Inspired by a memorable street food encounter, lost in the alleyways of Lamu town, Marah Köberle embarks on a mission to go looking for Swahili pickles in downtown Nairobi.
Following Abdallah, a renowned tour guide, through the narrow streets of Lamu, listening to his musings about history and architecture of the UNESCO world heritage site, my view is distracted by a street vendor. His simple stand is bursting with plastic buckets overflowing with various pickles. With no time to properly stop as the tour moves forward, I try to make a mental note of the location of his stall in the labyrinth of alleys.
As soon as the tour finishes, my friend and I retrace our steps and I am relieved to find the stand again. The vendor hails from the neighbouring island of Manda and is happy to explain the contents of the different buckets. He spoons out
small amounts of the pickles which he places in my sweaty hands and I proceed to sample preserved salty fish, achari ya maembe (mango pickle), achari ya ndimu (preserved lemon), mbilimbi pickle and more. The achari taste tart and fresh, all with their own individual character. They are addictive and I can’t stop asking for more. Licking the last samples from my palms, I have a hard time deciding on which ones to buy. After some pondering, I end up transporting six big, slightly leaky, containers on my flight back to Nairobi.
Pickling is a common preservation method used all around the world. Typical Swahili pickled produce includes mango, lime, mbilimbi and fish. Extended shelf-life is reached through creating an environment in which bacteria can’t grow: in this case salt, vinegar or chilli do the trick perfectly. Often oil is added towards the end, as a thin layer of it on the top
prevents the goods coming in contact with moisture and bacteria.
Eventually, the six plastic jars from Lamu are used up, so, propelled by a strong craving for Swahili food, one Saturday I head over to Malindi Dishes in the CBD to get my fix. After a delicious plate of mbaazi na mahamri (beans and Swahili doughnuts), I inquire about the mango pickle for sale behind the counter. The friendly staff give me the number
of Zahra, who I’m told produces the pickles for the restaurant under the brand ‘Malindi Achari’.
When I manage to locate Zahra, she explains that her sister is producing the pickles in Mombasa where, she tells me, the ingredients taste better and are fresher. Their family recipe includes fresh mangoes, sugar, mustard seeds, fenugreek, oil, salt and spices.
Following my visit to the Malindi Achari shop, my quest takes me in the direction of Jamia Mosque. As I head towards Kigali road, just behind the mosque, I enjoy being surrounded by the hustle of the CBD. After asking around, I am finally led down a narrow alley crammed with small shops and before long, a cabinet full of colourful plastic jars catches my eye: pickles!
I end up purchasing preserved lime, mbilimbi pickle and mango pickle and while talking to Zuhura, the shopkeeper, I’m surprised to learn that the pickles are also produced at the coast. As I start heading home, I spot another vendor selling pickles produced in Tanzania. I can’t resist the urge and purchase two more jars.
Having purchased what feels like my body weight in pickles, I feel certain my cravings will be satisfied, at least for the next couple of months. I just hope that the pickling technique preserves as promised because there is no way I have space to cram all the containers into my already overflowing fridge!
*‘Malindi Achari’: You can find Zahra’s pickle at Malindi Dishes in Gaberone Road off Luthuli Avenue, CBD
*Zuhura’s Stand can be found in ‘The Market Boutique’, Kigali Road, behind Jamia Mosque, CBD
*Follow Marah on: www.koeberle.me