Chege Waruingi has a word of warning for patrons of his restaurant: “If you are dying of hunger you will get upset with us. But once you get it, you will see it was worth the wait.”
The fact is, good nyama choma takes time. And Waruingi’s spot, the Olepolos Country Club, has some of the best you can find in Kenya. So I ordered, popped an ice-cold Tusker lager, and settled into a picnic table with a panoramic view of the rolling hills east of Nairobi that are the traditional haunt for a community of goat-herding Maasai.
Kiswahili for “grilled goat,” nyama choma is Kenya’s unofficial national dish, and can be found at innumerable “choma zones” that appear along every major road, in hotels, back alleys, and anywhere else with enough space for a grill and a few seats. Served family-style and torn into with bare hands, it’s a great equalizer, enjoyed by peasants and princes, silk-tied Nairobi businessmen with rolled-up sleeves and bare-chested Samburu cattle-herders in the remote northern desert. President Uhuru Kenyatta recently surprised a downtown hole-in-the-wall for lunch and dropped the equivalent of $210 to buy every ounce of nyama choma in the joint.
But as Waruingi will eagerly tell you, not all nyama choma is created equal. The choma-chomping public seems to agree: Olepolos has been named best in Kenya. Dozens of picnic tables spiral out from a small stone kitchen, which billows smoke. Goats about to meet their maker wander around the grassy parking lot, munching their last meals.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the place was just beginning to fill up with post-church crowds. One goat serves about a dozen people; for a group of three visitors, a leg (about $20) will more than suffice. Pick your own from behind a deli-style counter, then order a selection of sides: Ugali, a fluffy cornmeal bread; sukuma wiki, collard greens sauteed to within an inch of their lives; kachumbari, a salsa-esque mixture of fresh tomatoes and onions; and chapati, essentially a thick tortilla. And did I mention beer?
Waruingi is a big man, starting to go grey, who presides over his nyama choma empire from a prime booth near the kitchen. Growing up in a Maasai family, Waruingi was raised on nyama choma, but never had an interest in cooking it himself until a cousin sold him a big plot of land in prime goat territory. After a long career as a manager in a nearby soda ash mine, he was ready for something a bit more fun, and the setting seemed perfect for an eatery.
He worked out a deal with the local community: They could graze their goats on his property in exchange for giving him a discount on the ones he bought for the restaurant. He also hired a few locals to butcher and grill the goats. There was no electricity; for water, he drilled a well. The “club” opened in 1996 with a clear philosophy carved into the entrance doorframe: “Keep it simple.”
“This is simple African cuisine,” Waruingi says. “We don’t add anything. There’s no seasoning, not even salt. People know this is the real thing.”
The secret, he says, is freshness. The goats served here were born within a few miles, raised on whatever they forage from the hills, and slaughtered the same day they’re put on the menu. There’s no meat refrigerator on the premises. Usually three or four goats killed in the morning will take care of the day’s customers; for bigger parties, you can pick your own from the herd (if you’re planning to make a whole day of it).
Waruingi says his most loyal customers are Kenyans who live abroad, desperate for an authentic meal while they’re home. They’ve helped him turn this place from a one-room locals-only joint to a sprawling nyama choma empire. But now he worries that some of them won’t be coming back: “Three weeks ago customers began to complain that the goats are too tough.” He blames climate change.
Rainfall was below-average across much of Kenya this year, as it has been for the last few years. The drought was so bad in the region around Olepolos that Waruingi’s well ran dry for the first time, and he has had to begin trucking water in; the weekend I visited he spent more than $240 on it. When water is scarce, goats have to walk long distances to find it, and well-traveled goats make for unappetizing meat. This has never been a problem for him before.
“Climate change directly impacts my pocket,” he says. “It’s very real out here.”
That may be true, but you wouldn’t know it from this unsophisticated mazungu diner. An hour and a beer or three after I ordered, the leg I purchased reappeared on a wooden cutting board, resplendent, golden, and crispy. A waiter chopped it into bite-sized pieces at the table, while we walked over to a water spigot to wash our hands (there are no forks or knives). The meat can be devoured solo or with an accompanying handful of ugali or veg; the brave-paletted can request diced fiery chile peppers to sprinkle on top. I liked to make little tacos with the chapati, although I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this approach.
Nyama choma is rich, with a hint of game. Each piece is started directly on the grill and transferred into aluminum foil once browned to finish cooking. As a result, the color and texture is basically uniform throughout, rather than a gradient from pink inside to char outside the way a steak might be. Each bite begins with a slight crisp, followed by just enough chewiness to require a bit of conscientious effort.
The meal was delicious, and I saved just enough room for one more Tusker to settle the stomach and raise a toast with Waruingi to the victory of grilled meat over climate change.
“It’s amazing that some educated people don’t believe in it,” he said, with a conspiratorial wink. “Tell the people out here that, and they’ll tell you you’re crazy.”
Tim McDonnell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow working in Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria. Follow more of his stories here.