The Asian produce lady hurried over to the shelf, her colorful sari swirling around her. She held up a head of lettuce.
“Horse lettuce?” she said helpfully.
“No, horseradish. Like ‘farasi’ [Swahili for horse] and rrrrradish …?” I purposely rolled the “r” in radish.
I could read her thoughts behind her quizzical look: “What on earth is this mzungu talking about?”
And then she gave the same answer I’d heard already that day: “We don’t have it.”
My quarry was proving to be elusive.
Life in the city
This is not the conundrum I thought I would have when I prepared to move to Kenya the first time in 2012. I still remember hearing stories from people who lived in Niger. They had to travel many, many miles just to purchase a chicken. A sad, scrawny chicken, at that.
And milk or cheese? Gracious! Not a chance.
So, when I arrived in Nairobi for the first time and saw a Snickers bar displayed next to the checkout line at the Kenyan version of Wal-Mart, I was floored. I learned quickly that Kenya imports everything. You could even find chocolate chips — if you searched hard enough, and were willing to sell the rights to your firstborn child.
Nairobi is an African city, to be sure. But it’s a city — and in the two and a half years since I left, it’s become even more cosmopolitan. The chocolate chips are plentiful now and do not require the selling of offspring.
Let me stop here. You might be asking why I’m even going down this road. A horseradish? Really, Rebecca?
Two reasons. First, just to get it out of the way, there’s what I call the Kenya Weight Loss Program. It’s, in delicate parlance, a part of life in Kenya, and it’s why I consume truckloads of probiotic yogurt and brew gallons of lemony, gingery, cinnamony tea.
So, this recipe? Too intriguing not to try. It’s like the food version of torch-bearing villagers hunting down a thieving villain. I can say with relative certainty this would kill any germ within a 20-kilometer radius.
Also, I have masochistic tendencies.
Second reason: I’m obstinate.
The recipe doesn’t require all of the ingredients. In fact, it says you can be flexible.
But a couple hours into my search, somewhere around the 20th pronunciation of “horserrrrrrradish,” I found myself caught up in the quest.
I WOULD FIND THAT DANG HORSERADISH.
Nairobi has chocolate chips and Corn Flakes and Snickers. Surely, somewhere in this blessed town, there is a horseradish.
Not a horse. Not really even a radish.
Now, take a moment. Look at the photo below.
This? This is not a horseradish.
It is white. It is a radish. But it is not, I repeat, NOT a horseradish.
It is, however, the result of my day-long scouring of produce shops and retail stores — and it is further proof that we Americans have too many things in cans and cannot function when faced with the real thing.
Who wants to hack open a real pumpkin at Thanksgiving to make a pie when you have Libby’s canned pumpkin?
I purchased the specimen above after one salesman pointed to a plant pictured on a jar of horseradish sauce. No, not the sauce. I need the horseradish, I told him. He then led me to the produce shelf and pointed to a handful of wilted white root vegetables.
They did look like the picture, I admitted to myself. So, I bought it.
I am now thoroughly educated on the variations between radishes, white radishes and horseradish, which, by the way, is not related to a horse and not really a radish.
And through said education, I now know that the object in my fridge is not what I sought.
Lost in translation
I am still determined to find the horseradish. I have people on it as we speak.
I am also aware of how ridiculous the whole thing is. Really, Rebecca? A horseradish?
But as I’ve shared the story of that day with friends, I realize just how perfectly it encapsulates life lived cross-culturally. There are days when you feel like you’re … just … not … quite communicating what you need, or you are, but the answer isn’t what you hoped.
It can be frustrating. And it reminds me of “Mimi ni mandazi ya jelly,” the first sentence I learned in Swahili, four years ago now.
It’s silly. It’s an homage to an American political history urban legend. When I tell Kenyans about it, they shake their heads and laugh.
It’s also a nod to the miscues we have every day when we live in another culture. Sometimes, all you can do is laugh.
Which I’m still trying to do with that blasted radish. In the mean time, I’m looking up recipes for it. Any recommendations?