For years, dining in most towns outside Nairobi and Mombasa felt like eating in grandma’s home. The endless menus in different hotels served local foods, boiled or cooked to suit the traditional palate.
But now food-preneurs in these towns are introducing exotic cuisines, and locals are beginning to embrace the expanded options.
In Eldoret town, Laxman Mehra, the owner of Lax & Taj Restaurant located in Elgon View shows off the rich variety of flavours beyond the familiar foods. He serves Indian, Chinese, continental, and barbeques.
The 36-year-old moved to Eldoret three years ago after being nudged by a foodie.
“I had a customer in Kisumu who told us we have nice food and asked me if I could open a branch in Eldoret town . . . that is how I opened this enterprise,” he says.
Setting up the restaurant cost him Sh25 million. He started small but now he has 22 employees, an increase from the 12 he had when he opened shop.
“I’ve realised that there is better spending power in Eldoret compared to Kisumu. We have successful farmers,” says Mr Mehra, who is a professional chef and had worked in various hotels for more than a decade before opening his own.
He started the hotel business in Kisumu in 2017 and now hopes to expand to Kitale, a sleepy town with few sophisticated eateries and to the East African market.
On his menu, he has poussin chicken and vegetable Sahuan fried rice (Chinese) among others. He is looking to go abroad to refine his culinary skills as he introduces new cuisines.
For palates that are used to tomatoes and onions, he has introduced garlic, turmeric, chillies, and other herbs.
Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays are his best days when he receives up to 200 customers a day.
In the past six years, Eldoret town has experienced tremendous growth in the food business.
Europeans working with non-governmental organisations or on university exchange programmes have also provided a steady market for international cuisines.
Himal Karki, another professional chef, is the head of operations at Zaika Lounge bar and restaurant.
The restaurant opened its doors in 2017. Initially, they started with Chinese and Indian cuisines but expanded the menu to include continental and local dishes as the demand grew.
At this restaurant, the menu is full of seafood; crab, lobster, squid, tuna fish, Kingfish, and red snapper.
“This [he shows me a lobster dish served with vegetable rice, mashed potatoes and sautéed green vegetables that include broccoli, Pakchoi, mushroom, Chinese cabbage, and French beans] is the most expensive meal and goes for Sh8,000,” he says.
He cooks with ‘uncommon’ herbs and spices such as Mace, star anise, dry mango powder, mustard seed, fennel seed, black cumin, and Sichuan peppercorn.
“We have foreigners, Indians, and local customers. The locals now constitute about 90 percent of our client base and they really appreciate our meals,” says Mr Karki, adding that over the years their outside catering business has grown too.
He is looking to open more branches in every small town in the country.
Bhupendra Tailor owns KwaBhupe restaurant in Elgon View, one of the popular spots in the town that serves continental, Indian, Chinese, and local food.
“Cooking has been my hobby since I was in university,” he recalls.
The restaurant (formerly Mama Mias) was opened in December 2019. He operated Enclove restaurant from 1994 up to 2001 after he noticed a gap in international cuisine.
At that time, Eldoret had an international airport and he saw an opportunity as expatriates craved non-local cuisines.
“Those days they were wary about the food they eat, they said they won’t sample continental, Chinese or Indian cuisine. But now more people are appreciating different cuisines. In fact, 80 percent of our customers are locals…the rest is a mixture of Indians and internationals,” he says.
He has introduced the ‘Koroga cooking concept’, where they provide ingredients and allow families or friends to cook food on their own. And this trend is catching up fast.
“Friends come here and cook and bond together,” he says adding, “This concept is practised among East Africa Indians wherever they are. . . But it has also been picked among the locals too.”
Adjacent to the restaurant is the bar. He stocks over 50 different wines and alcoholic drinks, a rarity years ago when the wine list was limited.
“We get bookings or wedding extensions. For instance, someone called from Australia and made a booking in this place. These referrals have helped us to grow,” he says.
Sunjeel Palace restaurant is another that is known for its Indian and Chinese pizzas.
Alpesh Patel, who owns the Sunjeel Palace, says that he bought the business in 2006 after the owner and his family relocated to the US.
At the time, it was a small bar with four chairs and a small fridge. He started with seven staff but now has 22, serving over 100 clients at a given time at the restaurant.
“When I took the business we were only serving Indian clients. Then we started targeting local customers, at first they were sceptical. They thought that all the food had too much pepper or was too spicy. Slowly we explained that we can limit the blast of chilli and now over 70 percent are the locals, 20 percent are the internationals and 10 percent are Asians,” says Mr Patel.
They serve from Paneer curry to Kadai Sudzi and Chinese fried rice.
“Currently, we are looking for a place outside the town to expand our business,” he says.
Eka, Eldoret, a five-star hotel that opened its doors in December 2020, also serves a wide range of recipes to its clients.
David Okoth, the Executive Chef says initially they noticed that international cuisines were not popular in this region.
“We had more diners ordering brown ugali or managu but we are seeing more and more diners now appreciating exotic cuisines,” says Mr Okoth who has worked at Fairmont London, Egypt and Singapore.
Some of the popular meals at the restaurant include salmon, chicken Papillote, stir-fried beef and stir-fried pork. The food ranges between Sh700 to Sh2,300.
Pritpal Sains, owner of the Sains Restaurant located in Sikh Union Eldoret is another restauranteur that offers international cuisines.
The restaurant was established in 1957 at a spot where those involved in the construction of the East Africa railway met and enjoyed Indian cuisine.
Mr Sains, who took over the business three years ago, notes that international cuisines are also becoming popular in the region.
He has 19 employees and has maintained the older staff.
“It is good to maintain old staff because they have good connections with the clients,” he says.
As I sat at the restaurant, seven Catholic nuns walked in and sat at one table to sample the exotic dishes.
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