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Koroga, or Koroga, is a uniquely Kenyan style of dining outdoors on (nominally) Indian cuisine. The word means mix or stir in Kiswahili, and koroga is precisely what diners do for themselves with a bounty of chopped ingredients and spices. A bit like camping in the city, parties situate themselves in semi-private huts each outfitted with a charcoal-burning jiko (stove). Despite the rustic elements, diners enjoy a full bar with table service ready-to-order starters. As the process of cooking (with chicken curry being the most popular entree) takes several hours, and Koroga dinners are known to grow tipsy while they cook—or watch.
The do-it-yourself aspect of Koroga varies tremendously. There is ever someone standing by to help out or to take over. When asked what percentage of people cook for themselves at the Nairobi Karoga haunt Mystique Gardens the wait-staff agreed it is fewer than half. What demographic cooks for themselves? “Asian men”. (Note: Kenyans of Indian extraction are colloquially referred to as Asians.) In terms of demographics, though, Karoga seems to appeal to a cross-section of the Kenyan population. At Mystique Gardens on a Friday night, I saw large numbers of Asian and African dinners as well as several expats.
While in the 1980s Sahara City became another popular place the ones that are popular now are many including Spice Roots, Curry in Hurry, Nairobi Gymkhana and Goan Gymkhana. There now a new place called Shooting Star in Parklands that even offers chicken flown in daily from Kisumu. These are popularly known as "road runners", as they are free range, and take a while to cook due to the lean meat.
Where does Koroga come from? While everyone seems to agree that Karoga is not an imported concept, descriptions of where and when the now-commercial dining style developed are mixed. A manager at the Mystique Gardens from western Kenya suggests that Karoga began in Kenya centuries ago with families cooking fresh fish for themselves on the banks of Lake Victoria. According to him, Karoga has only existed as-such in cities for approximately five years.
Koroga became popular in the 1980s when Nairobian's started to the Bowling Green Restaurant in the City Park and were introduced to self cooking at a commercial place. Before that groups would meet at a friends house with one or two of them cooking while others would enjoy the weekly gathering. I do not think it was so much a Western Kenyan practice but more to do with the social network and traditionally men only get together to have a night out. Why would a dining style that originated from western Kenyan hinge so centrally on Indian cuisine? “Indian and Kenyan cooking are mixed. At this point, one is the other”. When I asked an Asian (Nairobian) member of my party for a rejoinder to the manager's claims he assured me that Karoga-as-such has been around for far longer than five years. Karoga is something that Asian-Kenyan families have enjoyed among themselves for decades—its commercialization represents the more recent development. Does the tradition come from India? “No, it is Kenyan”.
The following, excerpted from the food blog of an Asian-Kenyan living in London, offers insight into private Karoga parties as a sites for family cohesion: publicly performed masculinity, and behind-the-scenes female domesticity.
“A Koroga involves outdoor cooking, usually a chicken or meat curry, in an industrial sized aluminium [sic] pot on a charcoal fire (jiko), almost always by a man. Crusty white bread and a mixed raw salad usually accompanied the Koroga curries of my childhood. On my first birthday party in 1975 my Dad did a Koroga for 200 people. And my mum made about 14 other dishes. I wish I had a scanner so I could share the photos with you, although they are embedded in an album and my mum would freak if I dislodged them, so you'll just have to conjure a mental image of women in impeccable 70s fashion (a lot of bouffants, bell-bottoms and elegant saris) and a lot of men sitting around a simmering cauldron of chicken masala. I think my 1st birthday was just a convenient excuse. The Koroga tradition is alive and kicking with dedicated Koroga clubs and facilities all over Kenya. I went to a Karoga the other day and not much has changed – over-sized pot, rustic jiko, all fresh ingredients, beer, scotch, madafu (coconut water), bread, salad and a lot of anticipation for the main course. Though now there are a few more starters (they were called 'bitings' in my childhood days), naans, more vegetarian options, and rather fancy desserts (we usually got fruit salad or ice cream – a trifle if we were lucky). Many cultures have a tradition of outdoor cooking in various guises, be it a barbecue,cookout, or Koroga. It's about getting together in the fresh air and great outdoors and giving the men a chance to cook in the 'manliest' way possible – not for them the fancy Le Creuset casseroles and the small cooking ranges! Yes, I know things are changing now!"