2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Joshua Obaga: Chewing Khat in Karen

This week on The Trip podcast: chewing khat and talking Kenyan cuisine with Joshua Obaga.

Let’s pick up where we left off in the last episode, with the 44th tribe of Kenya, the Kenyans of Indian descent. For all my talk of factionalism and atomization in Nairobi, you only need to come here, to the Diamond Plaza Food Court, to see just how mixed up it all really is. Here lies a shrine, a living, boiling, sputtering deep-fat fryer of a shrine, to one of Nairobi’s favorite snacks, Maru Bhajia. Which, as I now know, is what would happen if the lord Jesus Christ were to come back to earth in order to save us and also to improve upon the flavorless corporate wafers we know as potato chips.

Maru Bhajia may have arrived with the 44th tribe, but it belongs to Nairobi now. And joining it in the Kenyan cupboard are dishes from China, West Africa, Arabia, the British midlands and more. I get the sense, even when talking with Kenyans, that the national cuisine here is someone obscure, overlooked, and unloved. But as much as anything, that is a reflection of the power of Kenya, it’s geographic legacy as the bridge between the Great Lakes, the Bantu expansion lands and everything and every bite that lies east of Africa’s coastline.

We Americans love our exceptionalism, even us progressives, who like to think the US at its best is the world’s pre-eminent melting pot, or salad bowl, or whatever food metaphor for diversity you choose. That’s not wrong, necessarily, but the comfort that I feel here in Nairobi, awash in deep strains of dozens of cultures is at least a sign that Kenyans also a thing or two about melting and mixing.

I knew I wanted to talk these things out with food obsessive Joshua Obaga, who had first brought me and a friend of his to Diamond Plaza. I did not know, until a gardener from the property next to my hotel showed up with a thick bundle of fresh, bitter-smelling greens, that Joshua and I would talk about these things while chewing khat, the mild narcotic stimulant that is illegal in the US, just barely tolerated in Kenya, and often paired here with sweet sodas.

Warning: this episode documents two adult men drinking Sprite and slowly dribbling on themselves. Proceed with caution.

Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Joshua. Subscribers can listen to the full episode here. If you’re not on Luminary yet, subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing up here.

Nathan Thornburgh: All right, let’s talk about what you and I are going to imbibe here. Let’s get that going. What is this?

Joshua Obaga: Well, I am not a consumer of miraa. It’s called the miraa. M-I-R-A-A. But it’s one of our legal stimulants. It’s like a more affordable version of coffee for certain population.

Thornburgh: Because getting a good drip coffee is still going to be-

Obaga: Exactly.

Thornburgh: … Java House not withstanding. It’s still going to be too expensive for a lot of people.

Obaga: Yeah. Our coffee culture is not as deep as, let’s say, the US or Ethiopia or Saudi Arabia.

Thornburgh: But Kenya exports a lot of beans?

Obaga: Yes. We are more about the capitalist.

Thornburgh: Yeah, right. We’re about selling and sipping. All right. You are not going to try this then?

Obaga: I will. The last time I had some, though, I was in high school.

Thornburgh: In high school?

Obaga: Yeah.

Thornburgh: Oh man.

Obaga: This was in 2001.

Thornburgh: We also know it in the States as khat, which is a name throughout Yemen and Somalia and all the places where it’s deeply popular. It’s like chewing tobacco, maybe, in the States.

It’s like that thing that people experiment with in high school, and then some people just do it as a lifelong thing and it gives you this mild head buzz or something. I’ve had khat before but more in, I think, in an Arab context. I was talking with somebody about the ways that they chew it here, and I was like, “Oh, khat and Sprite. I did not expect that.” There is also, as you were saying, a strain of chewing khat with bubblegum, so that you end up with this golf ball. That sounds like a lot of work to me.

Obaga: Actually, it’s called a taxi.

Thornburgh: A taxi?

Obaga: Yeah. It gets to a point where you chew so much, and it’s a specific kind of gum called Big G, which is like an OG Kenyan gum.

Thornburgh: The OG Kenyan gum. All right.

