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Robin Cafolla

Review: The Living Room, Lilongwe, Malawi.

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Every proper journey needs to have a quest; a symbolic, often pointless endeavour to give context and meaning to the voyage. The last time I went travelling, in 2006, the quest was to eat a kebab in every city I visited. As a result I learnt that kebabs actually get worse the closer to Turkey you get. The nicest I had were in Milan.

My quest this time, inspired by Maria, is to review all of the random eateries I stop in along the way, from the lowliest chip hut to the most refined restaurant.

So, with Malawi appropriately the starting point, here is my review of the food at Lilongwe's expat night time hotspot; The Living Room.

The Living Room

The taxi driver is lost. I've just gotten in at Shoprite and he's clearly never heard of our destination. Only moments earlier we had a conversation along these lines:"

  1. Me: Hi, do you know where the living room is?
  2. Driver: What? Yes.
  3. Me: The Living Room. You know how to get there?
  4. Driver: Yes.
  5. Me: How much?
  6. Driver: 3000.
  7. Me: 3000? It's only around the corner. 1000.
  8. Driver: You know where it is?.
  9. Me: Vaguely. Behind shoprite, but I don't know what street.
  10. Driver: Behind Shoprite? Ok. 1500.
  11. Me: Ok. You definitely know where it is?
  12. Driver: Yes.
  13. I climb into his cab. We turn the corner, around shoprite.
  14. Driver: You know where it is?
  15. Me: You said you knew! I only know it's somewhere in this direction.
  16. Driver: Is it this street?
  17. Me: I don't know! I'll get another taxi.
  18. Driver: No no. We'll find it. What is the name of the place we are going?

10 minutes and 8 streets later he remembers that he does know where the living room is. I give him the 2000, although I instantly regret it. I shouldn't encourage this sort of nonsense

The exterior is well appointed, bricks and flower baskets and a general niceness. The hipster in me is instantly impressed by the converted singer sewing-machine table I plonk myself down at. The Living Room is well regarded as a very western cafe bar and so far so good.

I'm not primarily here to eat it must be said. I had a god awful breakfast quesadilla at Papaya, Lilongwe's only mexican joint, only an hour ago. I'm not even remotely peckish but it's a hot day and it's been a long morning and I need a few coffees and cold drinks to see me through.

The cause of my consternation is my phone. My trusted HTC Desire Z, a constant companion of nearly 3 years, has given up the ghost. Just before I left for Malawi part of the touch screen stopped working. Like a fool I had soldiered on with it because I'd just bought two replacement batteries for it ahead of this trip and didn't want to replace it before the shiny Ubuntu phones get released (hopefully next year).

It's an essential piece of kit. I need it for internet access and to be able to communicate with the outside world. This morning the touch screen completely stopped working and I've realized that it's going to be a hard thing to replace in Malawi.

But I digress.

I begin by ordering a smoothie, but strawberries, it's main constituent, aren't in season. I take this with good grace and try for another strawberry free smoothie. My waiter, a young man whose English I instantly understand isn't very polished looks perplexed and stares long and hard at the menu entry for the coconut smoothie I hopefully point towards. Finally he stammers an apology. I take this to mean smoothies are out. I can't see lights on inside, maybe the powers out and the blender won't work, or perhaps coconuts too are out of season. I go for coffee and an orange juice. I had that yesterday, so I'm optimistic that the season for oranges hasn't just expired.

These kinds of ordering difficulties are fairly common in Africa, or at least in Malawi. Menus seem to reflect the best intentions of their author's, or the random assortment of food the chef was preparing on the day the menu went to print.

The orange juice is from a carton but it's cold, which is what I need. The coffee is ok.

I pass the time looking up mobile phones, somewhat morosely. Phones that cost €180 euro, sim free, at home, cost almost double that here. At 550 Kwacha to the euro the most promising phone I found in my search this morning, the Samsung Galaxy S Advance, is an impressive sounding 189,995 Kwacha. I briefly consider a flight home, or to South Africa, but this seems a little silly.

I feel a little guilty sitting here with the dregs of my coffee, so I request a menu. I order a home made Iced tea. I ask if it's flavoured; just to be sure. He doesn't understand. I point and ask if it's perhaps lemon iced tea? He thinks about this. "Lemon. Yes.". I'm not sure he got me, but I thank him anyway. He comes back to confirm that it is a Long Island Iced tea I want. I point to the non-alcoholic tea I'm after. He smiles in understanding and hurries away. He comes back to ask which flavour of herbal green tea I want. I slowly and in as un-Irish an accent as I can muster tell him I want the home-made iced tea. Again, he smiles in understanding and departs. I wonder what I'm going to get, and if it'll be cooling. If it's alcoholic it would nearly be a relief, after all this back and forth I feel like a drink.

Service in Malawi is always friendly and polite, but rarely efficient or helpful. It's often best to order before you get really hungry. My record wait for food to date was an hour and a half for rice and a stew in Dedza pottery.

The waiter returns and my heart sinks. But it's just to check that I'm ok with the ginger Iced tea. I'm all for it. The tea, when it arrives, is good if not quite fiery enough for me. It's very cool, which is great.

By 12.30 I'm feeling hungry enough to try the Living Room's food offering.

There are 3 food menus to choose from. I go for the one the waiter guides me towards. I've been told this place is good, so I take a risk with an intriguing food combination; Chicken Schnitzel with grated cheese and creamy mushroom sauce. The waiter, thankfully as my patience is nearly exhausted, understands me first time.

There are 3 basic flavours in Malawian cuisine; bland, characterised by the national dish nsima; salty, almost everything is salty; and very salty, salt apparently constituting an entire food group of it's own.

The food is delivered in under 30 minutes, which I am impressed with. It looks ok, not polished but not unappetizing. It is delivered alongside 3 containers of knorr sauces, none of them entice me, but I do feel a vague sense of Irish pride at the brand's appearance.

The schnitzel is heavily smothered in cheese and mushroom sauce and is accompanied by potato wedges and an attempt at a salad. The odd schnitzel combination works. Despite the salt I can't help but agree that a chicken schnitzel is improved with cheese and mushroom sauce.

The wedges verge on the very salty, and I notice they and the edge of the plate they came on are covered in a yellow salt. Hopefully its been mixed with something. Something deliberate I mean.

I don't eat the salad because it's a tomato sliced into quarters, with a few leaves of wilted lettuce and a few slices of onion. The onion, through some process I don't understand, is salty.

Overall the food at the living room is fairly standard, all my assorted delights, plus a bottle of water, to wash down the salt, comes in at 5000 kwacha (about €10).

3/5

Verdict: Food was unimpressive but edible. Atmosphere was relaxed and the setting is nice, particularly for Lilongwe. Suffers from Malawian salt over useage.