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Kigwambogo cafe, a review 10 years on

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South of Embu, Kenya about 30 kilometers is the small market town of Kiritiri surrounded by bright red soil. Shaped like a square with the market in the center, a ring of shops circle the sellers of everything available in the area. One side of the only paved road in the district holds all the food while the other covers the used clothing market and everything else. Radiating like spokes off each corner are the only other streets that vanish into the scrub acacias not far out of the center, there on the south west corner it holds the Kigwambogo café. Recommended by a local mama, the café painted bright red and blue and accented with a large bulls’ head was the best food in town. (Bonus I never got sick there, I can’t say the same thing for the place next door.) The hand plastered walls are stained with smoke, long bench like tables fill the one room, while a small counter in front blocks access to the open kitchen serving window. Out back some bandas are available for use, like a plant filled hideaway so different than the dining room up front. I never ate back there though, I don’t really know why. With just a few open fire burners the kitchen put out about half of what was on the menu. Ask what they have and you’ll never go wrong. The beef and potato soup was filled with these small whole potatoes that never seemed to fall apart. They were waxy, but soft and I’ve never found out what variety they are. (I could find them occasionally mixed in with the other potatoes at market and they called them Irish, it didn’t help finding them upon returning home. Just like green grams were a surprise find at the Asian markets since they were mung beans. And those bananas the thick short ones as round as a silver dollar were like eating candy. I don’t as a rule like bananas even and these just disappeared around me. Spindly Ladyfingers don’t come close and the name in Kimbeere means nothing outside of there.) The cabbage was more of a soup surrounded by a clear broth, hardly seasoned more than with some salt, onion and a rogue tomato most likely and I felt like swooning. Githeri is the local staple food and large kidney beans and maize filled my bowl, so much that I could hardly eat it all, for little more than 20 shillings at the time. You could eat every meal out there for about a dollar a day. I don’t know how they made it taste so flavorful with just a couple bulk ingredients from the market, but I treasured every bite. Their real outstanding dish was the chapati, an import from the Indian rail workers a century before, they were crisp, flaky and as big as a dinner plate. Fresh they were magnificent, even a day old torn up and thrown in the soup they were something special. Enough oil was in them that they never grew gummy, just chewy. The chicken, while on the menu, I never found available, but I would never discount them on that count to not make frequent visits. Café’s in the nearby Siakago didn’t come close especially being almost twice the cost, though to be fair the beef stew at Roots Café there, was worth the trip. So many years later and I crave tearing up a fresh chapati and pressing the pieces, fresh or not, beneath the broth of their cabbage with some lovely potatoes on the side. Sigh. I’ve tried to recreate it, and I don’t know if it’s the heat difference on a stove compared to an open fire or a difference in ingredients, but I’ve never made it quite as spectacularly. A decade and I’m happy with my tries, but it’s not the same.

Jennifer Mueller served in Kiritiri market for two years in the Peace Corps. One day she’ll make it back and hope that Kigwambogo hasn’t changed one bit even if she knows its folly to think that.

#food #travel #kenya

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