Crocodile is no longer just for the tourists explain the chefs at Carnivore Restaurant who have had first hand experience watching locals get stuck into this unconventional meat.
Joints of meat on swords barbecued over a huge charcoal pit and carved right at the table, steaming platters of ox testicles, a ‘medicine man’ weaves his way through the room enticing customers with a ‘‘magic potion” concoction of honey, lime, sugar, ice, and vodka known as Dawa.
The scene at Carnivore, one of Kenya’s most famous restaurants and a meat eaters’ nirvana, feels like something out of a medieval banquet. They’ve been selling game meat to tourists and locals since the early 1980s, back when Alex Opiyo—a chef that has been working at the Carnivore for 15 years—was living near Lake Victoria and feared getting eaten by a crocodile on his daily walk to school.
Apiyo’s role is to encourage customers to be adventurous in their choice from a menu that includes nyama choma, pizza, deep fried ugali, crocodile served by the platter and, when available, mini crocodile burgers.
“Kenyans are hesitant to try crocodile,” explains Opiyo. “The fear puts them off. The first time I tried it was when I came to work at Carnivore and I had to put that fear behind me. In the end I really liked it though, the flavours and the texture feel like something in between chicken and fish. I convince customers by telling them to forget about the physical appearance and the stories and to feel relaxed while they taste it. Or else I tell them to have a Dawa which works magic!!
Since the sale of wild game meat was banned in Kenya in 2004, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, wildebeest, antelope are no longer sold making the highlight of the menu the crocodile – of which they can easily sell 50 kilos a day, but because of availability limit it to 20 kilos a day.
Director of Kitchen Operations Joseph Gacheru, who has been with the restaurant’s umbrella group the Tamarind Group for 32 years, explains that, “For tourists the mentality has always been that they come here to try something exotic; it’s part of the adventure. A lot of locals are quite hesitant or resistant to trying Crocodile though. I guess because people fear it […] In recent times though, I’ve noticed that Kenyans are becoming more adventurous”.
The crocodile ends its life and starts it journey on the Coast at a place called Nile Crocodile from whence it is transported overnight by bus to Nairobi. The flavour “is all in the tail,” which, Gacheru explains, is the fleshy part. “When it reaches Carnivore, we tenderise the meat with a marinade that harmonizes the flavours.”
Crocodile can be oily, so what is important is strong flavors. The olive oil, garlic and lime juice marinade is designed to give you the full taste of the crocodile – well seasoned, simple, not over spiced to kill the delicacy of it. At Carnivore they recommend a garlicky mayonnaise with lime juice or a sweet, fruity sauce like one you would add to a pork chop.
“It has evolved and we we are not shy of trying different ideas,” underlines Gacheru.
Understanding and changing cooking methods and flavour profiles to accompany local trends rather than challenge them, has definitely been an interesting part of the journey explains Gacheru. “Before, I could tell you for sure that every local who came here would ask for the domestic meat – chicken, beef or lamb. The most adventurous they would perhaps go would be to order some spare ribs. But today they want to try everything … So I guess it also comes with Kenyans traveling more and getting exposed to different tastes and cuisines. They are changing their eating habits – which is a very good thing”