Nadishi! Kenyan Cuisine

I have yet to meet a plate of Kenyan food that I didn’t like. (Okay, except for the intestines).  Meals are made of fresh, locally grown ingredients from neighborhood markets and corner stands, which make them nourishing to the body and full of flavor, though never spicy.  In my home food is cooked over a charcoal fire in a large pot called a jiko. Chunks of charcoal are sold in small buckets on the side of road throughout Kibera and beyond. At around 8 or 9pm, the family eats dinner together in the living room with Mexican soap operas (dubbed into English) or the news playing on the television. Here are a few dishes we eat on a regular basis:

  • Ugali is the staple of the Kenyan diet and is included with most meals. It is made from maize flour cooked in water until it turns into a thick cake that can be cut into triangles and enjoyed (like grits, but thicker).  Eaten with your hand, Ugali serves as a vehicle to scoop up bits of meat and side dishes. (When Ugali is not served it is often replaced with rice).
  • Sukuma wiki is made from greens similar to kale or collards, and cooked with onions and tomatoes to make a delicious and healthy accompaniment.
  • Other common side dishes include fried cabbage, cooked until soft and given salt and spices. Beans (maharagwe), lentils (dengu), maize, green bananas and potatoes are also used regularly. Finally, porridge (uji) made of millet and maize is a common comfort food.
  • Meat (nyama), roasted or stewed, of beef, chicken and sometimes goat is eaten regularly. Meat can be seen hanging in small shops along the roadside in Kibera. Ugali soaks in the juices and flavors of the stew, making for a messy but delicious experience.
  • Fresh fruits (matunda) are enjoyed after dinner or as a snack, and are perhaps more ripe, juicy and bursting with flavor than fruits I’ve had anywhere else. Mangoes (my favorite!), pineapple, melon, oranges, bananas and plump avocados are the most common fruits sold at stands that line the streets in my neighborhood.
  • Indian-influenced favorites include chapati, an addicting flatbread cooked in lard and served piping hot at local hole-in-the-wall eating spots in Kibera, and samosas, which are fried pastries stuffed with ground beef and onions and often sold by street vendors.

Tea is one of the most delightful things about life in Kenya. Life stops regularly so that people can rest and enjoy a cup of tea. It is served with breakfast, then again mid-morning, at lunch, mid-afternoon, and after dinner. The tea is brewed with milk rather than water and spiked with a delicious masala spice mix made of cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and black pepper – which leaves the slightest bit of warmth in your throat. For breakfast, tea is served with mandazi (a mildly sweet fried bread) or with jam and margarine sandwiches. Other common drinks include Coke and Fanta, as well as an array of juices made from local fruits.

As for restaurants, Nairobi has many to choose from including Indian, Chinese, American, Italian (including pizza shops), and Ethiopian, though the city has remained almost untouched by western chains. Local Java Houses provide patrons with a Starbucks-like experience with free Wi-Fi, delicious local coffee and American fare like burgers and sandwiches.

Kenyan food is truly a delight. If you are able to locate a Kenyan restaurant in your city, I recommend you give it a try!


What does a Mzungu eat?


The first day I arrived at my homestay I was getting acquainted with Israel, the family’s eldest and spunkiest child (age 5). I chatted with him in the living room, asking him to teach me a few words and phrases in Swahili. (In Nairobi, most everyone speaks both English and Swahili as well as the mother tongue of their tribe).  At one point he uttered a sentence in Swahili about me, a Mzungu, and giant cockroaches. Mzungu is the word for a white person, and is a word I hear at least once per day, usually from intrigued children on the street who point or stare or touch my hand or poke fun at me. (Let’s just say I stand out from the crowd, especially in my neighborhood where you rarely see a Mzungu). I was confused, thinking that Israel was insulting me by calling me a giant cockroach! But when I asked him what he said, he became shy and turned away. Shortly after, the family sat down in the living room for dinner and Israel asked his mother in Swahili what I was going to eat for dinner. She responded by explaining that I eat many of the same things that Kenyans eat – rice, meat, vegetables, fruit – and that I would be eating along with the family. Israel looked confused. He turned to his mother and said, “I thought Mzungus ate cockroaches and bugs! Remember on the TV?” It was then that Israel’s mother realized he had seen an episode of Fear Factor where the contestants were forced to eat heaping plates of critters. As a result, Israel thought that all Mzungus ate them as their primary source of food. :)

This may be a funny story, but it has an important cultural lesson: When we are faced with a new and unfamiliar culture, we often make assumptions about what we see at first glance, when in fact the truth is far from what we perceive. It is an important lesson for all of us to remember, and especially for me as I learn a new way of life.

(p.s. In a future post I’ll tell you all about Kenyan cuisine!)