Camels Joint: Mombasa’s culinary gem with a tantalising history


A lady enjoying a meal at Camels Joint. PHOTO | NMG

Nothing stirs nostalgia for our coast more than the aroma wafting from cooking pilau.

My wits cannot help but transfer to a spice market, hanging on to every lyrically waxed word from mzee Issa as he, in a dense coastal accent, patiently details, for the umpteenth time, the various seasonings on display.

This is why I have made it a tradition to stop by Marikiti market for my flavour fix at the end of each visit to Mombasa.

I relish the experience so much that I do not care for the unnerving stares that follow my crimson red lips turned from snacking on the sugar-laden achari (dried mango), mabuyu (baobab candy) and kashata (coconut burfi).

The other related ritual visit stop I have adopted before the inevitable rush to the point of the port is a slothful walk from Fort Jesus through the alleyways of the Old Town in the hunt for the perfect biryani or pilau.

A popular eatery that boasts panoramic views of briny waters and the English Point Marina across them as well as the soothing breeze, has always enjoyed my unwavering patronage since I was introduced.

Habit thus always hastily led me to her immediately after my feet touched the ground. A recent visit would have yielded the routine result had it not been for the oddity of a camel sipping a drink from a straw.

In what reeks of loyalty shame really, it turns out that I had been passing over a culinary gem all along. In the face of Fort Jesus, next to the 900-year-old Mazrui graveyard, right where the tuk-tuks drop off their baggage, sits Camels Joint.

In hindsight, I cannot understand how I missed the signage over the years. Fighting a gnawing feeling akin to the one I suffered when I first cheated on my longtime barber, and later my butcher, I slid past the chicken tikka-shawarma counter placed athwart the entrance.

Inside, the ambience attempts to strike a balance between the vestiges of Old Town Mombasa and contemporary inevitability.

Hand-carved, wooden window sills ornamented with dallahs (traditional Arabic coffee pots) match the exquisite oil-on-canvas paintings of the locality by celebrated artist Zuber Bakharani.

These historical representations are toned by a well-finished gypsum ceiling with blue colour light detail, a sizeable goldfish tank, modern bucket leather seats, and a television screen mimicking the piped jazz music.

On one focal corner sits a miniature Swahili dhow emblazoned MV Camels while a curious portrait of a queen, told by the crown resting on her head, hangs on the wall leading into the kitchen.

Upon further inspection, it yields that:

“This building was built in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It was called Jubilee Hall until the 1950’s when it was used by local dignitaries as a baraza (meeting place) for their town hall meetings”.

With most old Town Mombasa buildings, like the one stark behind it, enduring disuse and disrepair, this building sure is lucky to carry its legacy into the next age.

What impresses me today, however, is its culinary foundation curated by current tenant Hassan Salim.

As the account goes, narrated by the operations Manager, Hassan Hamid, his older namesake started off as a juice pusher back in the 80s.

Sheer unwavering determination saw Mzee Hassan progress to set up a stationary kiosk vending an innovative scud juice recipe that eventually birthed Camels Joint.

To date, that seven-fruit scud (fruit, ice-cream combo with toppings) combo is celebrated Mombasa refreshment, and I am a convert.

If you believe in fighting fire with fire, Camels Joint also excels in speciality coffee brewed and presented in the most authentic fashion, so go ye forth and taper the heat with a cup.

The seafood platter a waiter waltzed past carrying seemed surreal, but I was here for the pilau, and I am afraid to report that that lazy walk through Old Town might have just come to an end.

Presently run together with his son Suheil Hassan, Camels Joint presently has three branches; this one at the fort, one in Mombasa’s Haile Selassie Avenue and a night operation in Bondeni.

The latter, I have no say, but I did enjoy ukwaju (tamarind) juice in the town branch, with the common features being the food offerings as well as the signature shawarma counter and goldfish tank.

With her pedigree, I hope this full-blown affair will last my lifetime. That way, I can continue to experience and even pass on this nostalgic cultural pilgrimage to one of East Africa’s earliest civilisations to the next generation.

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