Noodles, the instant kind, are a staple in Kenyan homes. But when it comes to Asia, Oriental and South East Asia, there is a different school of noodles that are a staple for every meal.
As ugali is a traditional Kenyan staple, noodles in these countries serve as the base for the flavourful dishes that are filled with native spices and sauces that are synonymous with Asian cuisine.
In Kenya, oriental— this refers to Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea, food is common place in malls, hotels and restaurants countrywide.
South East Asian –Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam among others is just beginning to blossom with Thai cuisine leading the pack.
OhCha, a Thai word meaning delicious ‘in a big way’ explains Chef Phornthiwa ‘Thiwa’ Ketkham, the executive chef at the restaurant, has been serving up noodles and South East Asian cuisine in a new way.
The first mouthful of Keemao Beef, a new addition to the menu, hits you as it goes down. The heat of the chilli in the spicy beef dish served on a bed of rice noodles feels more intense as you bite into the next.
“The high spice keeps you coming back for more,” says chef Thiwa.
The dish like every meal made by the Thai chef is calculated in terms of nutritional value and cooked for a maximum five minutes to ensure that nutritional integrity of the beef is maintained.
To add to the value of the dish, the customers have the choice of rice noodles, egg noodles, Udon noodles, soba noodle and vermicelli (a different type of rice noodles). Soba noodles are buckwheat noodles with the option of whole wheat for the health conscious.
Getting locals interested in food that they are not generally accustomed to is a task that Chef Thiwa grapples with.
According to her, each menu item has to be tailored to suit the Kenyan market who are particular with what they eat and how the food is prepared.
“You will find customers making an order for fish insisting on finding out how the fish was made, whether it was fried or steamed before they settle on the meal,” she says.
The new menu, says Thiwa, is determined by trends, what customers tastes are inclined towards and also from feedback. She is revamping the menu at the end of the month making new additions to suit the market as well as keep up with global trends.
The fish salad, for example, comes with fried snapper with green mango, carrot and chillis and coriander. The fruit and veggie combination offsets the flavour of the fish leaving a refreshing taste on the palate.
The second course of Singapore noodles comes as a bowl of vermicelli, prawns and vegetables. The dish is light and a great option for a light lunch as the rice noodles, just like rice, do not sit in the body too long.
“People appreciate the street food concept where you walk in, grab a quick meal and walk out,” says Thiwa.
As though to illustrate the fact, the crowd comes in during the lunch-hour rush and the eatery at Westgate empties out within an hour, leaving only a few lingering customers.
Each dish has a signature flavour from the country of origin with the common flavours of soy sauce, oyster sauce, lemon grass, basil, garlic and ginger being prominent.
The trick to making such dishes in the house, says Chef Thiwa, is using high heat and knowing what to put in fast.
The meat and hard vegetables go in during the beginning that includes carrots, while softer vegetables such as bean sprouts being put in closer to the end. “High heat is essential. This makes sure the food cooks fast and in the shortest time possible. If it cooks longer then all the nutrients die,” she explains.
Thiwa has been growing up in the restaurant business. Since she was a child, she spent her time in restaurants with the family. She has been in Kenya over a decade working in various restaurants including Orchid, a pioneer Thai restaurant that was located at ABC Place in Westlands, Nairobi.
Currently, Thai has been the fastest spreading of the South East Asian dishes in Kenya being served up at restaurants such as Thai Chi at the Stanley, Soi at DusitD2 and 88 at Villa Rosa Kempinski.