Alice Taabu has lived by the advice she received from her grandmother who once told her that she had a gift for cooking and should share it with as many people as she could.
And that she did. For more than 20 years, Taabu hosted the popular live cooking show, “Mke Nyumbani”, that aired on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) television.
Her cookbook, also titled Mke Nyumbani, was a winner in its category at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2002. The book covers a selection of recipes she showcased on her show.
During the life of the TV show that aired every Sunday, Taabu was able to impart invaluable culinary skills to millions of Kenyans nationwide.
Despite the vast cooking knowledge she demonstrated on screen with ease and practicality, this was not the original career path she set out to follow.
Before her culinary fame, Taabu had an eight-month stint working as a nurse at Coast General Hospital.
Growing up in the Coast, the sixty-something mother of two daughters attended Ribe Primary School. But she didn’t go further than Standard Seven.
“We were eight children and my parents felt that we should all get the chance to go to school regardless of the level we reached,” she explains.
She always enjoyed watching her grandmother cook. “My grandmother and mother were the cooks in the family. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and eventually learnt to cook from her,” she shares.
After primary school, she attended Ribe Intermediate where she trained as a nurse but practised the profession for under a year. “I guess I wasn’t cut out to be a nurse. I had to go back to my first love, which is cooking,” she says.
She joined the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in Nairobi where she studied home craft and home science for two years.
In 1967, she was approached by Kenya Power, then known as East African Power and Lighting, with a job offer. They wanted someone who could cook and who spoke fluent English and Kiswahili.
The selected person was supposed to give cooking classes as well as teach people how to use electricity and electrical equipment in the proper way.
Taabu started the job and trained for four months, thereafter relocating to Mombasa to start public demonstrations, a job she went on to do for 37 years.
“I loved it. Those were exciting times. I met a lot of people and learnt a lot,” she says.
Despite her knack for cooking, she confesses that there were good times and also hard times.
Taabu recalls with a laugh how she had serious issues with making bread.
The first time she tried to bake bread she missed a crucial step — she did not add yeast. It came out funny and her instructor made her repeat the process eight times before she got it right.
Her instructors always encouraged her to be patient, accurate and relaxed. She took this advice to heart, and with those virtues she succeeded.
Then came her big break in 1976. She was approached by national broadcaster Voice of Kenya to take over from Maggie Gona, who was about to retire as host of “Mke Nyumbani”.
Taabu was not nervous about hosting the show since she was now used to cooking in front of a large audience. “It’s just the floodlights that were a bit uncomfortable in the beginning,” she admits.
She juggled hosting the show and doing the demonstrations for Kenya Power, which was also sponsoring “Mke Nyumbani”.
Everyday was full of happy moments, but there were also embarrassing ones. “There was a time when I didn’t cork the lid of the salt shaker well. While attempting to add salt to the stew, the whole lot of it went into the stew,” she recalls.
Luckily she did not panic. Instead, she took that as an opportunity to demonstrate to the audience what to do if such a thing happened.
She simply scooped as much stew as she could from the sufuria, added raw potatoes and then removed them. “That way, the potatoes absorbed most of the salt and I was good to proceed,” she explains.
The show’s popularity was hinged on its simplicity: It was all about affordable dishes explained in a clear and simple way.
Despite her soaring popularity, the show was not without a few challenges.
Sometimes lack of coordination meant that she would prepare ingredients and then later find that the theatre had not been booked.
Recordings first took place at the KBC studios in Mombasa and later at the Kenya Power offices. They overcame this challenge with proper planning.
“I also managed to strike a balance between taking care of my children (now adults) and running two jobs,” she says.
She also learnt a lot from her years hosting the show. “First, to succeed in anything you must be patient, disciplined and time-conscious. You must also plan well. If you don’t have all these qualities, you won’t go very far,” says Taabu, who names her mother and grandmother as her greatest inspirations.
Her greatest achievement, however, has been as an author. “The inspiration for the cookbook came when people started asking me for recipes. I used to publish my recipes in the newspaper and people would ask, ‘Why not just do a book?’”
With the support of family and friends, she compiled some 500 recipes and finally published a book.
Although she retired from hosting the show in 1999, people still recognise her on the streets and ask her why she never went back to TV.
“People say I taught them a lot but their children don’t know how to cook. They still stop me on the streets to ask for recipes or cooking tips,” she says. She is always happy to share her knowledge as she considers it a gift.
Does she miss the show and being on TV? “Yes, sometimes I do. But right now I’m retired; I just want to rest,” she laughs.
Nevertheless, she stills offers cooking lessons at Mombasa’s Methodist Church of Kenya, where she worships. She is also a board member of Ribe Girls Secondary School in Kilifi.
Although the Kenyan TV industry has improved in terms of quality and diversity, she would love to see more local shows.
“We have a very rich pool of local talent, which if we could tap we would improve the economy and give these local, talented youths a way of life,” she observes.
On a countrywide level, she would love to see a safe, peaceful, corruption-free country.
“Every Kenyan should love one another regardless of tribe. Let us also teach our children how to cook so that they grow up to be responsible people.”
Now that she’s retired, she says her days are rather uneventful. “I wake up, read the Bible and maybe go shopping,” she says.
She spends her leisure time reading, but what she really loves to do is entertain. “I love to cook for my guests. My favourite meal is biryani.”
She has a simple piece of advice for aspiring chefs: “Know what you want to cook, organise yourself, and plan properly. In other words, plan your schedule in advance.”
She also encourages chefs to buy their ingredients early enough so as not to waste time and energy looking for things. “Then, of course, follow the recipe,” she concludes.
The book is available at Text Book Centre (Kijabe Street, Sarit Centre and Junction branches in Nairobi) and at the Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board offices in the NHIF building in Nairobi. Also on www.Kenyayearbook.co.ke
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