In 1913 at the age of 6, Elspeth Huxley set off from Nairobi's Norfolk Hotel for the childhood she immortalized in "The Flame Trees of Thika". When the current PBS version of the novel, which ends tonight, was filmed in Kenya in 1980, the Norfolk, the first stone building in Nairobi, was still standing. It is famous now for curry lunches and mustachioed old settlers in baggy khaki shorts.
Huxley's novel opens with her father, Robin, having just bought his farm "in the bar of the Norfolk hotel from a man wearing an Old Etonian tie." Across the Ainsworth bridge, just beyond the Norfolk, the country and Huxley's novel began.
Watching Flame Trees of Thika brought to mind a cookbook by Norfolk chef Eamon Mullen. He collected the recipes and wrote the book, the introduction says, "to conjure up many images in the minds of those who have eaten in this country." And it does so effectively.
The following Kenya menu is drawn from Mullen's Tastes of Kenya:
Avocado Kaimosi, Coastal Coconut Prawns, Palak Chicken, Hot Rice Salad, Pineapples and Kirsch, La Mousse au Moka, Kenya coffee.
The food at the Norfolk, like Huxley, is ki-settler--not indigenous African, but raised in Kenya. All the ingredients are available fresh there and are easy to find in the Washington area as well.
Of all the ingredients, chicken was the dearest in Huxley's time. Her mother, Tilly, brought five Speckled Sussex pullets and a cockerel with her from England by ship, train and oxcart. Along with a mother hen, the first brood of chicks were eaten by safari ants the night after hatching. Another chicken was taken by a hawk.
Months later Tilly imported a dozen more Speckled Sussex pullets. They were loaded onto the wrong oxcart at Nairobi railway station and ended up in a hospital kitchen. A week or two later Tilly received a thank-you note from the hospital matron reading, "The patients have enjoyed them, such a welcome change." They had travelled 5,000 miles to end up in a roasting pan. Guinea fowl, "plump, succulent birds," were easier to come by.
The smell of wood smoke drifts over Huxley's description of settler kitchens:
"Kitchens were generally regarded rather like a witch's lair. They were small, smoke-blackened places filled by a wood-burning range (generally bought second-hand) and a great many people who always clustered there ... The cooking was performed in big black pots that were never scoured, like French stock-pots. Everything was encrusted with a black deposit of wood smoke ... From this black and overcrowded hole emerged food which was always hot, apparently nourishing, and, if the cook was given half a chance, often appetizing as well."
Tea with bread, butter and cakes is the meal she mentions most often, along with eggs, which she liked for breakfast, and porridge, which she did not. At the end of the book World War I forces Tilly and her daughter Elspeth to return to England. The family board and train laden with pawpaw and passionfruit, a miniature stuffed alligator and a cardboard box of birds' eggs.
The only unfamiliar fruit in the Norfolk menu is a whole coconut. To open one, first pierce an "eye" at one end and drain the juice, which is good for cooking rice. Then bang the shell round the midriff with the back of a heavy knife. If it doesn't fall apart after a few whacks, a hammer will do the trick. If this is all too much for you, just substitute unsweetened shredded coconut from the store.
AVOCADO KAIMOSI WITH HOT DRESSING (4 servings) 2 tablespoons sugar 2 tablespoons water 2 tablespoons vinegar 2 tablespoons ketchup 2 tablespoons butter Salt and pepper to taste 2 ripe avocados, halved and pits removed 6 slices cooked bacon, crumbled
Heat sugar and water in a small suacepan until the sugar dissolves. Add vinegar, ketchup, butter and season with salt and pepper. Simmer over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes. Pour dressing into avocados. Sprinkle bacon on top.
COASTAL COCONUT PRAWNS (4 servings) 1 coconut 2 tablespoons each oil and butter 3 pounds unpeeled prawns 1/4 cup chopped onions 1/3 cup sliced mushrooms 1/4 pound tomatoes, seeded and chopped 1/4 cup soy sauce 1/4 cup white wine Salt and pepper
Split the coconut in half and remove the meat. Cut it into small strips place strips in hot oil and butter and saute' them until golden brown. Remove from the pan and set aside. Peel and wash the prawns. Saute' them with chopped onions for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and cook 5 minutes. Season and serve.
PALAK CHICKEN (4 servings) 3 tablespoons ghee or clarified butter 2 onions, sliced 4 to 5 cloves garlic, chopped 1 1/2 inches fresh ginger, chopped 1 1/4-inch stick cinnamon 4 to 5 cardamoms 2 teaspoons coriander powder 1 large chicken 1 pound fresh spinach 4 to 5 chopped tomatoes, peeled 2 to 3 green chilies
In a large frying pan heat the ghee. Add the onions and saute' until golden brown. Grind or blend together the spices. Add the chicken and lightly brown. Add chopped spinach, peeled tomatoes and chilies. Cover and cook over low heat about 1 hour until the meat is tender.
HOT RICE SALAD (4 servings) 1 medium onion, chopped 4 tablespoons olive oil 1 green pepper, chopped 4 stalks celery, chopped 2 cups cooked rice Salt and freshly ground black pepper 1/2 cup salted cashew nuts
Fry finely chopped onions in hot oil for 3 minutes. Add green peppers, celery, cooked rice, seasonings and cashews. Toss the mixture in the pan over a medium fire for 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately.
PINEAPPLES AND KIRSCH (4 servings) 2 small pineapples 1 cup sugar 1 1/4 cups pineapple juice 3/4 cup water Grated rind and juice of 1 lemon 3 tablespoons kirsch 1 1/4 cups whipping cream, whipped
Cut pineapples in half, lengthwise, leaving on the green tops. Remove fruit from the shells. Sprinkle insides of shells with 2 tablespoons sugar. Chill. In a pan, mash pineapple flesh with a fork. Add pineapple juice, water, the remaining sugar and lemon rind. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Strain and add lemon juice. Freeze for 4 hours. Beat the mixture with a fork. Fold in whipped cream and kirsch. Return to the freezer for another hour. Just before serving, spoon mixture into shells.
LA MOUSSE AU MOKA (Coffee Mousse) (6 servings) 2 1/4 cups milk 4 egg yolks 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar 2 tablespoons instant coffee powder 1 1/4 cups whipping cream, whipped 3 egg whites, beaten until stiff 1/4 cup coffee liqueur Chocolate sauce (optional) Whipped cream, for garnish
Bring the milk to a boil in a saucepan. Combine egg yolks, sugar and coffee powder in another saucepan, and pour hot milk over the mixture, stirring continuously. Return to the stove and cook over very low heat without boiling, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Refrigerate until cold. Fold in the whipped cream. Fold in beaten egg whites. Stir in coffee liqueur. Pour into tall glasses and swirl with chocolate sauce if desired. Refrigerate 1 hour before serving. Garnish with whipped cream.