Tuesday, 21 February 2017

A little Korea in a big Nairobi: Ain Guesthouse

Asking a Malaysian girl I just met at the Australian Ambassador's residency about finding good Asian food wasn't how I expected to come across some of the best Korean food in East Africa. But this is Nairobi, and the unexpected can happen anywhere. So here I was, in the garden on Australia Day in the dying sunlight, being told that Ain Guesthouse was THE place to get best of Korean cuisine.

So we decide to descend with a large group of 10, with nationalities ranging from British to Brazilian to try this little special place perched on the edge of Hurlingham. Finding Ain was in itself like finding a tiny treasure, hiding down a cul-de-sac behind an old rolling metal gate in between the jungle flora and fauna that had been growing down here for the last thirty years. Entering inside, you enter into the family house which contained a large amount of loved furniture, Korean fans and tables in the kitchen covered in freshly chopped vegetables. The family owners hovering in the back waved enthusiastically, while turning back to their conversation about the events of the day, politics on the widescreen TV buzzing in the background and the food they would serve that night.

Once through this cosy frenzy of old world hospitality we were met by a beautiful stooped garden that opened into two safari style tents, one with many different tables and the other with one long table that held 3 large hot plates designed for grilling fresh vegetables and marinated meats. We were seated by our friendly waitress and very quickly served an enormous ensemble of small entrees or 'Banchan' that were quickly deciphered by a Korean member of our party. Enthusiastically pointing, she started "This is egg omelette, these are fried crisp onions; fried tomato fish; pickled cabbage; rice noodles with vegetables; egg and potato mash; kimchi; soy beans; collared ginger greens; chills with garlic and pork dumplings...". We dug in hungrily though quickly found out that each group of 3 got their own dish, so ending up with 30 dishes on one table we slowed down and enjoyed the different flavours, sensations and atmosphere of the restaurant under the beautifully hung canopies.

    As we settled comfortably into finishing our entrees, the staff began to bring the meat for the main event - the Korean BBQ. Our servers turned on the Korean installed hot dishes that heated up quickly and were soon smothered in onions and potato. These were then joined by heaped piles of sliced pork and beef marinated in a mix of sugar, soy sauce and sesame which fried beautifully on the hot heat of the skillets below. This part of Korean cuisine is personally my favourite, not just because the taste is fantastic but it also brings in a social aspect - each member of the table taking in turns to cut the meat, turn the beef and shimmy the pork. This meant taking time to talk about their days and their plans for the week. The BBQ unites diners around a little hot plate of shared interest on delicious food, current events and a moment to check in with each rather other than just staring at our plates.

    To help us wash down our meals we ordered the usual accompaniments of cold Tuskers and sparkling water. Without much thought I also ordered a white wine, which the server told me was not available and which I quickly met with a friendly nod and switched to water instead. At this moment the enigmatic owner burst through the screen door, "Let me go to the shop for you! What kind of wine do you like? Sweet? Dry?" which I quickly dismissed and said it was not a problem. Several minutes later he ran through again brandishing a bottle "I was given this by a friend! Please, please! Have it, you are my guests" and then accompanied by glasses and generous servings. This type of service is sorely missed in Nairobi, with owners breaking 'the fourth wall' of dining and interacting with their guests on a human level, where what they have is yours to have too. In addition to the wine we were served hot steaming Bibimbap, a steaming hot rice mixed with vegetables and a fried egg that you stir vigorously with plum sauce and served to you in generous chopstick held portions. Everything was delicious and everyone was stuffed.

     For the 10 of us, it came to 1800 each (with TIP!) and the owner shook his head firmly as we tried to pay for the wine which we countered by stuffing a few extra shilling into the receipt box. Truly, Ain Guesthouse gets two thumbs up from me and our party as well as the other guests we noticed dining around us, mainly of Korean nationality. They, like us, had come to get their little fix of home in this amazing hidden gem, down a leafy cul de sac in the heart of Nairobi.

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