Emma Forbes: Art teacher turned Swahili food curator

Thursday November 25 2021
Prawn and coconut Swahili pizza.

Prawn and coconut Swahili pizza. PHOTO | COURTESY | EMMA FORBES


Arts educator Emma Forbes traces her love of cooking, seafood and fishing to her upbringing on the coast of Scotland.

"When I was fishing with my father we’d often take our little jiko, and as we caught the fish we would cook them straight away," said Forbes, who has lived in Nairobi for 23 years. "A very simple fish meal on the boat with salt or lemon or mustard."

Last month, she released her first cookbook Bahari Safari, a compilation of recipes based on Swahili food and culture. The idea for the book came in December 2020 while driving to the coast for a family holiday.

After graduating from the Lincoln College of Art in the UK, with cookery as a vocational subject, Forbes trained as a teacher before moving to Kenya in 1997. She taught art in schools, but occasionally substituted it with cooking classes.

Over many years of visiting the Kenyan coast, Forbes developed a network of local friends who helped deepen her love of the region’s cuisine.

"Swahili cooking is fragrant, fresh, light and healthy," she says. "It has a perfume from the coconut, lime and dhania, and the recipes are quick and flexible to make."


In 2011, she left teaching and opened The Shuka Duka, a shop that offers accessories and textile goods made from Maasai shukas. But cooking and teaching were always calling. She would give lessons at home to children, domestic staff, novices to the kitchen or her two daughters whom, she says, have caught the cooking bug.

In Lamu, Forbes got a lesson on making curry "cooked in shiny sufurias on a little gas jiko". This was the inspiration behind her favourite coastal dish — Swahili fish curry using red snapper.

Watermelon and honey sorbet.

Watermelon and honey sorbet. PHOTO | COURTESY

While renting an apartment in Lamu, Babu the owner showed her how to make tamarind-flavoured tuna filets served with a coconut sauce. In Watamu, a restaurateur called David Kanyeri prepared a seafood barbeque over a charcoal fire. His spicy marinade, shared in the book, is another of Forbes’s favourites and works with lobster, fish, calamari or prawns.

The ingredients in her recipes are easy to find even if you don’t live at the coast. Forbes recommends buying fresh seafood as it has the best taste and texture.

"If you want to buy large amounts then freeze it yourself so you know how long it has been in the freezer. And always treat seafood with respect."

Forbes has discovered distinctions in the cookery, like how coastal bhajias differ from those of Nairobi, the four types of lobster found in Watamu, or that Lamu cooking uses more black pepper than Watamu cooking.

"I’ve also learned different ways of scaling fish, preparing an octopus and how to smoke fish by using an old roasting tin," she says. The simplicity of the cooking techniques at the coast was another appeal and Forbes has endeavoured to keep her recipes user-friendly. while embracing the culture. "You don’t need fancy kit to do these recipes. Just a jiko, a sufuria, sharp knife and a cutting board."

She prefers fresh coconut which is more fragrant, but acknowledges that it is time consuming to grate and squeeze. Her alternative is coconut milk, "but make sure it is unsweetened," she says.

Saturdays typically find Forbes at the KSPCA’s Organic Farmer’s Market, her stall spread out with freshly baked goods, pre-ordered meals in cool boxes, and samples of her latest dishes. There were tasters of her popular Swahili curry in recent weeks and I’m looking forward to sampling her upcoming Christmas menu.