“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills”. Following in the footsteps of the Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, the protagonist of “Out of Africa”, who settled in Kenya in 1913, Pamplona native Pedro Tourón, the former CEO of the Taninia Group of Navarra (which owns several wineries including Señorío de Sarría and Palacio de Bornos), moved to Kenya with his family, but not to run a farm, rather to set-up La Mesa Española, Nairobi’s first Spanish restaurant.
“The continent that spoke to us the most was Africa, in addition to countries like The Philippines and China – but we would have had a language problem in the latter two. The options were Kenya or South Africa and we chose Kenya because (we were told) it was easier to adapt, and a less-violent country”, explained Pedro.And this is how, without giving it any more thought, they packed their bags and moved to Nairobi. They restored a house “in the style of a traditional asador (restaurant specializing in roasts) from Northern Spain”, in the Westlands area of the Kenyan capital, “a very well-known area with hotels and restaurants, in addition to residences”, and opened a restaurant specializing in Spanish cuisine.
Diners from all over the world have visited this small Spanish corner of Kenya, sampling typical dishes like paella, croquetas and Spanish tortilla: “Our head chef is Spanish – he has to be in order to be able to innovate and expand within the repertoire of Spanish cuisine”.
FORGET ABOUT CALAMARI
In contrast with the aforementioned dishes and those made with Ibérico pork products– which are also in high demand – one thing that hasn’t conquered Kenyan palates is Andalusian-style calamari because, according to Pedro, the majority of clients don’t understand the dish and think that it’s missing a sauce. He goes on to explain, “We decided to take it off the menu and leave only the chopitos (baby squid) which are smaller and therefore more acceptable”. There are still people who have a hard time adapting to our cuisine due to what they perceive as a lack of seasoning and spiciness. In fact, one day someone ordered a tortilla de patatas (potato omelet) with green chilies, which are very spicy”. In addition to this taste for spicy food and highly seasoned sauces, other Kenyan culinary predilections include meats, “they love barbecues”, as well as vegetables like sukuma (spinach), in addition to rice, beans and stews.
SWAPPING BREAD FOR UGALI
“Perhaps the most curious thing for us is the custom of eating ugali with one’s hands. A type of cooked corn flour that is made into a compact white dough and eaten like bread, ugali is used to mop up and accompany their food”. Pedro doesn’t like ugali, but he does like other dishes like “samosas, which are triangular puff pastries filled with different things – my favorites are the slightly spicy ones that are made with minced meat; and the mandazi, which are very typical sweets. It’s interesting, but the truth is that there are a lot of people of Indian origin in Kenya who don’t eat meat for religious reasons. When the restaurant opened, we had to create a vegetarian menu right away because we realized how many vegetarians there were in the country. This was something that we probably wouldn’t have had to consider in Spain.”
Pedro doesn’t think that he and his family will return to Spain any time soon, but if they do, he believes that “La Mesa Española will continue in Nairobi, because Spanish gastronomy knows no language barriers”.La Mesa Española
Grevilea Grove 41, Nairobi, Kenia
Photo: La mesa española y César G. Truco