Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Good coffee in Africa - an oxymoron no more!

One of the things we take for granted in Australia is the easy availability of great coffee.

Well, after spending a few weeks in Africa, I no longer take it for granted! Man it is seriously hard to find good coffee here.  I mean espresso. How it was meant to be.  Even though some of the best beans in the world come from the African continent, there is a serious dearth of good baristas.  At best, you have to hope that they have an automatic espresso machine (there are a few Saecos and even Juras lurking in the back of the more upmarket cafes).  And even then, the mentality seems to be more is better, so they tweak the settings so that it fills up your espresso cup to the brim ... and over-extract the poor coffee in the process.  Or if they do have a proper machine, they don't use enough grounds in the filter basket ... and over-extract as well.  Or use beans that are many weeks, even months, old ... and over-extract.

After having to make do with filter coffee (no I will not drink the instant stuff) for so long that I almost gave up drinking coffee altogether, I made a very pleasant and unexpected discovery (those are always the best, aren't they?).

I was having a wander around in the Maerua Mall at Windhoek, in Namibia, when I decided that I really needed an espresso, and decided to take a chance.  Enter Dulce, a casual cafe just up the escalator on Level 1, across from the Home store.

I saw that they had a proper barista's machine.  Could it be?  No I wouldn't sadistically (or masochistically, in this case) raise my own hopes only to have them cruelly dashed on a cup of weak, thin, liquid vaguely resembing coffee.

Perhaps it was the fact that I have suffered deprivation for so long and couldn't tell the difference, but wow - this was good stuff.  Nice thick crema, lacking the bitterness of over-extraction, and smelling great!  The beans were still older than I would have liked - there wasn't that fresh, fruity citrus undertone that I have come to love and enjoy.  But relatively speaking, this was bloody good!  It was so good I gratefully left a tip that was more than the cost of the coffee!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Khana Khazana Indian Restaurant, Kigali, Rwanda

Khana Khazana, Kigali, Rwanda
Rue Député Kajangwe, Muhima Zone 4, Kigali

Lonely Planet describes it thus: “Kampala's most celebrated Indian restaurant comes south to Kigali. Khana Khazana has been spicing up people's lives for years in the Ugandan capital and now Rwanda can enjoy the subtle flavours of the subcontinent. One of the hottest places in town right now.”

Hmmm … it must be pumping at dinner time, because I went there from lunch, and there were only 3 tables of diners (including me and the people I was with).

Just to the east of the city centre off one of the main roads leading into the city centre (Boulevard de l’OUA), it is located just north of the Presidential residence, and the next parallel street west from the French Embassy.

You would think that it’s easy to find.  Well, I decided to be adventurous and take one of Kigali’s ubiquitous motorcycle taxis – basically, you just sit on the back of the bike, all for the bargain price of Rwf300 (around 50 cents – does it really matter which currency?), wear the dubious-smelling spare helmet, and hang on for dear life.

Unfortunately for me, my young driver (he looked 15 - how did he even have a driving licence?!!) didn’t know where it was, but didn’t want to lose the fare, so he nodded his head and waited for me to get on before fessing up about 5 minutes later, when we were who knows where.  What should have been a quick 5 minute zip-around from the city centre to the restaurant ended up being a harrowing 20 minute ride around the streets of Kigali.  Fortunately, it was in an upscale part of town, near the Presidential residence, so the streets were almost devoid of traffic.  We finally found the place - it was located on a dirt road, with road workers busily grading the surface in preparation for sealing (in testament to the speed of development happening in this little but progressive African nation, when I went back 2 weeks later, there was a freshly and perfectly sealed road, with no hint at all that it had only been dirt a short while ago).
There’s nothing like seeing your life flash before your eyes to work up an appetite, and a big thirst … for beer.  They’ve never heard of VB here in these parts (not that I drink it anymore, even when I don’t have a choice!), so my hard-earned thirst had to make do with a Miitzig.  Which I personally think is much nicer tasting anyway.

The Khana Khazana is a palatial looking venue – it’s essentially a huge outdoor gazebo, but very comfortable nonetheless.  We had our very own waiter, who did a very good job of always being around, yet unintrusive.  Background music was authentic – I detected the angelic strains of the Saddi Rani of Bollywood herself, Asha Bhosle (the Queen of Bollywood backing music).

The food was good.  While African cuisine has been an exotic and exciting experience, it’s always comforting to enjoy food that I love and am well-familiar with.  Some people say that the butter chicken is a test of the quality of any good Indian restaurant, much like the pho in a Vietnamese restaurant, the siew yoke (roast pork) in a Hong Kong barbecue restaurant, or the trippa ala fiorentina in an Italian restaurant (okay maybe I’m the only one who believes in that last one).  So we order the butter chicken.  I was with guests whom I had recently met, so I couldn’t whip out the trusty iPhone to take photos.

