On Lamu Island, we set out on a picnic with baskets packed full of freshly baked bread, butter, Tabasco, lemon, home-made salad and white wine.
Mike Kennedy, a hotelier and long-time resident of Lamu, harvested rock oysters from the huge boulders on the beach by shucking them right off the rock and onto a salt-water container.
Once he had collected enough, we enjoyed these raw delicacies with the foods in our picnic basket.
Enjoying an oyster dish is an acquired taste, but what started as shucking set-ups in Nairobi has grown with more Kenyans dining on the shellfish that can wiggle while you eat it.
There is a growing demand as bars pairing it with champagne or wine drive demand.
Same as luxury food items like foie gras, veal and caviar. This has led to the rise of savvy businesses such as the Indian Ocean Oyster Company which has had offers such as six fresh oysters and a shot of sake for Sh1,000 at Cheka Japanese Izakaya, or three oysters with draught beer for Sh600 at Sierra Brasserie.
“Over the last two years, the number of oysters consumed especially on the raw side has gone up. Kenyans love oysters and this is definitely becoming a foodie nation. They are featured in different ways depending on the restaurant, ranging from oyster and sake specials, oyster and beer to oyster and champagne,” says Chris Cellini, who founded Indian Ocean Oyster along with his business partner, Guy Brennan.
“In addition to catering for homes and special events, we currently feature our oysters at a couple of restaurants in Nairobi including Haru and Wasp & Sprout,” adds Mr Cellini.
His company harvests wild oysters from the mangrove forests at the Kenyan coast, and there is really no right way to enjoy these delicacies.
You can eat them on the half shell, raw, smoked, boiled, baked, fried, roasted, stewed, canned, pickled, steamed or broiled.
If you are hosting a party in your home and are looking to serve oysters, about 250 fresh oysters would go for Sh20,000 and 1,000 fresh ones for Sh60,000. All are delivered on time, shucked on site and served with an array of sauces and yellow lemons.
“Oysters have a great nutritional value, taste delicious and contrary to popular misconception, do not have to be ridiculously expensive if the market is not far from the source,” says Mr Cellini.
How to eat
There is really no specific way to devour them. Typically, if they are brought out with a fork, use that to move it around in the half shell until it gets detached then slurp it from the wide end.
Contrary to popular belief, it is perfectly okay to chew it once or twice before swallowing.
This is much like with a grape whose full flavour you can only really enjoy if you chew.
Different oysters have different flavours depending on the environment they mature in.
Wild oysters live in warm water, rich outflow and predictable currents, which lends itself to the rich taste currently taking over Nairobi.
“I like oysters because they always remind me of a great experience...of the ocean,” said Mr Cellini.
“When you bite into a fresh oyster you can smell the sea water on it and it’s a memory of being back at my favourite place, which is the coast of Kenya.’’
Some people find the best pairing to be with a nicely chilled champagne.
Besides oysters, restaurants serving foreign cuisine are going to great lengths to offer authentic foods as you would find in Toyko or Paris. Tokyo Japanese Restaurant in Lavington, for instance, imports some of its ingredients from Korea and Japan.
“We import the fish. The salmon is brought in from Norway,” said head chef and owner, Phillip Shin.
They have also brought teppanyaki style of cooking to Nairobi, a Japanese culinary art where a chef prepares food on a steel plate before patrons using spirits to flambee.
“Our teppanyaki is quite popular. It has been much easier for the Kenyans to embrace it. With the added element of showmanship and grandeur that goes into it, when you have a disposable income, it becomes a very attractive option for a good experience in addition to good food,’’ said Mr Shin, adding that sushi is also growing in popularity but it still largely an acquired taste.
Teppanyaki nights in Nairobi have become popular that some restaurants add tables on the outdoor terraces to accommodate more diners.
“It is popular among large groups that want to try a variety of food. There is also good demand for whisky and teppanyaki pairing nights,” Mr Shin said.
The hotels also hire expatriate chefs to whip up foods that are authentic.
Shikha Nayar of Villa Rosa Kempinski says their executive chef comes from Germany.
“It’s all about bringing the specialty from each region. For instance, in our Pan-Asian Restaurant, 88, we have a Nepalese chef and working under him is a sushi master from the Philippines, and they work with a strong local team. They bring in their specialty cuisine and in turn train the local talent on how to authentically cook that kind of food,” he said.
As Kenyans acquire taste for exotic dishes, the total spend in restaurants and eating out more is expected to rise.
Knight Frank notes that in Nairobi, total spend in restaurants is anticipated to rise from Sh87 billion ($848 million) in 2017 to Sh154 billion ($1.5 billion) over the next decade.
Boselbrick Otieno, an entrepreneur, says he goes to many business lunches, hence eats out often.
‘‘I frequent Soko at DusitD2 and Secret Garden which are near my office and have two-course business lunch menus,” he said, adding that his family also dines out most weekends.
“We used to frequent steakhouses but we have discovered so many other options especially for brunch,’’ Mr Otieno said.