Obaga: Then you eat a bunch of them and you keep adding more gum, and it becomes this humongous ball of… nothing … What do you call it? Spit and khat and gum. It’s crazy.

Thornburgh:  God, you’re really working my appetite. That sounds amazing. I would love to watch that.

Obaga:  All right.

I can feel my mouth going numb.

Thornburgh: I had heard, I guess, that is the preferred way in Uganda. I’m psyched we’re doing Sprite. I don’t think I need a taxi. A big old ball of spit and gum and khat leaves. All right, walk me through this. Tell me how this goes.

Obaga: I feel like you probably have more experience in this than I do.

Thornburgh: All right.

Obaga: But what I remember is, and what I’ve observed is they take the leaves out and they chew it on the side. inside of your cheek.

Thornburgh: I wonder what the Sprite is supposed to do. The Sprite in this equation.

Obaga: I think maybe it’s about flavor. I think it’s bitter, isn’t it? So the acidity and sweetness of the Sprite offsets that bitterness.

Obaga: Where did you get this from?

Thornburgh: The gardener next door who grows it.

Obaga: That’s insane.

Thornburgh: It is insane. This is heirloom heritage, organic … I don’t know if it’s organic, but it is just very fresh. Fresh khat. Because usually it’s dried, and this’ll last a while. This is also, I would say, about a kilo. Maybe not a kilo. But it is a huge amount.

Obaga: It cost quite a lot.

Thornburgh: Yeah. I didn’t specify how much to bring, so he brought enough for an entire village. I’m going to send you home with a lot of khat. Right, that’s the right thing. You cheers, and then chew. Pour a little bit of Sprite in this. Nice glass bottles. Get that sound of that clinking.

Obaga: There you go.

Thornburgh:  Cheers. Joshua, thank you for being on the show.

Obaga: Thanks for having me.

Thornburgh: All right.

Obaga: All right.

Thornburgh: Super fresh.

Obaga: Very bitter.

Thornburgh:  It’s very fresh. That’s weird.

Obaga: The Sprite absolutely helps.

Thornburgh: Oh I’m digging that. Yeah, I can feel my mouth going numb.

Thornburgh: It’s hard not to swallow it. How do you…

Obaga: I think that’s why you put it in your cheek. Okay. I’m either going to have to swallow it or spit it into a thingy.

Thornburgh: Well, this is what you realize too about betel culture in Myanmar. It’s another kind of chewable stimulant. It takes so much skill to do it without just making it an absolute mess of yourself. I’m getting the sense with this too. It’s like, right. I’m not talented enough to just tuck it away and hang on to it. I’m just eating the leaves, which I’m pretty sure is a party foul. Wow.

Obaga: That was interesting.

Thornburgh: All right. You’re a food guy, how would you describe the flavor of that?

Obaga: Bitter. Like fresh grass. That’s what it tastes like. Yeah. It tastes like the smell of freshly cut grass.

Thornburgh: That is spot on. Well, I am the cow in this scenario. Grazing in the meadow. Wow. I think in my long quest around the world to find different ways of making weird mouth noises into the microphones, I think we’ve hit a new level here. More like just a big chew.

Nairobi is the hub of the whole country.

Thornburgh: Yeah. I mean, it’s just a lot of moisture, man. This is like that lip smacking.

Obaga: Yes, too much. I swallowed.

Thornburgh:  Yeah. Yeah, me too. I’m sure there’s a whole community of boda boda drivers who would look down very, very hotly at us for our khat powers but… Well, anyway, you have now most of a kilo of khat to distribute. I mean, I’m sure you can find somebody who will enjoy that.

Obaga: I’ll try and figure out I could probably make it into an ice cream or something. That’d be interesting.

Thornburgh: Speaking of ice creams, I was out doing what I like to do, which was we were out drinking and going around different places in Nairobi last night, and Scotch Bonnet pepper jam came up. Your jam is being discussed in night clubs and bars around the city. All right, let’s start there. What are you making and why?

