Everyone has a picture of Kenya. Broad savannas teeming with wildlife. Masai tending their cattle. Ancient landscapes punctuated by thorny acacia. But not many know the food of this great East African nation. From Mombasa on the east coast to Lake Victoria in the west, Kenya has a nourishing and hearty cuisine just waiting to be discovered.
Kenyan Cuisine: A Background
Kenya is a large country bordered by Tanzania in the south, Uganda in the west, and Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan to the north. The Indian Ocean washes up on a long eastern coast.
Geography divides the country into three main regions. There are tropical lowlands along the coast. Fertile highlands and savannas dominate the middle. And the arid mountains, deep gorges and scattered lakes of the Great Rift Valley in the west. This varied landscape is home to an equally diverse population.
Three peoples — Cushites, Nilotics and Bantu — make up Kenya's main ethnic groups. Each of these three groups is comprised of several tribes. Some of the better known are the Kikuyu, the Luo, the Kalenjin, the Luhya and the Masai.
Kenya's Ancient Foodways
For thousands of years, the people of Kenya followed a traditional way of life, and many still do. Pastoral tribes tend herds of cattle and goats and supplement their diet with wild greens, bark and tubers. Fishing tribes, like the Molo, harvest tilapia or Nile perch from Lake Turkana and Lake Victoria or pull fish from the sea. Tribes of farmers, such as the Kikuyu and Luhya, cultivate traditional crops of sorghum, millet, cowpeas (black-eyed peas) and yams.
Merchant Influence in Kenya
Several hundred years ago, merchants arrived from the Arabian peninsula and Persia and made the island of Zanzibar off the Tanzanian coast their main port. From there they controlled the transport of exotic spices from India and the East Indies to the Middle East and Europe. These spices--cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon--worked their way into the local Swahili cuisine. Kenyan coastal cooking is still more intensely flavored with spices than that of the interior.
In the 16th century, Portuguese merchants began to arrive and set up trading posts. They introduced New World and other ingredients such as corn, beans, peppers, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, bananas, tomatoes, pineapple, cassava, cocoyam (taro) and citrus fruits.
Colonialism and Immigrants
After the colonial partition of Africa in 1884-85, the British began to arrive. They quickly confiscated most of the arable land for plantations, driving large numbers of traditional farmers, largely Kikuyu, to the cities. On their estates the British proudly stuck with familiar English cooking and made little attempt to incorporate or assimilate Kenyan cuisine into their own. Likewise, relatively little remains in contemporary Kenyan cuisine to reflect the British colonial experience apart from a fondness for tea.
A larger impact was made, however, by Indian merchants and railway workers from the subcontinent. Samosas, chapati, curries, rice pilau and chutneys remain quite popular with Kenyans today.
Common Kenyan Ingredients and Dishes
The typical Kenyan lives and eats quite simply. Ugali, a starchy gruel, is the foundation of the diet. This thick porridge is usually served with stews. The diner pulls off a piece of ugali with his or her hand, forms an indentation the thumb, and uses it to scoop up the stew.
Sukumu wiki, a dish of greens and tomatoes, is probably the most common accompaniment to ugali. Other popular stews include karanga (a meat and potato stew), githeri (stewed corn and beans) and mbaazi (black-eyed peas simmered in coconut milk). Wild and cultivated greens such as kale, pumpkin, cassava, cocoyam leaves are very common and are often added to simmering stews.
Meat is generally reserved for special occasions. Chicken, meat, and fish are grilled. Dried meat and fish are added so soups and stews. Nyama choma, or fire-roasted beef, is very popular and goes well with ugali and a good Kenyan beer.
Various legumes stand in for meat in many dishes. Cowpeas, kidney beans, groundnuts (similar to peanuts) are stewed or mashed together with starches like as plantains, bananas, cassava, taro, potatoes, yams, or rice. Common fruits are mango, papaya, melons, jackfruit and baobab fruit. On the coast, coconut milk moistens dishes and spices enhance flavors.
A thin porridge called uji is a common Kenyan breakfast and is often taken with a cup of chai spiced tea.
Street snacks are very popular in the larger cities of Nairobi and Mombasa where you can find roadside stands selling mahindi ya kuchoma (roast corn on the cob), samosas or maandazi, a type of donut.
Popular beverages include maziwa lala, a fermented milk similar to buttermilk, chai tea and locally brewed beers. Changaa, an often toxic grain-based homebrew, is illegal but common. It is the bane of the Kenya's shantytowns, often causing blindness or even death.