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Swahili feast by the beach

The language, traditions and music of a people define their culture, but  more than anything else,  it is their food that acts an aambassador through your taste buds

Harriet James @harriet86jim

From the time we are born, we grow up eating the food of our culture, which basically becomes part of us. On a larger scale, this traditional cuisine is passed down from one generation to the next and operates as an expression of our cultural identity. Apart from the warm sandy beaches and the rushing sound of the ocean, the coast is also known for its deep Swahili culture, which, as you can expect, is largely reflected in its food.

Swahili culture is varied and has several influences such as Indian, Arabic as well as hints of European cultures. It comes as no surprise then that their cuisine too is heavily influenced by these places. Centrally situated on Diani beach, one of the best beaches in the world, is Majilis Restaurant, in the Swahili Beach Hotel. This place impressed with its authentic cuisine.

Derived from an Arabic word, Majilis refers to “a place of sitting”, which in the past was used in the context of a council or special gathering which would include religious, social or even administrative groups among other.

In other terms, the word majilis connotes a private place where guest are received and entertained. Sometimes the Arabs called public waiting rooms a majlis, since this is an area where people meet and visit. In this hotel, Majilis refers to a meeting place and the fact that it’s the main restaurant aptly fits the description.

Various aspects of Swahili culture are reflected in the restaurant. For instance, on the walls are black and white paintings of Swahili people and their life at the Coast. The restaurant follows the entire hotel’s inspiration, which fuses raw Swahili culture and contemporary style.

The restaurant serves buffet meals to its guests. I enjoy buffet meals because one gets to serve the portions that they are comfortable with, unlike a la carte where the meal size is set. I read somewhere that the buffet table custom had its prime in the 18th century becoming more refined and sophisticated as time went by.

It was at first referred to as side-board furniture, in reference to where the French served their food. In the 20th century, it became popular amongst the English-speaking world and was even entrenched in the dictionary.

Enough about history, let’s focus on the food. As a rule, before serving any meal during buffet, I ensure that I look at all the items presented before making my selection. I used to serve what I find and this constantly back fired on me when I found that I’d missed out on something interesting, or I’d gluttonously served a lot of food thinking that I wasn’t going to be full.

I loved their breakfast mahamris– a wheat donut-like pastry prepared with coconut milk and cardamom, which I tried with some mbaazi cooked in coconut. I had a friend who once told me the two go together so to prove whether what she was saying was true, I requested the waiter to serve me a portion of the delicacy. I was impressed by their variety as far as Swahili dishes were concerned.

Then, of course, was the coconut rice whose taste is made richer and aroma stronger by coconut milk. I just love how the milk drowns the flavor of ordinary rice into something creamy. Better still is when it’s paired with beef curry or fish.

There was also mchuzi wa samaki, which is fish cooked in a delicate curry sauce or gravy loaded with coconut milk. It seems almost literal that every Swahili dish must have coconut milk, possibly because it’s the main staple of the region. If you prefer something spicier there was the tandoori chicken and naan, which deliciously enflames the taste buds.

The theme on my second night was African, where ugali and traditional veggies were served. I’ve never known how to prepare nyama choma that is soft and tasty, so it was really incredible when one of the chefs offered to teach me how to do it as I waited to be served.

One of the hotel’s policies is that the guest should be attended to regardless hence I appreciated the time I was given to learn tips on grilling succulent meat.

On Sunday afternoons, lunch is served at the sea-food restaurant, which has a view of the beach off the la carte menu. The cool breeze of the ocean coupled with a live band of great sing-along music is something to look forward to each time one visits this place.

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