Ugali, East of Fufu


Down the block from the West L.A. Fedco, at the base of the affluent Baldwin Hills, Bamboo Place is a pleasant restaurant, with private booths screened off with thatch and columns wrapped in twine, pictures of African children on the wall, copies of African wildlife magazines strewn by African board games on a sort of coffee table by the dance floor. Before you eat, a waitress splashes your hands with warm water that she pours from a pitcher into a plastic basin--you are encouraged to eat with your hands here--and directs you to dry them with the cloth napkin tucked into a carved, giraffe-shaped napkin ring.

Bamboo Place may be the first Kenyan restaurant in the United States east of Washington, but unless you come for the live African music on Saturday nights, probably something like Kenny G plays on the restaurant’s radio. It’s a nice place to kill a late afternoon anyway, to nibble on the crisp, triangular spring rolls called samosas , drink a giant bottle of Nigerian beer, gulp milky African spiced tea.

Kenya is the most cosmopolitan country in Africa, a destination on a thousand years of trade routes. Nairobi’s cuisine, at least in books, reflects this, Indian-influenced curries commingling with Muslim-inspired kebabs, British puddings with native African vegetable dishes and whatever international hotels consider chic. Bamboo Place, though, is a homey restaurant, a half-dozen different African starches served with as many main dishes, all of them simple, fresh and light. The left side of the menu features West African foods, the right side the restaurant’s specifically Kenyan specialties, but if somebody didn’t tell you, you’d have trouble telling which was which.

Ugali is the basic staple food of Kenya, a dense, loaf-shaped pone of white cornmeal, slightly coarse-textured, bland on its own but practically exploding with flavor when you twist off a bit with your fingers and drag it through a sauce. Ugali sukuma wiki --it translates “push the week stew” for the lean stretch before payday--is the classic Kenyan down-home dish, the East African equivalent of red beans and rice, and it comes here with a sharp-tasting mound of chopped, cooked collard greens, slightly crunchy, and a bit of beef stewed with onions and tomatoes: delicious, plus you get to say the word ugali in public. Ugali also goes nicely with masala fish, fresh tilapia glazed with a curry-tinged salsa, or the pepper soup, orange-red and blazing hot, gritty with whole spices and tasting a little like really good beef jerky suddenly given liquid form.


Chapatis are pretty close to their Indian namesakes, chewy rounds of griddle-baked bread; pilau is rice sharp with cloves. Matoke involves unripe bananas cooked in a mild tomato sauce, eaten more as a starch than as a fruit.

But basically, if you’re not doing the ugali thing, you should really try the restaurant’s version of the West African staple fufu . Here, it’s made with pounded yams instead of the usual cassava, and it has the sticky, pully, yet irresistible consistency of potatoes overwhipped in a food processor, but in the very best way. As with ugali , you also tear pieces off to dunk in the main dish: stewed beef, chicken stewed with tomatoes, chicken stewed in a spicy sauce made with freshly pounded peanuts, beef stewed in the peanut sauce. At home, mom never let you play with your mashed potatoes; at Bamboo Place, you might as well.


Bamboo Place

5778 Rodeo Road, Los Angeles, (213) 296-4294. Open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Live music--but no food--later Friday and Saturday.) Cash only. Beer and wine. Lot parking in rear. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $14-$18.