Chowpaty is the sort of restaurant where it’s basically a sin to not deem everything communal. (It’s also the sort of place that, mysteriously, promises Chinese, Italian, and Mexican in addition to North and South Indian. The Mexican options are a quesadilla or nachos. But that’s beside the point.) Somebody orders idli, which are small cakes of fermented rice that get drenched in sauce; dosas, in either massive triangles or even-more-massive cylinders, appear, filled with curried potatoes; spicy, fried cauliflower and mushrooms inevitably populate the table; and then come the curries, more native to North India: mushroom tikka masala, vegetable kofta, stewed mustard leaves, and paneer in spinach gracy. Chowpaty is the sort of place where you want to have a lot of friends.
Before you get to the joys of ordering from their extraordinarily large menu, you must first make a major decision: inside or outside?
If you eat inside the restaurant, then you get to just that: eat inside a lovely dining room. If you eat outside, however, you gain access to the slew of other restaurants that populate Diamond Plaza, the shopping center at the heart of Nairobi’s most densely populated Indian neighborhood. (It’s also the home of the Africa Yoga Project, which you should check out.) Some of these places also serve Indian food; many of them serve more Kenyan fare, like fried chicken, chips, and eerily fluffy ice creams. When you sit down at one of the picnic tables under a pavilion on edge of the Plaza’s parking lot, representatives of every food establishment swarm you, ineffectually trying to sway you from your immovable commitment to Chowpaty. There is one exception, though: The Juice Guys. They are the loudest, and the most persistent, and the only ones who have been successful in tearing our eyes away from long lists of dosas and curries. The juices are simply puréed fruits, but they will make any combination your heart could desire: avocado + orange, papaya + mango + carrot, pineapple + mint, coconut + lime, beet + tree tomato…
I thought that the tree tomato, my personal juice choice from the above list, was a Kenya thing. We make frosting with tree tomato jam at the bakery, which only cemented it in my mind as an indigenous-to-Kenya fruit. So I was surprised to learn, just a couple of weeks ago, that the tree tomato is actually native to the Andes region of South America, where it is known as the tamarillo or the tomato de árbol (which is how I knew it when my very nutrition-conscious Ecuadorian host mother served it to me. It all makes sense, now). It was propagated in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and eventually New Zealand by Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese traders in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is, then, a comparatively new player in the Kenyan food landscape. In terms of living memory, though, Kenyans lay just as much claim to this tart, beautiful fruit as Peruvians.
But that’s enough about the juice: back to the curries, the dosas, the coconut and tamarind dipping sauces, that super-garlicky naan, chaat (lovingly referred to as “Indian nachos”), the spicy/sweet wonder that is Chowpaty’s crackling paneer–and the fact that this restaurant, and the entire shopping center around it, exists to serve an extremely well-established Indian presence in Nairobi. Manu of the Indian families now living in and around the Parklands neighborhood boast several generations of life in Kenya: the eldest came along with the British in the 1950s to build the railroads, put down roots, and now define the ambiance of whole swaths of this city. They are im/migrants in the deepest sense: though many of them are the third or fourth generation in Kenya, their dress, language, and cuisine remain immutably linked to India.
Have we left your mouth watering with all the fantastic things that Chowpaty has to offer? We’ll make their recipes accessible to the home cook in Im/migrant Nairobi: A Cookbook. If you want to make sure to get your hands on the book first-thing, check out our Kickstarter, which is now live!