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Jul 3, 2014 12:37 PM

Kenyan Food at Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Only three days left of the Folklife Festival which features two themes this year, China and Kenya.

Normally the food at the festival is a dreary affair. But I have to say the Nyama Choma (grilled beef) from the Kenyan uplands food tent is the single best dish I've ever had at the festival. I know, the bar has been set low in the past. But this really hit the spot in a way the food has not done before.. I also tried the masala chips (fries), doused in gravy, at the coastal restaurant. They were fun to eat but just ok.

The uplands food is provided by Swahili Village in Beltsville, which is the most serious Kenyan place in the DC area.

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  1. Oooh. Sounds good. I do mean to try Swahili Village.

    3 Replies
    1. re: luckyfatima

      I've been thinking about arranging for a Chowhound meal there, but it's so far from where most of us live.

      1. re: Steve

        I'd love that. From va but I've driven further to try good food

        1. re: pat12

          Ok, I will make a plan for September and post it here. Or you can get on my email list. My contact info is in my profile.

    2. Made it to the FF on the last day and had the tilapia stew at Choma. Very good and I'm now curious about Swahili Village. Son had lo mein at the Chinese food tent and it was nowhere near as good as Choma.

      7 Replies
      1. re: tcamp

        What restaurant was supplying the Chinese food tent?

        1. re: Elyssa

          According to this article, Minh Restaurant in Arlington designed the menu. I think generally they use a lot of local caterers to do cooking - a friend of mine got involved last year in the Hungarian food.

          1. re: tcamp

            "The menu, designed by Minh Restaurant in Arlington, is like a Chinese food greatest hits list: chicken or veggie lo mein; pork or veggie dumplings; and tofu mixed with pork, chili sauce and rice."

            What a bunch of crock. The folklife festival is serious until it gets to the food, then all of a sudden they drop the ball and serve lo mein or tofu mixed with pork as a greatest hits list. From a Vietnamese restaurateur.

            1. re: Steve

              My son said a fight almost broke out in the line ahead of him because they'd run out of ma po tofu.

              The Kenyan food was by far the better choice.

              1. re: Steve

                yeah -- minh's in arlington? vietnamese!!! whaaa?

                1. re: Steve

                  I had the Chinese dumplings and they were awful. Obviously previously frozen with little taste. I've had better dumplings at the carryout Eastern Express. At the cooking booth, I did taste the mapo tofu the chef made before being shooed away by a Smithsonian volunteer. That dish was wonderful!!!! Notice the garnish is grass from the mall. Clever!

                  1. re: Mulan

                    I agree that the 'Chinese' food was pretty bad - the Kenyan stall was the way to go. They really need to figure out someway to let visitors taste some of the things that they make live at the stations - that's the real good stuff.

          2. why is the food at the FF almost uniformly, every year a stupendous letdown?

            7 Replies
            1. re: hill food

              Because they're afraid of poisoning the tourists.

              All food service must be from a certified caterer, and most everything must be prepared in a certified kitchen. Your National Park Service at work.

              1. re: MikeR

                That said, offfering lo mein is a weak decision. It's something you can get at every carry out in the country where it will be served fresher, hotter, tastier. Better to go with a shaanxi dish like steamed cold noodles. Or roasted five-spice pork belly or a casserole of chicken and mushrooms, or pressed bean curd. There are a ton of possibilities instead of leaving people with the impression that Chinese food is encompassed so well at your local take out.

                1. re: Steve

                  The trouble with offering real native food is that perhaps only one in a thousand visitors would be willing to try it, much less pay $8 for it if they don't know what it is. Most people who attend the festival would be really pushing it to the edge with chicken and broccoli.

                  I think they can get away with goat because there are enough visitors who welcome it as a "taste of home" to make it worth while serving it. The long gone Northern Virginia Folk Festival used to food cooked and served by locals of all nationalities. There was always a lamb or goat roasting on a spit outside until the animal rights people got that shut down. It's tough when you have to adhere to regulations and be profitable at the same time when feeding visitors who would just as soon have a hot dog.

                  1. re: MikeR

                    I think that might have been true 5 or 10 years ago, but not anymore. Just in the past few years, I see a discernible change in the American palette, with an enthusiasm to embrace the new and unknown. As long as its promoted well, and catered from the right source, you will find that there will be people willing to try it out - more than a 1 in a 1000. A visit to some of the hard-core ethnic restaurants in DC will show that at least 1 in 10 or 15 is not a native of that country/cuisine.

                    1. re: altan

                      I think you're right, Altan. One of the most popular restaurants in Chicago is Girl and the Goat. The lines are impossibly long for a very goat-heavy menu.

                      Based on no evidence at all, I think a big reason for the broadening of Americans' tastes is sushi. Once you realize that raw fish (aka "bait") is delicious, you are likely to be much more open to trying new things.

                      1. re: altan

                        I will continue to remain skeptical when it comes to festivals.

                        Sure, restaurants that serve foods that are new and different to the local population can do well for a while when the "buzz" develops. Serving 100 people a night over the course of five years is nothing at all like serving 15,000 people a day a limited menu of not very daring regional food over the course of two weeks.

                        As one who attends the festival for the music and crafts, I'm not really interested in the food that they serve. I might get some ideas from the festival as to what to keep an eye out for around town (or some other town if the cuisine hasn't popped up here yet), but if I can't really appreciate a new food if I'm eating it on the run. I'll bring a bagel from home, or take a break and walk over to one of the museum cafeterias and enjoy my lunch in the air conditioning.

                        I think the right ethnic food for a festival is finger food or street food. OK, so noodles are street food in Asia. I'm out of arguments.

                        1. re: MikeR

                          Specifically at the Folklife festival, I think much of the crowd is open to more authentic fare. I'm always struck by the number of people who are from the represented countries (not vendors/artisans) or are former peace corps types there for a flashback experience. At this festival, I ended up talking to and taking pictures for a big group of Kenyans, some living in DC and others visiting. The Kenyan food tent was more crowded than the Chinese one when I was there.

                          But I do think the logistics of large scale food service on the mall, in the heat of summer, pretty much assure a watered down experience. Still, the tilapia curry thing I ate was pretty good and music was rockin.

              2. The goat stew from Swahili Village at the Festival was also very good -- way better than anything I've had at the Folklife Festival befhore.

                1. If you can find bags of Masala Sticks or Kenyan Chevda, you've hit the snack jack pot. I'm convinced a cup of these would double or triple the average drink per customer ratio at a bar.