A luxury for the palate

 Seafood paella. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH
Seafood paella. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

Food enthusiasts will go out of their way to get their hands (and teeth) on some of the most extravagant, exotic or rare dishes in the world, and will happily cough out a small fortune to satisfy their palates. Some of the most luxurious and often expensive food items around the world include donkey cheese, matsutake mushrooms, beluga caviar, saffron, Italian white alba truffles, fugu (pufferfish), kobe beef and bird’s nest, some of which you can find at top fine dining establishments around Nairobi.

“When we have specials, sometimes we will use saffron, especially for rice dishes,” says Archie Athanasius, Executive Chef at Hemingways Nairobi. “It is one of the most expensive spices by weight in the world and the threads are carefully handpicked from the specific flower (crocus sativus) then dried. We use very little in rice and that turns the dish yellow.”

Worldwide, one kilogramme can go for between $800 (Sh82,474) and $1,600 (Sh164,948). Despite the attempts at using machines it is still handpicked and it requires about 150,000 flowers (or 300kg) to get five kilogrammes of fresh stigmas from which you can harvest about one kilo of the dried bright orange spice. The top producers in the world are Spain, India and Iran.

“We mostly use it sparingly when we do special rice- based dishes or seafood paella,” adds Blaine Wilkinson, Executive Chef at Sankara Nairobi.

“We do scallops that has caviar- lamb fish roe on it,” says Archie. “It is not the beluga caviar which is very expensive and is very rare to find in establishments around Nairobi. Ours is an imitation caviar which is really good and makes for the most expensive dish in our menu as a starter.”

Beluga caviar is the rarest and most highly priced of all caviar varieties, harvested from the beluga sturgeon fish which is said to lay the softest roe of any sturgeon. The eggs whose colour is typically black or light grey (lighter colours are the most valued and come from older fish) can cost $7,000 per kilogramme (Sh721,649). Given that beluga is endangered, sale and import has been banned in areas such as the US.

“At Graze Steakhouse, we use salmon roe which is an accompaniment for one of our appetisers. We use it as garnish the “caviar” itself and is salty, bright orange, bigger in size, has a little bite and gives some juice when you chew,” says Blaine.

While not available as ingredients in his kitchen at Hemingways Nairobi, Archie has been a chef for about 20 years and has experience using ingredients like foie gras.

The term is French for “fat liver”, typically of a duck, and it belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomic heritage of France. Gavange-based foie gras production where the ducks are force-fed is controversial, although more natural feeding methods are often used outside France.

“The liver is actually white in colour. I used to serve a dish where you pan sear it very lightly and serve with cranberry sauce or a plum puree. You can also serve it raw—put it in the fridge until it is nice and firm so that it facilitates slicing. You can make nice thin slices like a carpaccio then serve with a salad of microgreens with a nice truffle vinaigrette as a starter.”

Archie adds that you can also use the liver as a complement to steaks. Get a medium-rare beef steak, add a slice of foie gras on top and complete with a red wine .

“As for fugu, I have no experience cooking with it. It is very specialised and you will find mostly Japanese chefs handling it. You have to have vast experience before you can even work on it. If you fillet it the wrong way, it can be very dangerous!”

Fugu is so poisonous that even the smallest mistake during preparation can lead to death for whoever eats it, and there is yet no antidote. Chefs have to get a special preparation licence, and the price of a dish at a fine dining establishment can go up to $200.

The most expensive mushroom in the world is matsutake which is not always easily available in Kenya. Archie uses the highly-sought after morell mushrooms. “That’s the priciest here. A bottle with about three pieces can go for up to Sh5,000 . We mostly get a bag of wild mushrooms, at about Sh4,500 for 500g. It’s a mixture of dried porcini, shiitake and portobello. Soak them first and if you mix that with butternut, you can get an excellent soup with onions, garlic, butter and chardonnay. I would also recommend a mushroom risotto with garden peas.”

As for Blaine, if you are using fresh button or oyster mushrooms, he recommends sauteeing them first to remove the water. That gives it a crispy, earthy flavour.