$20 Diner: Kenyan mash-ups make for thrilling cheap eats at Swahili Village
By Tim Carman,
Kenya lies just to the south of Ethiopia, their borders pressing against each other for more than 500 miles across a barren plain where several ethnic groups willingly share resources without regard to international boundaries. Such exchange appears to be limited to animal grazing and water, however, because as I’m sitting in the Swahili Village Restaurant and Bar in Beltsville, I can barely detect the slightest whiff of Ethiopian influence on the Kenyan cooking here.
The dish that has me twisted into knots is the one that chef/owner Kevin Onyona calls goat wet fry, a misleading description to be sure. The bone-in goat’s dominant flavor actually comes from the grill, which has branded the meat with its familiar black furrows; the “fry” in question is more of a pan saute in which those grilled pieces of goat are tossed in hot vegetable oil with tomatoes and onions. The dish is flat-out delicious, combining three of the dining table’s great pleasures: fat, flesh and char.
For the most part, my knowledge of East African cooking has been limited to the injera-based delights of Ethiopia, the cuisine that has become part of Washington’s DNA. Without question, a few of the Ethiopian tibs dishes I’ve had over the years arrived fresh off the grill, but none had the kind of deep steakhouse char found on Onyona’s goat. And none had that bonus roll in oil.
When I finally talked to the owner about the dish, I was quickly given a lesson in Onyona’s take on Kenyan cooking at his little beige space just behind a Shell station: There are few hard-and-fast rules as he combines the spice blends of his native country with whatever flavors and cooking approaches he thinks will create a satisfying dish. That goat wet fry freely mixes the Maasai tribe’s love for grilled meats with a technique usually reserved for kabeji, an East African dish of pan-fried shredded cabbage.
Kenyan cuisine already is a mash-up of the various influences that have muscled their way into the country, whether those of nomads (Maasai), colonialists (Brits) or indentured servants (subcontinental Indians brought over to build railroads). The menu at Swahili Village is a kind of treasure hunt for international flavors: The beer list includes not just Tusker, the pale lager from Kenya, but also dark, roasty Guinness. The entrees section features not only the kind of fried fish that Onyona ate in his hometown of Homa Bay, on the little finger of Lake Victoria that pokes into Kenya, but also a garlic-heavy curry chicken and a full head-on tilapia topped with a sweet, acidic masala sauce.
Even elements that, on first glance, look woefully out of place apparently have a home at the Kenyan table. Like that pile of chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro sitting next to my plate of succulent grilled “steak bites.” By the looks of things, you’d swear someone in the kitchen had been reading too many Rick Bayless cookbooks. But Onyona informs me that Kenya has its own version of pico de gallo, called kachumbari, and Kenyans won’t eat grilled meats without it. They believe the condiment helps prevent gout, he says.
You’ll have to excuse my rather academic interest in Kenyan cuisine up until this point. It’s been a while since I last stepped foot into such a restaurant. I can tell you the exact date, in fact: It was Jan. 20, 2009, that meat-locker-cold day when Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. That afternoon, I had wandered over to Safari DC on Georgia Avenue NW, where there were no birther debates. They were celebrating, hard, for the man with Kenyan blood in his veins.
Safari DC closed less than a year later (and was recently resurrected as more of a pan-African outpost), but it wasn’t until I entered Swahili Village that I experienced the same gentle pulsating energy that I had found at Safari. It’s not clubby in its intensity, but it’s not family-sleepy either. It straddles those worlds with the kind of good humor captured only in the best neighborhood restaurants catering to immigrants so far away from home. In an L-shaped room outfitted with vibrant paintings of African life, as a friend and I split an ice bucket of Tusker beer (five to a container, so you can fight over the last bottle), I felt as if I had been granted honorary Kenyan status for the evening.
It’s easy to feel expansive when you’re digging into Swahili Village’s now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t samosas, each stuffed with ground beef fragrant with a spice blend that Onyona imports from Kenya because it’s too difficult to replicate the exact mixture in the States. Or the Kenyan-style sausages, the lush links that remind me of British bangers. Or the ghee-ful chapati flatbread, so perfect for wrapping pieces of grilled beef or dipping into a goat soup loaded with chunky vegetables and decades of culinary assimilation.
The lone alarm at Swahili Village is reserved for the appetizer known as bhajia, a basket of bland fried potato discs. Fortunately, they’re served with a tiny container of habanero-laced sauce. The condiment’s heat will radiate throughout your mouth and nasal cavities long after you’ve swallowed it, the burn as pleasant as a beam of sunlight shining through a cold window in winter. The sauce is also one of the few things here that’s not authentically Kenyan.
“The West Africans love hot peppers,” Onyona says. “We’re sort of evolving to cater to that group, too.”