House and Garden
Snufkin - 04:10 pm Pacific Time - Jun 23, 2009 - #68 of 807
The best thing I ever ate was a roti from a street vendor at the railway border crossing between Kenya and Uganda.
We had been in Nakuru, and had decided to take the train to Tororo, in Uganda -- an overnight journey of some 20 hours. At around noon we arrived at the Nakuru train station, with only a little time to spare, only to find: no train. Lots of people, but a distinct lack of train. More people arrived, the rain came, the rain went, some people left, the sun went down, but there remained a substantial amount of no trains, of any kind. No vendors on the train platform either, since the Kenyan railway service was in the midst of one of its periodic attempts to assert that it is a civilised and law-abiding kind of train service, one that does not tolerate hawkers or the like and they had been cracking down on the vendors.
Anyway, eventually, some 8 hours late, the train hove into sight, and we embarked. We had booked a first-class compartment for four (there were three of us), and were looking forward to one of those eccentric meals that only the Kenyan railways can provide -- consisting of the ubiquitous chickenandchips, or chickenandrice, the former served with mercurochrome-pink tomato sauce that tasted of nothing, all served by and on the vintage remnants of the once-arrogant British Colonial Railways, complete with linen monogrammed tablecloths, heavy china and silver tea services, and impeccably trained waiters, all remnants of the Empire, and all now sadly in their collective dotages.
It was not to be. For in addition to its lateness, the train had also, somehow, managed to misplace its restaurant car, somewhere between Nairobi and Nakuru. Nobody seemed to know why, or care much; it was a sad and defeated train, late, bereft of supplies, inching its way sadly and resignedly to its assignation. There was to be no food, no beer, no tea and no nourishment of any kind. Of course, by the time we had discovered this, the train was moving, and we were stuck. Fortunately, we had water with us, but it was a long long night and following day. The train was slow, and by the time we made it to the border crossing the following day it was almost 6pm, and the border was closing. Not wishing to be stranded on the wrong side of the fence, we rushed off the train, into the border post (along with everybody else on the train and all their chickens and goats, children and grandparents), presented our passports, paid the usual bribe and it was close to 8pm by the time we were safely in Uganda.
On the Uganda side of the border there wasn't a town, but there was the kind of random collection of money-changers, matatus, vendors of cigarettes, liquor and lighters, touts and hawkers that border posts always seem to attract, although they were in the process of packing up. Among them were, thank the lord above, food vendors. Or at least, one food vendor. An old guy, with an oildrum full of burning wood and a blackened and ancient tava, and just enough dough left for three rotis.
At this point we hadn't eaten for something close to 32 hours. We didn't have any Ugandan shillings, and the old guy didn't want Kenyan shillings, but he did happily accept one US dollar for his remaining rotis (possibly the most expensive roti in the country at that point, but we were beyond caring), he cooked them up, hot and fresh, and ohmygod, that was the best thing I have ever eaten. It was wrapped in paper, and almost too hot to hold, or eat, but in the rapidly-cooling night it was soon at the perfect temperature, flaky and soft, and tasting slightly of woodsmoke, that most basic of foods, flour and water cooked over a fire, and absolutely wonderful. We sat on the ground and devoured them, thanked the old guy, and went off to find a money changer and a matatu to town, completely satisfied and content.
I don't think I will ever eat another meal that is so perfect.
Best of Table Talk is an ongoing feature of Salon's vibrant community forum. Older posts of the week may be found in TT. Want to join the discussion? Sign up here.