So you’ll just have to make do with my commentary …

The appearance: a delightful orange gravy with yellow-white swirls of butter in the little copper serving pot was host to juicy morsels of perfectly cooked tandoori chicken.

The texture: not as thick as the gravy found in Australia, but nonetheless still rich warm and unctuous.  The chicken softly chewy but full of moisture.

The flavours: a deep dive through a sublime layer-cake of taste, fulfilling the promise made by the fragrance. The surface was of spices - turmeric, cumin, garlic, underlaid by the buttery goodness of what must have been an entire block of butter; then I hit the thermocline of the tandoori masala, with the subtle smokiness of the oven wafting through - a sure sign of a properly cooked butter chicken (first cooked in the tandoor, then cooked in the gravy); then the endorphin-inducing sting of the chilli punches through; and then I am lost in the mixture of it all.

Out of politeness, and not wanting to freak out my fellow diners, I didn’t shut my eyes to enjoy the ecstasy of this flavour bomb.  But perhaps I could have done so without being noticed, because there was silence at the table for a long while as we all focused on eating our meal.

If you’re in Kigali, or even Kampala, do yourself a favour.  Make time to dine at the Khana Khazana.  And make sure you shut your eyes when that first mouthful hits your tastebuds.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hôtel des Milles Collines (the "Hotel Rwanda")

One of the swankiest hotels in town, the four star Hôtel des Milles Collines (or hotel of a thousand hills, which is how Kigali is sometimes described) is strangely enough, not located on Avenue des Milles Collines, but rather on the Avenue de la Republique.  Rated 10 out of 42 Rwanda hotels on, it is one of the most expensive hotels in Rwanda - around AUD200-300 a room, although some websites go as high as $400+!  A far cry from my favourite Rwandan lodging, the Step Town Motel, at USD50 a night.

Since I was in Kigali, it seemed a shame to miss out on the opportunity to check out this iconic location, which was featured in the Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda; so I popped in for lunch.

Set within a walled compound, the hotel is very nice inside, once you get past the stern old-world (perhaps 1970s?) external architecture. I was ushered by a solicitous hotel attendant to the poolside bar/restaurant area, which is set at the edge of a hill overlooking Kigali.  I of course opted to sit at a high table in the bar area to enjoy the view, and ordered a martini to slake my thirst.  Interesting style – less dry than I would have expected, but with a sweet hint of rose petals.

I was going to ask about the martini ingredients, but was distracted by a fat tourist with a Germanic accent ordering his food at the bar, saying that instead of the chips or potato side, he wanted “plenty of vegetables”.  It must have been important to him, because he repeated that a few times.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he had gone past the point of merely being able to rely solely on a low-carb diet as a means of weight control … (I make this observation not out of spite, but out of personal experience!)

In Africa, you learn to be patient, because everything takes a little bit longer.  But to my pleasant surprise, the menu said that if the meal doesn’t arrive in 15 minutes, it’s free.  While it’s nice to know that you don’t need to starve while someone in the back of the kitchen chases after the lifestock, the thought of pre-cooked pret-a-manger food did worry me a bit.

However, the helpful waitress showed me the 3 choices for the business lunch (literally the 3 dishes on a tray!), and I chose the chicken, unsure whether I would be given that plate.  Fortunately, she went away to the kitchen with my order.  The meal ain't haute cuisine, but still tasty and I polished it off in short order when it arrived.  At Rwf5,500 (less than AUD10) for lunch, and only having had to wait a few minutes for me meal, I certainly had no complaints – I thought that this was in fact good value.  Funnily enough, my martini cost as much as the meal itself.  Compare than to the price of a beer (even imported well-known brands cost the equivalent of AUD1-2).

So there you go – Hôtel des Milles Collines –expensive rooms, but very reasonably priced meals, and a nice respite from the hubbub of a busy African capital city.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Kigali, Rwanda

After all of the things that I have heard about African air travel, I must say that I am a very lucky guy.

No delays owing to scheduling or maintenance issues, no missed connections, no lost luggage, and no evidence that someone tried to break into my luggage.  The only drama was on the plane from Nairobi to Kigali – one poor chap bound for Abidjan was somehow found his way onto our plane.  Because he didn't speak English or French, and perhaps even Swahili, he had no idea.  Anyway, 45 minutes after we were due to depart, they finally worked out it was him!  I'm not sure how he would feel - grateful for not ending up in Kigali airport, where it's not that easy to buy a ticket back home, or for missing his correct flight.