Obaga: I like to cook everything. Usually, I don’t even like to use the word chef. I’m not formally trained. I haven’t started yet, anywhere. But I like to explore as much as I can, and I do like fine dining because it’s all about exploration and finding yourself within a meal, or within the identity of a restaurant. And so I try to explore as much as they can using different techniques of preparing food, looking at something and saying, “Okay, what are the 12 different things I could do with this one ingredient?” I’ll bring out the best in it. With Scotch Bonnets, I do work with chili a lot because I never liked chili growing up. I’ve always tried to find something positive within a food that I don’t typically like. I don’t like pineapples. I don’t like watermelon. I don’t like chili.

I want to try and figure out how to make watermelon taste much better than this. Or present it in a way that I would eat it.

Thornburgh: You’re going to find watermelon to the next level of evolution.

Obaga: I found a way to make it a bit better. You can actually remove the water and replace it with something.

Thornburgh: So it’s just a melon?

Obaga: It is a melon, but then the texture is a bit different, and the flavor’s a bit different. If you leave it in lemon juice for 24 hours, it cures it. It becomes a little bit like a rare stick, rather than this squishy spongy thing, and it’s a bit more acidic. With the sweetness, it goes really well. I think, the thing I didn’t like about it was the combination of the super wateriness and the ultra squishy. I didn’t like that combination. But I hacked it.

Thornburgh: Melon hacks. The same way with Scotch Bonnet, and you didn’t like chili growing up, but it’s also true that spice is not a big feature of Nairobi food at least, right?

Obaga: Well, what do you mean by Nairobi foods?

Thornburgh: This is what I heard. It’s an axiom throughout the world, right? The mountain foods tend to be a little heartier and less spice-filled. But that you got like, in the mountains, like we are here at 5,000 feet above sea level in Nairobi, you’d have hardier, maybe less spicy foods. Then down by the coast, you have more heat to it. But in here… I mean, in the Kenyan perspective, that’s specifically that you have more Indian influence on the coast and things like that. I don’t know. But you tell me what is Nairobi food?

Obaga: When you talk about the coast, first of all, that was where the port is, and so that’s where all the Portuguese and the Arabs and the Indians came through. You find a lot of influence from those parts of the world. Spice, of course, was a huge part of those three cultures. But within Nairobi, Nairobi is the hub of the whole country. It’s a capital city. Socially, not just economically. What that means is that you have five generations of Indian families in Nairobi. You have white families in Nairobi. You have, of course, now, people from different parts of the country coming to Nairobi. So many different kinds of food are here. When it comes to indigenous eating, spice is not really a thing. But I would be remiss if I say that the Asian Kenyans are not Kenyans, or Indian food is not Kenyan food. Indian food has always been available here. Spicy food has always been available.

Thornburgh: Got it.

Obaga: Things like turmeric and cardamom and stuff are thing that we grew up eating and drinking. Because we put in our tea as well.

But then there is the conception that Kenyan food is bland, and that it’s just salt.

Thornburgh: Right. But that means writing Indians out of the cuisine?

Obaga: Exactly.

Thornburgh: All right. You got Scotch Bonnets? You’re going to make a jam?

Obaga: I have made a jam before. I’ve made a Scotch Bonnet jam before, which was fantastic, first of all. I actually was trying to make a chili sauce, a Scotch Bonnet’s ketchup thing, and so I added vinegar and added sugar, but I added too much sugar. It caramelized, and I was like, “Oh, this is interesting. This works.” So I added more-

Thornburgh: The Thomas Edison of Scotch Bonnet tomfoolery. All right.

Obaga: Yeah. Then it was a bit thin, so I added some xanthan gum. It became a pasty, jam-type thing, which now put on a toast and stuff. It was a mistake, but it worked really well.

Thornburgh: Behold, and thus was born. Jam.

All right, you’re going to make khat ice cream now we’ve got all this fresh khat. How do you do that? What’s the plan?

Obaga: I’d have to cook it first and see if it cooks. I can’t just blend it because it would just be ultra bitter.

Thornburgh: Yeah, that’s true.

Obaga: Unless I make a bitter ice cream. If you make a better ice cream then you can shave some lemon on it, maybe put like a lemon syrup.

