My jaw was weakening but the steak wasn’t. An American John Malkovich look-alike (maybe it was John Malkovich), a fellow diner at the hotel in Malindi, noticing my battle with the particularly stubborn piece of steak leaned over to me and drawled.
“My shoe leather is more tender than that steak. You want to know where you can get a decent meal?”
Two days later I was in a tiny plane flying en route to the old Swahili trading port of Lamu just off the Kenyan coast. I was totally distracted from the epic African views below by a pilot who was barefooted and lounging on his chair with one foot resting on the instrument panel. He could have been nursing a tequila sunrise in a Mombassa beach bar rather than flying a plane. Not only that, the sound coming from his headphones wasn’t the reassuring voices of air traffic control; it was loud African pop music.
After 20 minutes in the company of the most laid back pilot on the planet we gently touched down at the tiny dusty airfield on Lamu’s neighbouring island, Manda before being guided to a waiting African dhow. The dhow’s cargo of steel canisters and sacks of rice caused the boat to list heavily so that the starboard beam was perfectly level with the sea as we crossed the channel between the islands. Visions of the Indian Ocean cascading into the dhow sending us to the bottom of Lamu harbour entered my head. But these guys knew their stuff and within minutes I stepped ashore at Lamu Town.
It was everything I had hoped an Arab trading port would be. Fishermen sat mending nets, small children catapulted themselves, laughing and screaming from canoes into the water and elderly men with equally elderly donkeys transported Hessian sacks to and from the dhows in the harbour.
It was tempting to order a G&T and spend the afternoon sitting on the terrace of the Lamu Palace Hotel watching scenes that had probably changed little since the town was established as an Arab trading port in the 14th century; instead I went for a wander around the town.
Some of Lamu’s streets were so narrow that I could stretch my arms and touch both sides of the peeling plaster walls. In some dark doorways shadowy carpenters sat carving Arabesque furniture; in others silversmiths painstakingly created original jewellery that sparkled so seductively that I bought a pair of unique ‘pure silver’ earrings for a friend (they turned her ears green).
Exploring the maze of alleys I stumbled across the town’s vibrant market with its rows of palm covered stalls displaying brightly coloured mangoes, avocados, custard apples and papayas. Unfortunately I made the mistake of clicking away haphazardly with my camera and was quickly told off by an angry eyed women wearing a black tunic and ivory hijab. Feeling like a culturally ignorant rookie I decided to return to my hotel for dinner.
John Malkovich had recommended the seafood platter so I went along with his advice. What arrived was like no seafood platter I’d eaten before…or since. A huge platter piled high with raw chunks of seafood was deposited on the table. Identification was required and the waiter duly obliged, pointing out two types of crab, shark, lobster, tiger prawns, swordfish and tuna. Once he’d introduced me to the cast of Finding Nemo he set up a mini paraffin burner, which he placed under a deep, heavy pan half filled with oil.
“You’re going to cook all this at the table?” I asked impressed at the idea of such personalised show cooking.
“No sir, you are,” to demonstrate he speared a piece of shark, dipped it into a bowl filled with batter and dropped it in the oil where it bubbled and puffed up into a golden morsel. The batter was crispy and the shark moist and slightly gamey – it was sensational.
“Leave only for a few moments,” He advised then moved away leaving me alone with my platter of all the highlights of the average aquarium.
Following Omar’s example, I began to work my way through the seafood. Everything was beautifully fresh, unsurprising as most had been caught a few hundred yards from where I sat.
After thirty minutes of continuous eating interspersed with numerous mouthfuls of Tusker beer, the seafood mountain still looked virtually untouched. I put my knife and fork down and the waiter was immediately at my side.
“Not finished already sir?” He asked…provocatively I felt.
“Naw, just a rest,” I lied and forced myself to continue for another ten minutes before I could eat no more and had to raise my napkin in surrender.
I sat back and took a long drink of beer. It had been the best meal I’d eaten in Kenya and what’s more, I’d cooked it myself.