A friend of a friend in Maine used an online dating site, Afro Introductions. He was an American adventurer who had sailed halfway around the world and loved to hang glide. A woman in Kenya responded to his post. She was an emergency room nurse in Nairobi. She didn’t like hang gliding but considered herself adventurous. The two hit it off. He visited her in Nairobi five times and surprised her with a marriage proposal. “When I remembered how to speak, I said, yes,” recalls Mariah Stone. They had a child, got married and moved to his home in Maine. Just a month after arriving here, she offered to teach me how to make a favorite Kenyan meal. She didn’t know what ingredients she would be able to find, but she was happy to try.
First, we went to an African market where all the ingredients were dried or frozen. In Nairobi, she did her grocery shopping year round at an outdoor market that went further than the eye could see with fresh meats and vegetables, one of the benefits of living near the Equator. “You’ll find a lot of Kenyan food cooked in a simple way. Not a lot of spices, maybe one or two.” We left with only a box of Kenyan tea. Next I took her to Whole Foods where she became more inspired. She decided that fresh, leafy, green chard would substitute nicely for pumpkin greens, the leaves of a kind of pumpkin plant. She also added to the cart fresh, local lamb from North Star Farm, potatoes, parsley, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, an ear of corn, peas and garlic. In Kenya peas grow fresh all year round. She would try frozen peas for the first time.
Out of that simple set of fresh ingredients, she made three dishes. In Swahili she called the lamb dish Nyama ya mbuzi. It was sautéed chunks of lamb in a red pan sauce made of onions and tomatoes that had been cooked until they disintegrated. Kabichi was shredded cabbage sautéed with onions, chopped fresh tomatoes, and parsley. Mukimo was bright green mashed potatoes studded with corn and peas. She made the potatoes green by mashing chopped cooked chard right into them. She served a large spoonful of each item on my plate. Each was simply delicious.
The North Star lamb was much more tender than what she was used to. In Kenya, she explained, people keep their animals for a long time. They like their meat tough. “Chew until your veins come out and you’re happy,” she said. “If you give people something soft, they’re like, ‘What’s the difference between this and a potato?’”
I asked where she learned how to cook these dishes and was surprised when she answered, “The orphanage.” Her parents died when she was a toddler. Mariah was raised at Dagoretti Children’s Home in Nairobi, which is supported by the nonprofit, Feed the Children. Some of the kids would go to the kitchen to help out whenever they could. “We learned from the ladies who worked at the institution. They saw our willingness to learn and taught us. It was a good orphanage.”
For the recipes or to sign up for a live cooking class, visit www.immigrantkitchens.com