In my many travels to northern Kenya, I have come across numerous coping strategies locals have devised over the years to tame their harsh home. But I suppose the most fascinating I have witnessed yet is the way they preserve food for leaner days.
Fridges are not part of standard kitchen fixtures in a majority of households here – perhaps the new Isiolo-Moyale road and the national government rural electrification programme may soon change all that. Meanwhile ancient ways to preserve food live on.
Strips of dried meat (otkac or nyirnyir) prepared from camel meat (hilib gel) are left in the sun to dry and later cut into small pieces that are fried (usually in oil with garlic and iliki) until they are dry.
The dry-fried meat is then immersed in camel ghee (subag) where the fatty mixture condenses and can be stored for at least 2-3 months in bags made out of camel skin and hoofs without getting spoilt.
One camel slaughtered and preserved this way can be eaten for up to 6 months. For use, its scooped in portions and melted to be served as stew with pounded maize meal, rice, beans (when available) or just eaten on its own as a whole meal. During breakfast, nyirnyir is served only to men.
But interestingly this method of meat preservation is not exclusive to the pastoralists of northern Kenya. Among the Luo of Kenya, such dried meat, known as aliya, is made into a stew that is eaten with Ugali. The Sudanese also have similar meat they call shermout.
But the Sudanese are even more innovative. The layer of fat around a slaughtered animal’s stomach (miriss) is also dried. Internal organs are also sun-dried, pounded, mixed with some potash, and moulded into a ball that is allowed to dry slowly to make twini-digla. The large intestine may also be cleaned and stuffed with fat and hung to dry as a type of sausage
The preservation of milk is equally a novelty in the north. Wooden guards are rubbed inside with smoked herbal sticks several times (at least 5 times). They are then left to dry without being clean washed.
These herbs smeared in the guards act as food preservatives especially, for milk which then stays fit for consumption for long regardless of the weather conditions.
I have eaten nyirnyir on several occasions and drank camel milk preserved in containers treated with the herb and both are really very good or is it a taste one acquires over time!