I experienced a moment on the plane to Nairobi, when I realised that I forgot to pack any cigars.  Fortunately, Nairobi airport has a respectable walk-in duty free humidor, which sells everything from Cohiba Behikes at a bargain USD36.50 a stick for the 54s and less for the 52s.  I chanced upon a treasure, though - Hoyo du Monterrey Des Dieux (one of my favourite cigars in the world!!) at the bargain price of USD42 for a pack of 5.  That in itself isn't necessarily enough to write home about for these very hard to find stogies.  It was the fact that they were from the April 2003 batch - 8 year old quality vintage cigars.  Read it and weep.

Anyway, I'm staying at the Step Town Motel.  At only USD50 a night, it's a real bargain, especially when you consider the fact that the swankier hotels cost between USD250 to upwards of USD400 a night.  If I have time, I will visit the Rwanda Memorial Centre, which serves as a memorial for the tragic genocide which occurred in 1994 as well as the Hôtel des Mille Collines (review coming soon), which was the subject of the movie Hotel Rwanda.  The service is warm and friendly, and the rooms are clean and come with a huge balcony.  The only catch is that it's located on a pitted, winding dirt road in the residential area on one of Kigali's 4 hills.  It is centrally located, though - a short walk (albeit arduous) walk from the city centre, and overlooking the diplomatic quarter.  I would thoroughly recommend this place if you are planning a holiday, especially if you enjoy being immersed in the local environment.  I would also recommend it as business accommodation, because it's excellent value for money, the staff are warm, friendly and will go out of their way to help you, and will even remember what you like. I was going to be late for a business meeting because the taxi driver whom I booked slept in, and John the Manager kindly offered to drive me there after trying in vain to order a taxi which would arrive in less than 15 minutes.  Once you get over the slight accessibility issue, and have the phone numbers of a few reliable local taxi drivers in your phone (and the staff can help you here), you're cooking with gas!

But the view of the Rwandan sunset from the balcony is peaceful and amazing.  And the USD1 local beers are also very refreshing after a hard day's work!  Even better are the sounds of the locals somewhere down the hill having a bit of a party - lots of African singing, drums, yelling and cheering.

Despite the public perception, Rwanda is a beautiful, peaceful place, and Kigali only has around 1 million residents - not much at all for an African nation.  In many ways, it is more progressive than your average first world nation.  For one thing, it's safer than your average Western country.  And for another, plastic bags are banned in Rwanda.  If Western Australia, or for that matter any other Australian State ever tried to do that, you would have everyone from your Western Suburbs housewives to Boganville tracky-daks-wearers up in arms over it.  In fact, that's happened in South Australia ...

NOT eyedrops!!!
For dinner, I had a fried Tilapia fillet (a variety of carp caught from Lake Kivu), Goat Brochettes (basically pieces of goat skewered on a stick and barbecued) and fried plantains.  The goat was chewy, but not rubbery. The smokey barbecued tang nicely complemented the texture. At Rwf700 (slightly more than AUD1) a stick, a bargain.  And the tilapia was nice and moist.  The plantains (on the menu as “banana”) were a bit of a novelty to me - the last ones I ate were filched from a tree next to where I used to live (and it stopped producing anymore after that.  Not my fault!) Split lengthways and fried like potato wedges, the texture was a bit dry and it was really dense - heavier than a potato wedge - some serious carb loading here.  And I only asked for one, so that is a seriously large banana!  The meal came with a thick dipping sauce for the brochettes, which I used liberally for my plantains.  The star of the meal has to be the locally made Akabanga chilli oil, which came in a little plastic bottle which dispensed by the drop – ahh just my kind of stuff!!  This isn’t the hottest I’ve tasted in my life, but it was certainly tasty – of the normal chilli variety, which made a nice change from the habanero and naga/jolokia based stuff I’ve recently been nuking my stomach lining with.

Anyway, it was an uncharacteristically early night for me - either the jet lag or the 4 bottles of Rwanda-brewed Miitzig beer which I had consumed (a highly refreshing crisp lager-style) - or maybe both.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Recipe: Spiced minced meat parcels, featuring North African spices

It's not often when I accidentally make up a recipe which involves me scoffing down the product of my labours, instead of scraping it into the bin.

So I'm excited to bring you my North African spiced minced meat parcels!  With a very helpful step-by-step pictorial guide to boot.

