One delicious bite at a time, Kiran Jethwa is trying to show the world that there's more to Africa than poverty, war and safaris.
Jethwa is what many in the Western world consider unlikely — a celebrity chef from Africa. But through two high-end Nairobi restaurants and a Fox International television series, he is using the continent's extraordinary produce and unique culinary traditions to open the minds and change the palates of curious tourists, urbane Kenyans and bush tribesmen alike.
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It's a perspective he says is long overdue for attention.
"Nothing has come out of this region from a food perspective that did anything any justice," Jethwa said during a recent interview at his Seven Seafood & Grill Restaurant tucked in a small Nairobi mall. "Anything that does come out of this region is either some sort of politics, poverty, hardship, war," he said. "Any positive stuff is wildlife and the amazing animals that we've got. There's nothing from a people's perspective."
Jethwa insists he's not trying to revolutionize African food, but rather pay respect to its many and varied culinary traditions, as well as the people who harvest the produce and prepare it. In his series, "Tales from the Bush Larder," now in its third season, Jethwa visits farmers, fishermen and tribesmen across Africa, investigating what they harvest and the lengths they go to get their food to market.
Seeing what it takes to get such ingredients to market "gives you a massive appreciation for the amount of hard work people have to do to produce food ... especially in this part of the world," he says.
His goal? Put Africa on the culinary map, and maybe teach locals things even they didn't know about their own food cultures. And Mark Leslie, an international commissioning editor for Fox International Channels, said that drive to parade the best the continent has to offer is part of what makes the show a success.
Film shoots from Kenya to South Africa and countries in between "give you an insight into big parts of Africa, which probably most people around the world don't really know much about," Leslie said. "You actually get to see and learn a lot about Africa through the subject of food, because obviously it's universal."
Like most African cuisines, Kenyan meals can seem a bit stodgy and simply cooked. Jethwa tries to push the usual eats a bit further, preparing what he discovers in the field with a bit of creativity and a handful of unusual spices, often to the amusement of locals looking on.
In one episode filmed with the Samburu tribe in Kenya, Jethwa made a savory pie using hare, which the locals consider only fit to feed dogs. And in an episode from Kampala, Uganda, Jethwa used an electric trap to catch grasshoppers. But instead of frying and salting them as is customary, he paired them with a sweet onion taco and guacamole.
The half-British, half-Indian Jethwa, 38, worked in kitchens in Britain, Ireland and the U.S. — including as head chef at Dublin's trendy The Schoolhouse restaurant — before returning to his native Kenya to take over the family's leather business. During his years out of the kitchen, he set up a film production company with a partner, but ultimately returned to the food industry when he found a location in Nairobi for his first restaurant.
Jethwa describes his cuisine as an "Afro-Mediterranean-Asian fusion." At his two restaurants, Jethwa doesn't cook things quite as outlandishly as he does when he's in the bush for the TV series. But he still makes a point of using the best local produce available. It could be lobsters direct from the coast or "ugali," the maize flour that is traditionally cooked similar to Italian polenta. Kenyans use ugali to scoop up with their hands what could be considered the national dish, "sukuma wiki," literally translated from Swahili as "push the week" — collard greens cooked in oil with onions, tomatoes and sometimes beef cubes.