Biryani isn’t a type of rice as sold in our supermarkets; it’s a type of food with rice as one of the key ingredients.
Meat, vegetables and spices are added, too, and it’s best eaten by hand, not using a fork, spoon or chopsticks.
Last week I had the privilege of eating biryani in the coastal city of Mombasa. It was in a kibanda. You start by washing your hands and then you pay.
There were no cash registers. A man writes your order down on a piece of paper, which you then hand over to the chef and get served. There are different plate sizes: half, full, and so on. Once you get your portion, you realise Nairobians don’t eat!
You join a table and enjoy your meal. A woman walks around selling ripe bananas, chapati and sodas as accompaniments. I didn’t know a ripe banana and rice could taste so sweet when combined.
There’s an air of silence as everyone eats. Rarely do you see anyone eating alone. It’s teamwork. When did you last share your plate with anyone, including your brother or sister?
In our sophisticated society, you get your own plate and eat. Even talking to another person while eating is considered bad table manners, yet the mouth can both eat and talk.
Some could easily say this sharing of food is African socialism and isn’t good for the economy. Yet, it’s this culture that has sustained the coastal society for more than 1,000 years and seen it withstand occupation by the Arabs, Portuguese and latter-day newcomers.
Maybe biryani should become the national dish, not so much for its taste, but for its cultural significance, particularly the sharing.
While hard-nosed capitalists might not like the idea of shared plates, it has created social harmony that’s made the coastal region attractive to capitalist investors in the hospitality industry. Retirees from all over the world make the Coast their retirement home. While weather is a factor, peace and harmony are bigger factors.
It’s paradoxical that investors in tourism are attracted by traditions that appear ‘anti-money’. But economics isn’t really about money, but about people and their happiness.
That’s why the affluent are often perplexed by the apparent happiness of the poor or hustlers. The capitalism model has no time for happiness, for enjoying the simple things of life like sharing life-giving food.
How can you hurt those you share food with? Even oaths in traditional African societies involved sharing something.
Sign of sophistication
The arrival of fast food in Kenya is seen as a sign of sophistication, a coming of age of our economy. In some of those outlets, you don’t even need to get out of the car.
The new outlets will give us more choices, but we have our models that have been time tested and found to work, like biryani or taking beer using straws from the same pot among the Nandi.
Both are about sharing, which was at the heart of our traditional societies. Why can’t we fuse this with capitalism the way the Chinese fused their communism with capitalism and took the world by storm?
We have a national anthem, so why not a national meal? My first choice is biryani, which, like the anthem, is from the Coast. Luckily, the dish is popular with both sonkos and hustlers. What do you think? Umekula biryani? XN Iraki; [email protected]
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