has also worked in upscale Nairobi restaurants such as Hemingway’s.
“Common Kenyan foods are simple and hearty, but relatively bland compared to the range of spices used across Chinese cooking. Stir-fries have become very popular. Young people in particular are keen on trying new foods and flavors,” he tells VOA.
He is on a journey to explore international foods and makes barbecued brisket, cold-smoked salmon, Chinese bao buns, and even Cantonese dim-sum.
Moses Kulavi, who has worked at the popular Kenyan chain Java Coffeehouse and upscale Hemingway Hotel, attended a culinary course at Kenya’s Tsavo Park Institute of Technology, where he learned the fundamentals of intercontinental cooking.
“Many of the ingredients that we used were local.” Kulavi said, “but we also learned how to use things like bok choy and soy sauce. Overall, I would say that Chinese dishes are spicier.”
Many base ingredients like chicken, beef, and eggs translate across Kenyan and Chinese cuisines. The Kenyan culinary tradition, of cooking meat “wet fry” and “dry fry” -- meaning with or without stew or broth -- also has similar Chinese cuisine counterparts.
Kulavi now caters private events for clients, mostly middle class and local. He created his version of an African beef dry fry paired with Chinese fried rice.
“It’s been a big hit and is commonly requested by my clients,” Kulavi told VOA in a phone interview.
One of the main differences in the two cuisines is in preparation. For instance, both pilau and fried rice are staple rice dishes. For the former, a coastal Kenyan comfort food, all the ingredients are boiled together in the same pot, while in Chinese-style fried rice, the ingredients are sauteed separately––developed as a way to use up leftovers and odds and ends in the kitchen.
Hong Kong Kitchen’s Kimani appreciates the beauty and diversity of an international palate. However, he recognizes that the situation is different for those who lack firsthand experience in seeing and tasting for themselves.
“Kenyans come into Hong Kong Kitchen with all sorts of stereotypes,” Kimani said. “Some expect to find snakes or things like that. We have to show them that it’s largely the same ingredients, just cooked differently. It’s just food!”