Thornburgh:  Oh no. A bitter ice cream sounds like a cruel prank on children or something. Ice cream’s supposed to be smooth.

Obaga: I don’t know. I like the idea of playing around with… looking at something and expecting something, and eating it and experiencing something else completely.

Thornburgh: Yeah. But then you would have the Breaking Bad problem, which is, how do you cook drugs? There are active narcotic stimulant elements in this, and if you blend it, does that break it down?

Obaga: It’s a good question. I’d have to now do research from a… What do you call it? Molecular level. What happens? Marijuana CBD oil is a thing, so maybe if you can extract the active agents, the active element in khat, and then use that.

That’s the thing I love about this country. There are so many things that are part of our culture that you’d be surprised are not.

Thornburgh: You’re not a classically trained chef, but when I was asking around town, everybody said, “Oh, you know who knows about Kenyan food? It’s Joshua.” I think, in part, that’s also a reflection on the fact that it’s not … there are a lot of cities in the world that you could go to, and there would be an established fine dining scene. I don’t get the sense that that’s really the case here in Kenya. You’re a watcher of Chef’s Table. You see their general global gastronomic game. How does the Kenyan food and cuisine scene compare to that?

Obaga: That’s an interesting question. I’m very much in the middle of it because I love what they do, but there’s also an element of… I mean there is separation. There is a class separation, there’s agricultural, geographical separation. When it comes to fine dining, you look at Europe and the US, there is a very rich history. Even the word fine or haute cuisine means high end. So the social hierarchy determined what people ate. Here, we were colonized. I’m still doing research on precolonial multicultural or cultural anthropology, basically, but with food before [colonization].

Thornburgh: It’s hard because the colonization blacked out the rest of the history of the place in some ways.

Obaga: Exactly. Well, they didn’t it even black it out, they just brought a new story. Think about Ugali. Ugali is here because of colonialism. Ugali is our… it’s Kenyan food, but it’s really not.

Thornburgh: Where did it come from?

Obaga: The Portuguese came with it.

Thornburgh: Oh yeah.

Obaga: Then the English figured out that they could pay workers with maize, so they mainstreamed the idea of maize. Ugali existed as a dough-like porridge. That’s a thing that you see all over Africa. But before the maize flour came, we used to use millet and sorghum.

Thornburgh: Right. The brown ugali.

Obaga: Yeah. The brown ugali, which I really like. The thing is, now they figured out that maize was much cheaper to grow and is easier to manage than sorghum. Then they used to use maize flour as payment for their slaves, and their workers. So it became something that everybody used to start eating because it was like, “This is basically what we’re eating because it’s our payments, our sustenance.”

Thornburgh: For context, Ugali, as it is now, I went with the journalist Barbara Wanjala to a Luo restaurant, at Kosewe in the central business district, and she’s from a Luo family, I guess. She took me there. So this Ugali is like it’s maize, the white one. Then there’s the millet version which is brown, but it’s this hard dough. I don’t know what’s a good textural description. It’s almost like a slightly firmer version of a cookie dough. You make a little bowl or eating utensil out of it, and you make this little thing which I did so laughably bad. It was just like creating the worst kindergarten sculptures.

Obaga: Play-Do.

Thornburgh: But she was training me up, and you use it as both a base and for grabbing the food. It’s incredibly filling, and it’s the quintessential…

Obaga: Kenyan food.

Thornburgh:  … Kenyan thing, which as you’re pointing out…

Obaga: Is not really.

Thornburgh:  Not really.

Obaga: But then that’s the thing I love about this country. At least in Nairobi. Because it’s not the one thing, it’s so many things that are part of our culture that you’d be surprised are not. Things like sukuma wiki. Have you eaten sukuma wiki?

Thornburgh: No. What is that?

Obaga: It’s basically collard greens.

Thornburgh: Okay.

Obaga: Ugali and sukuma, that is the number one thing people think about with Kenyan food. Ugali and sukumawiki and some meat. That’s also not Kenyan, but it’s ultra Kenyan at the same time, and I love that.

Listen to the full episode.

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