Despite the commonalities between the Swahili, Somali, Arabic and coastal cultures their culinary choices tend to remain largely distinct but still confusing to the average Kenyan.
That’s why hotels like Al Yusra which blends the three cultures culinary tastes, still carries with it the mistaken distinction of being just another Somali eatery in town-a considerably faulty belief, given that it’s been a staple feature of this city life for more than 10 years.
Tucked at the first floor of what could easily pass for just another commercial building on Banda Street, the mention of Al Yusra in every way conjures the image of its signature meals, the Arosto and Alleso. After the closure of its main Arosto competitor just a few meters up the road, Al Yusra with its distinctly Swahili and Somali feel, now towers as the sole one-stop-cafe for all things Arosto, blissfully outpacing all the other competitors further north in Eastleigh.
Established in the mid-2000s the hotel was set up ostensibly to cater to the largely Somali community as well as locals who work around Jamia Mall and would love to sample the wide array of Swahili & Somali dishes. This massively spacious eatery has about 3 partitions each large enough to host up to 50 clients as well as the main expansive hotel space that’s adorned with two kitchen counters as well as mini desks that are laden with cutlery, serviettes and billing machines.
One gets the feeling they’ve done the best given the huge clientele that graces the hotel every hour of the day, including the ever-packed balcony with its brighter wooden seats.
The main floor space has the retro atrium seats made from natural cane and fitted with cushions and placed around numbered tables. Notably one of the partitions is exclusive for families and women, probably in keeping up with the Islamic gender interactions.
‘I really can’t tell you how many people we serve on a typical day.’ Says Hassan, a lanky supervisor with a fitting black trouser and khaki shirts that’s the official dressing for all staffers.
Even then a casual survey shows that the numbers could be as high as 350 just for the 11-2 o’clock rush hour. The place surprisingly never looks crowded even when accommodating such an inordinately high numbers, which is a testament to its massive spacious floor space and great floor plan.
The hotel, defined by its extended terrace overlooking the Macmillan Library, wreaks of such a versatility and commonality that is a little too familiar and downright relatable, yet not in a plain and presumptuous way.
The arosto, their famed meal consists of a young goat meat, boiled for about 2 hours then the water is drained. Olive oil is added to the tender meat which is then fried for 3 minutes before adding onions, green pepper, garlic paste and lemon for flavor.
‘It takes us about five to eight minutes to fry the pre-cooked Arosto meat for you.’ Hassan quips leaning forward for emphasis.
The final meaty delicacy is served with boiled rice or the slightly pricier pilau accompaniment.
All this is topped up with a simple salad consisting of onions, cherry tomatoes, and lettuce. Arosto alone goes for Sh 450 a plate while the pilau sides go for Sh 250 and the boiled rice alternative priced at Sh 200. The servings are generous but the price would be considered slightly higher given its easy to secure a less pricey lunch in other cafes around town.
The hotel, which has a total of 90 staffers including chefs, waiters, cashiers and guards, still has a noticeable lag and delay in their services especially during rush hours, with a simple order taking up to 25 minutes.
Still remarkably one of the best Somali-Swahili restaurants in town, they have a wide variety of drinks including a cocktail juice topped with ice cream stirred into a thick, and naturally sweet and a cold beverage.
The portions are generous, though it has been slightly reduced over the years.
It’s easily the one place you’d stumble in on a lazy afternoon while seeking a cold drink or on a hot Nairobi noon while foraging for lunch. The signature Arosto is boiled to tender perfection yet so expertly fried in the olive oil that drains out all the steamy hue and texture of conventionally fried meat. For such a tenderly boiled meat the spices are deftly absorbed into the meat giving it a slightly brown color, with the nutrients deeply absorbed into the meat giving it the salty taste.
The portions are generous, though it has been slightly reduced over the years. The accompaniment is served alongside potato soup and sometimes meat soup depending on what’s available. As usual, the Arosto is best taken between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. though that will mean having to deal with the inevitable delays of a crowded lunch hour café.
While the Arosto is considerably good, the overall dining experience can be frustratingly slow and sometimes downright annoying given those simple culinary items like serviettes, cutlery, and side plates are missing from the furniture desks outside. One gets the feeling they’ve done the best given the huge clientele that graces the hotel every hour of the day, including the ever-packed balcony with its brighter wooden seats.
Oh, and before I forget, they just might want to be a little more creative with the pull-up banners stationed at the entrance and advertise a bunch of gated communities that have overstayed to the point of becoming an awkward extension of the hotel’s general architecture and ambiance.
Still, you might pass by for the amazing Arosto, given it's the only widely known Somali meal.