Daily Life, Kenya, Nairobi
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Learning How to Cook – Adventures at Altitude with an Unfamiliar Ovens

Oven with the top up

I know how to cook. I’m pretty good at it. Well, this was true up until my arrival in Nairobi.

At first I thought all I would need to do is look up Fahrenheit to Celsius conversion. That part wasn’t so hard. I compared a bunch of tables that I found online. They varied slightly but were close enough for me to know what degree setting I needed.

Then I realized that Nairobi, at 5,500 feet, is at a high altitude. (I believe anywhere 3,000 feet and higher is considered high altitude in regard to cooking.) Okay, I’m not baking right now, and that’s the one thing I know is an issue. So, regular dinner that’s not baked goods shouldn’t be any different from what I’m used to, right?

Wrong! Altitude affects all cooking. It’s all about the decreased atmospheric pressure. Liquids evaporate faster and boil at lower temperatures. Leavening gases in breads and cakes expand faster. As a result, how you cook food can change in three ways: time, temperature, and recipe.

For what I was making (cubed chicken with green peppers in coconut milk and Thai green curry paste), time was going to be what changed. Any kind of meat can take up to one quarter more time. For the chicken dish, which took 30 minutes in New York (not much higher than sea level), I added 15 minutes because I am terrified of undercooked chicken. It turned out fine. It was moist, flavorful, and tender.

Because the chicken was already in coconut milk (and had marinated overnight) I wasn’t worried about it drying out. But, dryness is generally a risk as you need to cook meats longer and, at altitude, you have low humidity which sucks the moisture out of whatever you’re cooking.  FYI – you have to add more time. You can’t just turn up the heat.

I think I’ll do all right with meat and vegetables in the oven or stove top. The temperature doesn’t change and it’s just a matter of making sure they don’t dry out. Baking will be tricky and I think it’ll be a while before I try my hand at that.

Eggs might be a challenge. Scrambled eggs or omelets will be easy. Poached eggs will take longer but you can see how they cook. Soft or hard boiled eggs will be tricky. It will take longer to cook and I’ll need to figure out how long to cook for a given level of doneness by trial and error.

But I can do this. I’m going to need to adjust how I cook, but it’s manageable.

The oven with the top down

Cooker with the top down

All that is fine and good, as long as I know how to work the cooker (the stove and oven, as it’s called over here). The stove part I figured out without much hassle.

You turn on the switch (it’ll be on the wall) and then you lift up the lid, making sure to not accidentally flip the switch off. There are four burners, three gas and one electric. I’ll learn more about common cooker standards when it comes time to buy one (not all homes, even rentals, necessarily have provide cookers). But, from what I can tell of this particular cooker and the ones I’ve looked at thus far, the combination of burner types is common. My guess is that, since there are no gas lines and you have buy the gas in a tank separate (I think), if the gas runs out before you can fill it, there is at least an electric burner that will work.

When you turn on one of the gas burners, you need to also press the igniter. On this cooker, it’s the red button on the far left (near the oven controls). Go slow as you turn on the gas – the burner will kick in fast and strong.

Knobs for the Oven

The Holy Trinity of getting the oven to work

The oven was an enormous challenge for me. I tried hard but failed. I couldn’t get that thing to turn on. J. tried his hand at it too but also failed. Finally, I picked up the phone and called the apartment complex office and asked for help. (Note to self: start asking for help more and sooner.) A very nice man came up and showed me how it works. Apparently, at least for this oven, you need to have the temperature, the type of cooking (heat from the top and bottom, just the top, or more circulated), and the timer on. Without all three, the oven won’t turn on. Now that I have that crucial piece of information, the oven is pretty easy. But, up until that point, I was getting ready to use what may very well be my new favorite website:  EatOut – but more on that after I actually try it out.

I’ll probably need to learn the ways of a new cooker once we move into a longer term rental. We will absolutely get a grill and then will need to learn how grilling works at altitude. Cooking is going to be an ongoing adventure.

1 Comment

  1. I had no idea that altitude would change something like cooking chicken! I knew it took longer to boil water and that it screwed baking up (but didn’t know how or why). I also, embarrassingly, had no idea that Nairobi was at that altitude. When I’ve been at high altitudes (over a mile) I’ve found that my sleep totally changes. Love following your adventures.

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