Colonial Adventures – East African Curry

I grew up in MMBA – a colonial acronym for ‘miles and miles of bloody Africa’. My first food memories are of mangoes and paw-paws, avocados, fresh crabs and lobsters on holidays down on the Kenyan Coast, and spicy hot Indian curries – thanks to the large Asian community who lived in Nairobi. I loved going with my mother on her shopping trips to the Indian bazaar to buy spices.

The bazaar was filled with hustle and bustle – elegant Asian women in saris mingling with Kenyan women wearing colourful kikois, and, inevitably, the poor, the beggars and the handicapped. I once saw a legless man with each stump wrapped in a straw basket, propelling himself along the pavement with his arms. Strange how as a child one accepts these sights without question – though I think they filtered my view of the world later.

Pungent cumin and cardamom – two of my favourite spices

The market stalls reeked of the pungent odours of cumin, cardamom, chillies, turmeric – vibrant reds, yellows, and browns – powdery spice pyramids piled high in wooden tubs. Hessian sacks spilled out dried coral-coloured lentils and blood-dark beans. And the hubbub! The ululating tones of Swahili mixed with Hindi and Punjabi – cut through with the World Service intonations of the memsahibs on their shopping expeditions.

Curry was a Sunday tradition amongst the British colonials – either cooked at home or, on special occasions, eaten at the Thorn Tree restaurant at the now legendary Stanley Hotel. But I cannot vouch for their authenticity. My mother’s version usually involved using left-over meat from a previous roast – usually lamb. Fried onions started the recipe, and apples and raisins also found their way into the mixture. When served, we sprinkled dried coconut over it along with chopped raw tomatoes. I guess what saved it all was the enveloping taste of the spices. In fact, I became rather addicted to spicy curries, so much so that on one of our bi-annual journeys back ‘home’ (well, that’s what my parents called it), I caused a bit of a stir over curries on board ship.

Adding the cinnamon stick and bay leaf
Adding the cinnamon stick and bay leaf

Being a colonial civil servant, my father qualified for Home Leave every two years. Going back to the UK involved long sea journeys, which I loved – apart from the meals – as children, we had to eat our lunch in a separate dining room from the adults. The ship stewards served up English nursery food where everything was either drowned in brown gravy or pale yellow custard. But I knew that the main dining room served up curries. One day I rebelled and insisted on having a proper curry, ‘like the grownups’. The poor Goan steward was extremely put out by this rebellious six year old. He called for reinforcements in the shape of the English matron who was responsible for the children on board. But I remember making a tremendous fuss and won the argument – for the rest of the voyage I had curries for lunch.

I later learned that my mother’s version of curry was a poor anglicised version of the real thing, and I have Madhur Jaffrey to thank for teaching me to seek out the individual spices, grinding and heating them in order to bring out the flavour.

I ended up using a pestle and mortar to really grind the ginger and garlic into a paste
I ended up using a pestle and mortar to really grind the ginger and garlic into a paste
LAMB CURRY – Feeds four. Preparation time one and a half hours.

6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 inch cube of fresh ginger, coarsely chopped
425 ml water
oil for cooking – with Indian food I prefer to use sunflower rather than olive
1 kg of lamb, cut into cubes. If you have a friendly butcher who will bone you a shoulder, perfect!
4 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 inch stick of cinnamon
10 whole green cardamom pods
1 fresh bay leaf
8 black peppercorns
4 tsp red paprika
1 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1 tbsp ground coriander (ideally freshly ground from the seeds)
2 tsp ground cumin (ditto)
1 tsp salt
½ tsp of garam masala mix. If you can’t get it (and it’s not easily available here in France), it’s easy to make your own mix – see below.
6 tbsp plain yogurt, beaten lightly

To serve: 250 gm basmati rice


This recipe uses a technique which I also learned from Madhur Jaffrey – blending a paste of garlic and ginger. Do this first by blending the ginger and garlic with 4 tablespoons of water (from the 425 ml of water) in a food mixer and put in a small bowl ready to use later.

Heat the oil in a large heavy-based pan over a medium flame. Add the meat cubes and brown on all sides – you’ll have to do it in several batches but make sure to really seal them. Remove and put in a bowl. Scraping up the meat juices, add the whole spices to the pan (cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, bay leaf, peppercorns), and stir for a few seconds (we’re talking five!). Add the onions and fry for 8-10 minutes, stirring so they don’t catch. The aim is to end up with a good brown caramelised colour – not just soft and translucent.

Now add the garlic and ginger paste and stir to incorporate with the onions and spices. Then add the ground spices (paprika, cayenne, coriander, cumin – and the salt). Stir for around half a minute before adding the browned meat along with any juices that will have accumulated in the bowl.

At this point you can start adding the yoghurt, a tablespoon at a time, stirring well. Once all the yoghurt has been added, add the remaining water and bring the curry to a slow bubble. Put the lid on the pan and turn the heat down low and leave to simmer for around an hour – the meat should be really tender when it’s ready.

Half an hour before serving, put 250 grams of basmati rice into a bowl, cover with water and leave to soak for 20 minutes. Drain the rice. In a medium pot, melt the butter, add the rice and gently stir so the grains are coated. Now add twice the volume of boiling water along with a teaspoon of salt. Stir round the pan once, put the lid, and simmer over a very low heat until all the water is absorbed (around 15 minutes).

Remove from the heat and cover the pan with two sheets of kitchen paper before jamming the lid back down and leave it to sit for around 5 minutes. Fluff up the rice with a fork just before serving.

Sprinkle the garam masala spice mixture over the curry once it’s dished up on the plate with the rice for people to mix in. If you can’t buy a garam masala mix, you can pre-mix your own with the following ingredients:

1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ tsp  ground cloves
½ tsp ground nutmeg

Keep in a small jar and use up reasonably quickly.

The finished curry, served with basmati and some spiced-up spinach
The finished curry, served with basmati and some spiced-up spinach

8 thoughts on “Colonial Adventures – East African Curry

  1. I love this particular story, Fiona, as I felt I was there with you in the market/bazaar. It took mr back to my all-too-brief visit to Nairobi in the 90s. One of my favorite meals had there was at an Indian restaurant. Just wonderful.

    Your curry sounds lovely, too, and I look forward to making it.


  2. I so love your blog! Read this then went on to read others. Oooooooh but when I encountered the lard cake I had to stop. My tummy is grumbling something terrible! Off to find food…. but alas… as today is tax preparations for my accountant, my meal will be a quick egg with broccoli.


    Barb Meza
    (201) 978-7335

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Hello from a North European gal who has lived her life in Australia! Delighted to have ‘discovered’ you just now . . . . Have made curries from a number of nations throughout my life: neither I nor my culinary skills have as yet reached Kenya. My knowledge of the country has largely been fuelled by being a road cycling fanatic follower and the writings of Chris Froome 🙂 ! Am looking forwards to the posts to come . . .


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