Under the Swahili Tree

Swahili Tree Restaurant.

A view to the garden from the Under the Swahili Tree Restaurant.

Photo credit: John Fox | Nation Media Group

It was a family occasion, so we went to what we had heard is the most family-friendly place around – Under the Swahili Tree, which is down Marula Lane and off Marula Road in Karen, Nairobi.

It was two Sundays ago. Fortunately, we had booked, because all the tables were taken – yes, mostly by families. We learnt that Saturdays and Sundays are normally like that. Certainly, at weekends there are many things laid on for children in the garden: pizza making, canvas painting, face painting and a bouncy castle. There was a buzz about the place – a friendly, happy buzz.

 In the corner lounges and at the tables under the broad canopy, there is also a lot for the grown-ups to enjoy – a creative menu, a select but reasonably-priced wine list and some taste-teasing cocktails. Most of the fish, meat, pizza and salad dishes are made with local produce and are infused with Swahili spices and flavours such as cloves, ginger, cardamom, turmeric, tamarind and coconut.

But I couldn’t resist the excellent special dish that is offered only on Sundays – the Roast Pork Lunch, served with mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, glazed carrots, apple sauce and cider gravy, followed by a chocolate mousse.

Kanga drapes

 The garden restaurant is a place of colours, with many kanga drapes and lively patterned cushions and chair backs. The walkway from the carpark to the restaurant and bar is lined with an exhibition of paintings. In the evenings, two discretely placed television screens can flicker also for those who want to watch sports.

Under the Swahili Tree, especially at weekends, has an energy about it – clearly inspired by the owner/chef, Emma Forbes. On Sunday, she was far too busy for me to have the chat with her I was keen to have. So it was a good excuse to have a return visit, and we agreed a mid-morning coffee meeting on the following Wednesday.

It was a very different place mid-morning and mid-week; with the bouncy castle and the children gone, it becomes an ideal place for a relaxed coffee and a chat. And the chat was fascinating. Emma studied fine art in England and she has since spent a number of years in Kenya as an art teacher as well as fishing and exploring the cuisines of Kenya’s Coast – all excellent preparation for setting up Under the Swahili Tree last September.

Emma says that her love for fishing and cooking was something she picked up from her parents. So, the years at the coast must have been very special for her. She has actually written a cookbook called Bahari Safari. In the Introduction she talks about how the Swahili cuisine has had a strong influence on her cooking. Her book is a mouth-watering safari through many seafood recipes: first plates such as Crab and Ginger Samosas, second plates such as BBQ’d Snapper in Banana Leaves, and third plates such as Cardamom Pavlovas with Passion Fruit Coulis.


Her book is beautifully illustrated with photographs and paintings and there are many references to the people who introduced her to their own dishes.

I asked Emma about her competition in Karen and around. ‘I don’t think I have any,’ she said. ‘I am building my own brand – a neighbourhood restaurant, a family-friendly restaurant.’ Clearly, she welcomes the young students like the two we saw that morning with their juices and their laptops, just as much as the group that has booked for a dinner with wines in the evening. It is not just a family-friendly place, it is a community-friendly place.

On the way out, I bought Emma’s cookbook at the restaurant’s small shop. Soon, I might well be digging out our jiko and extending my culinary skills beyond my Sunday morning fry-ups. If you want to taste Emma’s creations, do book. The number is +254 110 509778.

 John Fox is Chairman of iDC Email: [email protected]