Plantains and manioc chips - Afro-Caribbean in Vienna
"What’s Creole but the African manioc, plantain, and pineapple in Caribbean dishes in a Europeanized mix with Chinese, Indian and exotic ingredients!" explained Chris Steiner, the owner of Keke’s, a bar-restaurant on Amerlingstrasse 15 in the 6th District, just off Vienna’s Oxford Street: Mariahilferstrasse. Austrian Chris, born and raised in Ghana, said that Keke is derived from his native tongue and means ‘mother of the earth.’
He smiled. "It is also my daughter’s name."
I was in Keke’s upon the recommendation of friends, Gita and Rico de Faria, an Iranian-Portuguese couple who know a lot about restaurants. "It’s a tiny place," they warned, "but cool, and the food not too spicy (very important!) and a good value for the money."
"It will remind you of the Caribbean," they coaxed. I was sold.
They also warned me about the tiny entrance: a red-framed silver-grey door that leads into a longish space divided into three parts at the end of which is the bar where others were waiting. All of the 10-odd tables were occupied. I needed a table for three.
This gave me time to ask the bunch, mostly Austrian, what they liked about the place. A young woman gestured expansively to include her two companions: "We’ve been coming for the last two years now… We like it: it’s simple, reliable; oh, and the excellent fruit juice."
After being given a table and the menu, my eyes landed on a list categorized as vegetarian dishes but which, on closer scrutiny, can be combined with a choice of chicken, prawns or beef – nach kreolischer Art – presumably that chilliscious paste of coconut milk spiced with curry and coriander. Dishes are served with the Baron, a West Indian hot sauce that kicks in only after you have chewed and swallowed your food. Then I looked at the main dishes – not too many but tantalizing.
Tostones y yuccas fritas sounded like a kick-up-a-joy-juice comprising fried plantains with manioc chips in salsa dip. I was curious how the Jamaica jerked chicken would compare with the Badian and Trinidadian varieties but I went for the Congri – a Cuban dish of chicken over rice and black-eyed beans. Definitely more precious, cooked with Basmati rice than the Uncle Ben’s that I found in most Caribbean eateries. Brazilian restaurants have a similar version that sometimes appears with the politically provocative brand, Moros y Christianos, with fat pieces of pork ribs or legs. In the Philippines as a child, I remember watching how my father ensured to mix in the fat thoroughly by what seemed like hours of constant and endless stirring.
Chiara, one of my two Viennese companions decided on what my taste buds were excited by: Enchillados de Camarones. We were nicely surprised that the tender prawns had been cooked in a distinctively flavoured sauce of white wine, topped with young rockette leaves.
For wine, I chose a red Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva from Chile but I quickly concluded that, clearly, Austrian wines were not to be surpassed. Shortly, I heard Franz-Karl give a "sehr gut" verdict about his unfiltered-undiluted apple juice, listed on the Menu as naturtrüber Apfelsaft Meinklang Bio Säfte. He added, "das Essen ist mild: mittel-europäisch angepasst" – meaning, adopted to the Central European taste.
At the next table, there was a group of five who looked like they could be from the Caribbean. Hoping for some "insider" critique of the cuisine, I leaned over. Peter, an IT-contractor, introduced me to his daughter, Jennifer, and as he spoke a bit more, I realized he was Nigerian.
"I’ve been coming here for a year now because I like the food but I especially enjoy the friendly atmosphere – a mix of nations," he said, making the point, "Austrians are not used to seeing black people; they don’t know how to handle you; here you don’t feel threatened. Jennifer specified her father’s abstraction: "it’s welcoming, familiar and calm."
The three other IT-consultants in the group added their comments. Caleb from Rwanda said this place is like those special restaurants – Italian, Chinese – that have a real nice and natural atmosphere." Nigerian Leo Obeiagwu agreed, "Yes, I’ve been to so many other restaurants in Vienna; I don’t see the Afro-Caribbean imprint except in the food, but this is special – Europeanized African."
"African cooking lacks exposure to an international audience," said Charles Okubia, and then he referred to the wide range of choices in London where he lives. "So I’m proud of Keke’s," he continued, "which indicates preparation, presentation, and appeal – the result of research and innovation – not just for tradition but for quality as well."
Back at the bar, after finishing my delicious meal, Chris told me more about his motives in setting up his three-year-old restaurant. "I had two surgical operations for colon cancer after which I decided to drastically change my eating habits. For several years after work at Move On, the dance studio, which I run and where I teach, I’d go to restaurants for food that was frozen and unhealthy. So, the philosophy behind Keke’s is not about being a restaurant but about being an Afro-Caribbean kitchen preparing and serving fresh food. To ensure that, we go to the Naschmarkt, or to the open markets of Vienna, where one can procure the world’s fresh produce – day in, day out."
Naturally moving to the beat of his booming but modulated voice Chris said, "so, I’m not offering white table cloths and all that fancy stuff that could deviate from my back to the roots-and-basics focus. I offer simple things like beans – the energy is all there, and it’s nice to be able to feel it.
Of course, I’m open, and I adjust if I have to, like this place was simply white, but I added these earth colours that friends suggested even though they now detract from simple statements, like that beautiful African wood: the wall between the bar and the kitchen, as part of my design strategy."
After saying "Servus" to each other and as I made my leave, I heard the Caribbean beat that I’d noticed upon coming in and that made me feel as if I’d walked into a seaside place – the pleasant energies of palm leaves and lapping waves undulating into Keke’s – in Wien!