Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Food For Thought: Nancy's African Adventure

Nancy Leson
Another roadside attraction. A café kitchen — and delicious respite —on the way to Lake Manyara National Park.";s:3

Africa was never on my bucket list, but after traveling with family and friends to Kenya and Tanzania this month, I hope it’s on yours. There are a million reasons why, and I told Stein only a handful of them (food related, of course!) this week on Food for Thought.

So, what was I doing there?

For years, our friends Emily and Aaron, a young Seattle couple who’ve lived, worked and traveled extensively on the continent, have been carrying on about how they’d love to introduce us to their favorite place on earth — East Africa.

The plan: We’d meet Emily’s longtime pals in Nairobi, rent a bus and spend a day at Arusha National Park with children from the school where Aaron once worked, and hang with the lions, zebras and elephants on a dusty five-day safari with Em, Aaron and a trio of their Seattle pals (“You can help cook, Nancy!").

Credit Mac Mccarthy
Nance lends a hand in the cookhouse at Simba Camp, after a sunrise game drive in Ngorongoro Crater.

After that, we’d cross back into Kenya and fly from Nairobi to Mombassa, then take a rickety late-night ferry and drive to a quiet beach where we’d finally get to meet “Mama Samosa,” who’d become our local source for the deep-fried pastries that make a memorable breakfast. 

Credit Nancy Leson
We’d been hearing about Mama Samosa for years. Now we know why. Here, she’s selling her namesake pastries, and the sweet fried dough called mandazi.

So, recognizing this as an opportunity of a lifetime, and a world-view-expanding gift for our son Nate before he leaves home for college, we said, “Count us in!”

Yes, as I told Stein on the show, I was nearly trampled by an elephant. I ate a lot of goat meat — grilled and stewed — and spent about a buck on generous plates full of some of the best rice, beans and greens imaginable.

We talked about how I was flabbergasted and impressed as I watched our safari cook, Charles, prepare delicious multi-course meals with basic ingredients and only the most rudimentary equipment, if you don’t count his U of W Huskies apron, which we did not equip him with — honest! I can’t even tell you how much I admire this man.

Credit Mac Mccarthy
Charles spoke very little English and I speak two words of Swahili, but when it came to cooking, we definitely spoke the same language.

I also told Stein about buying octopus, among other seafood, from spear-fishermen who’d swim out into the Indian Ocean and return with dinner in hand, which we’d later grill over charcoal.

Grilled octopus on the beach.

I didn’t tell him about the halal butcher shop where we made a quick pit-stop in a small village just over the Tanzanian border, and how I got out with Charles to get a closer look.

Credit Nancy Leson
We grabbed a kilo of beef and hit the road.

I also failed to mention how I screamed in pain when I stepped on an acacia thorn, which our Maasai driver, Paul, laughingly referred to as “a Masaai toothpick.”

Credit Nancy Leson
Ouch! Right through my shoe!

Nor did I tell Stein how much fun it was to share my big stash of spices, brought from home for that very purpose, with the cooks who crowded the rustic cookhouse at Simba Camp in the Serengeti, including the guy on the right, who also (no way, right?) wore a familiar-looking apron.

Credit Nancy Leson
Cook on right is wearing a Sur La Table apron. We also saw a fellow in a scrum of people at a busy Nairobi market wearing and Edmonds Community College T-Shirt.

On air, I didn’t mention how I felt about the disparity of wealth and privilege I felt, given where and how we live, as I watched women selling sweet bananas in crowded city traffic, or sweet potatoes sold from a pile at their feet in rural villages, while others crouched over grills, roasting corn sold for pennies to passersby along noisy, gutted, diesel-fueled roads everywhere we went.

I also neglected to tell Stein about the fisherman I befriended at Tiwi Beach, who had spent all of his 40-some years living within a few square miles of where we stood. As we sat for nearly an hour a day, discussing everything and nothing, he asked me where I grew up, and then, if I still live there.

I took a stick and drew a rectangle, pointing to the East Coast of the U.S., explaining I grew up in Philadelphia, then lived in New Jersey, Puerto Rico, California, Alaska and Washington (“No, not Washington, D.C.”), moving my stick around until it landed on our country’s Northwestern-most tip, the place I love the most. He said he couldn’t believe I’d lived in so many places, so far apart.

“Believe it,” I told him. “But also believe me when I tell you I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places in the U.S. and elsewhere, but if you had been along with me, you’d come back here — to this very beach — and think you’ve never seen anything quite as beautiful.”

"You know you are truly alive when you're living among lions."  – Karen Blixen, "Out of Africa"

Nancy Leson is an award-winning food writer, radio personality, cooking instructor and public speaker who learned much of what she knows about food during her first career: waiting tables. Seattle readers know her as the mouth that scored — for the better part of two decades — as restaurant critic and food columnist for the Seattle Times. These days, when she’s not chatting about recipes or interviewing makers and shakers in the food world for KNKX, she helps end hunger, one loaf at a time, as the Edmonds hub coordinator for the Community Loaves project. Find her @nancyleson and at