Kenya: The Good, the Bad and the Ugali
Shanny reports from Kenya on the Tour d’Afrique bicycle expedition
Flickr Photo of ugali http://www.flickr.com/photos/bitterjug/
Kenyan food is basic, no frills cuisine designed to fill you up using inexpensive (but often fresh) ingredients. Think of Kenyan food like racing on a single speed bicycle; it gets the job done, butit won’t win many stage plates.
This is an incredibly diverse country, home to nearly 50 million people representing more than 40 ethnic groups. Dishes vary from region to region and within communities but the historical influence of Arab and Indian traders is a common thread. There are shifts in the use of spice and exotic ingredients but as a general rule you’ll find the spicier, more lively and adventurous flavours on the coast, while central Kenyan food is more on the plain side.
There are at least three main dishes eaten in just about all parts of Kenya: Ugali, Nyama Choma and Sukuma Wiki.Ugali: Easy and inexpensive to grow starches are the cornerstones of many Kenyan meals, and ugali is the staple starch of east Africa. Made from maize flour and water, the recipe for ugali is similar to the recipe for paste I made in second grade. The result is a thick, bland-tasting substance that you roll into a ball with your right hand and then use to scoop up your flavour source — typically vegetables, meats and sauces, but even fresh and fermented milk. Once you’ve mastered the ball rolling technique, the trick is to make a depression in the centre of the little ball with your thumb, and then use this little hole to scoop up bits of meat and veg. This may be easier said than done but at least you don’t have to wash any utensils when it’s over.
Nyama Choma: If Kenya has a ‘national dish’ it’s probably nyama choma; this is bbq’d meat, usually beef, goat or sheep. It’s often served with ugali and sometimes vegetables too.
Sukuma Wiki: A common vegetable stew-like dish made with leafy greens. Cabbage are the most common, but pumpkin, kale, bean, sweet potato or cassava leaves can also be used. The name sukuma wiki roughly translates to “push the week” in Swahili. It’s one of the cheapest meals you can eat. In basic terms, just think of it as a cabbage, onion and tomato stew.
Kachumbali: A fresh condiment similar to pico de gallo or salsa, Kachumbali is a minced vegetable mixture of tomatoes, onions, hot peppers, and sometimes avacado. Often served with nyama choma and ugali.
Irio: Irio is a vegetable dish made by mashing green bananas with beans, maize and often greens or pumpkin leaves. The mixture served with beef or vegetable stew.
Githeri: This heavy, filling mixture of boiled corn and beans is often lightly fried with onion.
Chapatti: Chapatti is an Indian-style wheat flour flatbread made without yeast. Cooked on a griddle to a soft browncolour, they can be eaten ontheir own, with tea, or served at a mealwith meat and vegetables.
Tea/Chai: Chai is Kenyan tea and a dentist’s nightmare. The recipe for this cavity-maker involves boiling milk, black tea leaves and heaps of sugar together with spices like cinnamon, cloves,cardamom, black pepper and nutmeg.
FYI Most of the coffee you’ll come across is instant and a disappointment considering the country is a major producer of high quality coffee.
Sambusas: These are tasty little descendants of the Indian samosa. Squares of deep-fried dough are stuffed withspiced meat and occasionally vegetables. They’re eaten as a snack or appetizer and if you’re lucky, they’ll pack a satisfying crunchy-chewy punch.
Maandazi: It seems no culture is immune to the allure of the donut. Here, semi-sweet dough is deep-fried and best eaten in the morning when the dough is still puffy and appetizing. Usually partnered up with tea or coffee. Unless you enjoy the taste of cold cardboard, try to get them fresh.
Mkate Mayai: Another Kenyan snack delight, the illusive mkate mayai roughly translates from Swahili to“egg-bread.” A thin wheat flour pancake is filled with minced meat and egg then fried on a griddle.
Fruit: If you’re a fruit lover like me, you’re going to be very happy here. Depending on what’s in season, you’ll be able to eat Mangoes the size of your head and feast on avocados, pineapple,bananas, oranges, pawpaws (papayas) and pears until you burst… or become very full of fruit.
Beer/Alcohol: Drinking age is 18 – so congrats! You’re all legal! Kenyan beer is a source of national pride with “Tusker” being the biggest seller. The beer’s name and elephant head label are a tribute to the company’s founder, who was killed by an elephant during a hunting accident in 1923.
Beer etiquette: Never take your bottle out of the bar. Bottles carry deposits and this is considered theft. It’s also illegal to drink out of a bottle on the streets of many cities. As Pederson,one of our Indaba staff says, “people would think you are crazy.”
Illegal home brewing and distilling is still fairly widespread in Kenya. Most of the time it’s harmless, except in the case of “chang’aa.” This is a potent and potentially deadly homemade alcohol that could leave you blind if it doesn’t kill you. Pass on the chang’aa.
Tipping: Tipping is not mandatory but it never hurts to toss a few extra shillings onto the bill, even in a cheap restaurant. Restaurants with a lot of tourist traffic will often add a service charge to the bill, otherwise a ten per cent tip is considered the norm.