A culinary guide to Kenya’s land of trees and honey

Watamu is not your typical foodie destination, but it’s a favourite among Italians who are rarely wrong about gourmet goodness.
Written by Melanie van Zyl
16 April 2021

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Imagine carrying a hive of African bees on a motorbike. And those bees crawl under your shirt while you’re driving. It’s a very serious, but equally comical, scene and I cannot help but burst out laughing at the spectacle. Luckily, Abbas Sharriff laughs along with me. “I was taking bees to a nearby farmer and hadn’t sealed the hive properly! It was night so luckily they couldn’t fly [bees sleep at night], but they crawled up my shirt – one hundred of them! My wife had to take a knife and scrape them all off my back.”

Watamu Map

An apiarist, Abbas was showing me around his farm, a smallholding between Watamu and Gede, and sharing his beekeeping story. We stood together in the shade of a mango tree that dripped with fruit. Above him, three beehives painted an equally mango shade of yellow were strung up in the boughs. “There are 400 beekeeping farmers around the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. Many farm with butterflies too”. Do the farmers enjoy working with insects, I enquire. “Yes! People earn a good income from it. They can educate their kids and buy medical supplies”.

Bee keeping Watamu
Watau local, Abbas Sharriff, shows the author his beehives | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Measuring 42,000 hectares, the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest is the largest remaining belt of indigenous coastal forest in East Africa. It may seem strange, but beekeeping is crucial to forest protection. In a bid to shield this wild woodland, community-driven projects ensure that people can still draw a livelihood and use the natural resources, without destroying the forest. Abbas is the chairman of the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Adjacent Dwellers Association (ASFADA) and thus an essential link between folk and forest. One such forest supply is flowers for bees. Watamu honey has a distinctive (and very delicious) taste thanks to the area’s unique botanicals. Just by examining the colour, Abbas knows which flowers were used to create his honey.

Bee Hives Watamu
Several bee hives sit strung into a tree, ready to be harvested when filled with honey | Source: Melanie van Zyl

A Kenyan coastal town north of Mombasa, Watamu is known best for its tropical shores and Marine National Park, sheltering precious species such as turtles. The unsung Arabuko-Sokoke Forest and its honey harvest was just the beginning of my unexpectedly delicious adventure in this laidback village.

Watamu began its journey as a sleepy fishing village, and these elements are still apparent today. You can walk through the last standing remains of a Swahili city-state that flourished between the 11th and 13th centuries. Medieval ruins at the Gedi National Monument provide proof of the thriving maritime trade that dominated Kenya’s east coast. Out in the Indian Ocean, traditional fishing dhows slide across the horizon, and palm trees sway in the sea breeze, as they have done for hundreds of years.

Gedi Ruins Watamu
Gede Ruins is an ancient town surrounded by tropical forest and was once a developed, cosmopolitan area. Artifacts found here include Ming Chinese vases and Venetian glass, and researchers are still baffled as to why Gede was abandoned | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Today, the town is dominated by whitewashed holiday resorts that complement the aquamarine waters and are frequented by a majority of Italian tourists. These Europeans have been visiting the Kenyan coast for decades, and many locals even speak Italian. “Ciao!” one shouted in my direction, waving to his motorbike. “Boda-boda?” he queried, switching to Swahili. The easiest way to get around Watamu is on one of these long-seated motorcycles (terrifyingly, sometimes four passengers climb aboard for a trip) or via tuk-tuk, which is generally the safer option.

tuk tuk watamu
Zooting through the city is best done by tuk-tuk | Source: Melanie van Zyl

I boarded a tuk-tuk to explore beyond the forest, and the cheerful vehicle rattled off. We zoomed by several restaurants that boasted artisanal gelato, osteria popular for homemade pizza and pasta plus other Italo-treasures. The tourism impact was clear to see in the cuisine on offer here. We also passed a mountain of watermelon fruit on the roadside, waiting to be squeezed into fresh juice. Then several street stalls trading fish kebabs and dried specimens that reminded me of West Coast bokkoms we find back in South Africa.

Mida Creek Crab Shack Watamu
Built on stilts in the mangrove forest, the Crab Shack Restaurant is community project where you get to enjoy the freshest fish and seafood from Mida Creek | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Inspired by the forest park initiative, destination dinner was at the Crab Shack first. Just beyond Dabaso village, the tuk-tuk turned down a dirt road and motored between several tall palms, many bearing yellow buckets and bottles for harvesting wine. Operated by the Mida Creek Conservation Community, a boardwalk led through the swamp to a rustic restaurant on the edge of a mangrove forest, set up high on stilts and overlooking a vast saltwater lagoon. The perfect sundowner spot.