The inspiration actually came from a packet of thin flatbread I came across at my local Coles supermarket, when shopping around for a dinner party.  There was a recipe idea at the back of the packet which suggested that you cut a piece of the square flatbread into 3 strips, and then fold them into triangles around a parcel of minced meat.  This was serendipitous, because I was eyeing off the most delightful looking 5 star lean minced beef in the Coles meat section (hormone free, of course, and two 500g packs for a very affordable $13), and wondering how I was going to incorporate that in my cooking.

So I get home and think - now how am I going to make this dish interesting?  Fortunately, I remembered my tin of North African Ras El Hanout, an amazing and aromatic blend of spices, including cinnamon, cloves, and what have you (I'm told that there are many variances in Ras El Hanout recipes, depending on family tradition, region, etc).  And because I like things spicy, I also bring out my Peri Peri powder and bottle of Scorpion Chilli's Rectal Tears, a most potent chilli sauce made from the hottest chilli in the world - the bhut jolokia (which I procured from Araluen's Fremantle Chilli Festival earlier this year).

The pictorial recipe

Ingredients (all of which are available from Coles, except the Ras El Hanout and the Rectal Tears - but you can easily substitute them with something else):
  • Top quality minced beef
  • Ras El Hanout
  • Flatbread
  • Chilli powder
  • Rock salt in a salt grinder
  • Peppercorns in a pepper grinder
  • (Optional - Scorpion Chilli - Rectal Tears.  Use at your own peril.  The name is well-earned ...)

So that's why it's called Rectal Tears ...
Slice the flatbread into 3 equal-size strips.
(Optional - Pop a few globs of rectal tears onto one end of each strip)

Add a small lump of minced meat, followed by a generous pinch of Ras El Hanout and grind some salt and pepper over it to taste.  Add a bit more meat on top of that, and using your fingers, mix it all roughly together.  Don't worry about mixing everything thoroughly - it all comes out in the wash.

Fold each strip over the meat into a triangle - it helps to hand-shape the meat to fit into the first triangular fold.

Fill up the little triangular pocket with meat until it's flush with the edge, then tuck the loose flap in.
Repeat as many times as you want/need.  From memory, I got about 20+ parcels with 500g of minced meat and one packet of flatbread.
Heat up a saucepan or frying pan on the lowest heat setting, and add enough olive oil to cover the surface.  Once the oil is hot, add as many parcels as can fit, but make sure that they lie flat on the cooking surface.

Leave it there for a couple of minutes (I cook by the vibe, so I don't have precise timing - Dennis Denuto has a lot to answer for), then take the parcels out, add more oil, and lay them in the pan on the other side.  The oil is important, because it helps make the parcels crispy.  Use too little and they don't crisp enough.  Use too much and they get soggy - but it's your call ultimately.  Experiment until you reach a point that you're happy with.

Once juices begin to run (you'll hear the tell-tale sizzle on the pan), it means that your meat has just been cooked through. Don't overcook it, because you'll end up with unhappily dry mince.  You want to achieve that delicate balance between meat that is cooked through, but is still juicy and tasty.

You will also happily discover that these parcels are now lightly crisp.  Withstand the urge and don't try to eat it just yet, because a burnt palate just won't be able to properly savour this delicious morsel.

Transfer the freshly cooked and crispy parcels onto a paper towel to soak up the excess oil and the runny juices that escape, to ensure a crispy finish.  Keep cooking until it's all done.

For extra flavour, drizzle each parcel with a modest dollop of kecap manis (a thick, sweet, soy sauce).

These parcels were a delicious, multi-layered discovery of flavour and texture.  On first bite, you enjoy the juxtapositioning of the light crispness of the wrapping, immediately followed by the soft, succelent meat within. Then the rich sweetness of the kecap manis kicks in with that immediate pay-off, and you chew for a second or two before you realise the exotic cinnamon-nutmeg-clove of the Ras El Hanout slowly emerging from beneath the surface like a siren from the water (imagine Denise Richards in Wild Things; or if you're a bit older, Ursula Andress in Dr No - yes, yes, that's right).  And while you're mesmerised, the Rectal Tears sting you just when your eyes are half-shut in pleasure (since that is of course best enjoyed with some pain).  And the flavour just lingers on.  Oh the joy.

Yours to share!

You can of course feel free to experiment with variations - maybe add some chopped up onions.  Or chillis.  Or use lamb, chicken or pork mince instead.  Or some other spice.  Try another Moroccan mixture.  Or Chinese five spice.  The possibilities abound.

And feel free to share this recipe around - it's quick, easy, healthy and nutritious.  And most importantly, delicious.

I don't even care if you claim the credit for a variation of the recipe as your own, but it would be very nice of you indeed to link to my blog.