A quiet garden in the Karen neighbourhood is the location for Under the Swahili Tree, a restaurant specialising in coastal flavours.
It is a relaxed, colourful, al fresco eatery brightened up by upholstery of vividly-coloured printed fabrics.
Seating is at regular tables, a lounge corner, a bar counter with TV screens and in the garden, with a play area for children.
Translucent mabati (roofing sheets) lets in lots of natural light, and handcrafted metal lampshades create a dreamy starlight effect at night.
Opened in September 2022, Under the Swahili Tree is a multi-purpose eatery that appeals to different types of guests.
“We are family-friendly, but if you want sports at the weekend or a lounge to chill out with your girlfriends over wine, those areas are there,” said proprietor, Emma Forbes.
The menu is Swahili-inspired and globally influenced, with a food philosophy around fresh ingredients, homegrown produce, and well-rounded flavours.
I ordered the Swahili chicken curry for my lunch, which had a deliciously warm and slightly smoky taste.
The chicken is pre-marinated and then grilled before going into the curry sauce. One of my lunch partners had the lamb tagine, and the other herbed falafel dish. Both were well enjoyed.
The Middle Eastern falafel dish of deep-fried ground chickpea balls is a customer favourite, served with beetroot, a Baba Ganoush eggplant dip, and a side salad.
We shared a plate of spiced apple and cinnamon samosas with scoops of vanilla ice cream for dessert.
Another popular dish is the vegan bean and lemon croquette with a mint avocado salad and tangy Romesco sauce of roasted red capsicums.
The fish and chips are said to be excellent. A recommended light meal is a tasty chicken tikka salad with chunks of avocado, sliced cucumber and lemon.
Besides regular menu items, you will likely find weekly specials or seasonal items. The whole soft-shell crab rubbed in Swahili spices is a seasonal best.
It is served with tamarind sauce and a fresh avocado mint salad. Or try the coconut jumbo prawns accompanied by mango and pickled cucumber that adds a tart, spicy quality to the seafood.
If seafood is not your preference, other choices at Swahili Tree include steaks, hamburgers from homemade patties and homemade sourdough, marinated barbequed pork, and chicken dishes.
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Among the vegetarian options is a great halloumi burger, rubbed in Swahili spices for deep flavours and served with a pixie orange chutney.
Upon special request, they can prepare a nyama choma buffet with a Swahili twist to the side dishes.
When there is a taco bar, the meat fillings are grilled on a jiko accompanied by mango salsa, kachumbari and salads.
New this month are the Swahili Chicken kebabs, rubbed in a special spice mix and grilled.
Alternatively, enjoy Swahili Tree’s zingy flavours on a pizza, with meat and vegetarian options. The dough is made in-house, and the thin-crust pizzas are baked in a brick-and-wood oven for a lovely smoky finish.
The neighbouring table was having a barbeque prawn and lemon pizza with a homemade tamarind sauce. It had halved prawns in the shells and looked absolutely delectable.
Weekends are attractive for families as there is pizza making and canvas painting for children, with a free bouncing castle in the garden.
I love how Under the Swahili Tree has recreated familiar dishes, all concepts created by Emma. “I am really inspired by ingredients, both organic and local ingredients,” said Emma.
Following a farm-to-table concept, she directly sources all the seafood, meats and chicken from specific farmers and suppliers.
Emma has an affinity for seafood, going back to her childhood of fishing with her father and cooking the day’s catch straight away.
Born in the United Kingdom, she grew up mainly in Scotland, and trained as a fine art teacher, “but I’ve always cooked,” she said.
Emma has lived in Kenya since 1996 and, in 2021, published Bahari Safari, a cookbook of Swahili and coastal recipes.
She first cut her teeth in the cooking business nearly four years ago, preparing and selling home-cooked, frozen meals.
Soon Swahili Tree will start a home-delivery service of ready-to-eat frozen meals such as curries, pies, pastries, ready-to-grill meats, skewers and halloumi steaks.