The Italian influence showed again in the menu, and I settled on an Aperol Spritz that dispelled the last heat of the day. First course, the signature starter – a plate of crispy crab samoosas seasoned with a spray of lime. All crab meals on the menu are sustainably farmed in these very waters, and the fish are caught by local Creek fishermen. The perfect tension of spice and salt, crunch and acid I had to order another plate before moving onto mains: whole ginger crab boiled bright red and served with coconut rice.

Crab Shack Watamu
All crab meals on the menu are sustainably farmed in Watamu’s Mida Creek waters | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Staying at the extraordinary Watamu Treehouse

The following morning I stayed in-house for a breakfast feast. Rated as one of the best stays in Kenya, there’s little reason to leave Watamu Treehouse. Not that I needed it, but the Swahili-style breakfast offered one more excuse to stay put. Green bananas, mango jam, organic peanut butter and homemade granola with coconut milk all spoke to the boutique hotel’s stance of eating as seasonally as possible. The policy also ensures food is local too. Mandazi pockets (deep-fried vetkoek-like pillows, similar to an unsweetened doughnut) stuffed with mbaazi (beans cooked in coconut) provided a wholesome taste of Kenya. The mbaazi is prepared from boiled Pigeon Peas, coconut milk (grated the traditional way and then squeezed to release the milk), onions, a little cooking oil and livened up with cardamom seeds.

Waking up at the Watamu Treehouse
Waking up at the Watamu Treehouse. The rooms all overlook the sunrise over the ocean or the sunset over the forest | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Kenya produces some of the world’s finest coffee, and usually, that’s my breakfast go-to. Established in 1950 as Kenya’s first coffee roastery, Dormans coffee was part of this spread, but I couldn’t resist indulging in a mug of spicy masala tea instead. It was a cup of pure goodness with cinnamon, cardamom and slight hints of black peppercorn. At the centre of the spread stood a bottle of amber-coloured Arabuko-Sokoke honey which complimented it perfectly.

A beach breakfast at Watamu Treehouse
A beach breakfast at Watamu Treehouse | Source: Melanie van Zyl

“So much of our food depends on the coconut – just as so much life in the coastal villages depends on the coconut palm tree. Apart from food, the coconut is used for all of the local roofing, as the palm fronds are woven into ‘roofing tiles’, inexpensive walls, wood and palm wine”, Paul Krystall, the owner of Watamu Treehouse, shared.

watamu marine national park
To snorkel and dive inside the Marine National Park, you’ll need a boat | Source: Melanie van Zyl

After the hearty spread, I felt energetic enough to swim with the fishes on a snorkel trip in the Watamu Marine National Park. Many dolphins, starfish, shimmery parrotfish and one turtle sighting later it was time to eat again. Keeping with the day’s theme, I went to Swahili Cafe for lunch. Plastic chairs and tables were arranged on a verandah, and everyone is shaded by a palm-leaf ceiling, the very one described by Paul.

Watamu fruit
Fresh fruit is abundant on Kenya’s tropical coastline | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Like Watamu village, the menu at Swahili Cafe offered an intriguing mashup of culture. Italian pasta with fish, deep-fried octopus with kachumbari (an East African tomato and onion salsa), special goat grilled to order or lobster linguini. Then there was mchicha (amaranth leaves cooked like spinach) and soft chapati (essentially a roti) too mop it all up. The fresh juice of the day was watermelon, and after swigging it pronto, I opted for a cocktail to accompany the upcoming curry of prawn and spiced coconut rice.

Local food Watamu
Local cuisine includes fresh vegetables, fried roti, saucy beans and regular rice | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Dawa is a classic Kenyan drink. A mixture of vodka, brown sugar and lime chunks drizzled with a generous helping of honey. Savouring the sweetness, I thought back to something Abbas mentioned on his farm. “Bees prefer plants that produce a lot of nectar. So I have planted watermelon, which in turns requires bees to be pollinated”.

Like the ingredients of a great recipe (or a perfect cocktail), mother nature thrills best when unlikely forces come together. Sweet and sour. Sting and seed. Watamu means ‘home of sweet people’ in Swahili, but Watamu was also a fantastic way to holiday La Dolce Vita. Gelato for dessert? Most definitely.

Gelato Watamu
Middle Eastern influences are more apparent at the coast in the architecture and religion and both Malindi and Watamu have elements of an Italian feel with great pizzerias and delicious gelato available | Source: Melanie van Zyl

A trip to this section of the Kenyan coast ties up nicely with a safari to Tsavo East National Park, which is roughly a two-hour drive away.

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