Kenya: A Rich History & Delicious Cuisine

A Brief History of Kenya

Some of the earliest fossilized hominids have been found in Kenya, dating back millions of years. The country is categorized into 3 main geographical regions; tropical lowlands along the coast, fertile highlands and vast savannahs throughout the middle, and a varied landscape made up of mountains, gorges, and lakes to the west.

Kenya is bordered by the Indian Ocean to the East and surrounded by Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan. There are 3 different cultural groups, Cushites, Nilotics, and Bantu, that populate the country, made up of several different tribes. Some of the more well-known tribes include the Kikuyu, the Luo, the Kalenjin, the Luhya, and the Masai.

Inspired Flavours

A traditional way of life made up of simple occupations, like farming and fishing, is still widely followed today. Many locals tend to cattle and goats while supplementing their diets with local greens, black-eyed peas, millet, and yams.

In the 1600s, Portuguese merchants arrived to trade New World foods such as peppers, bananas, tomatoes, and citrus fruits. Later, Indian merchants brought inspirations to Kenyan cuisine, introducing locals to simple yet delicious meals such as samosas, chutneys, and curries.

In the 1800s, during colonization, the traditional farmers kept a lot of their cultural cuisine, taking little to no influence from British settlers except for a love for tea. However, the country was heavily influenced by the spices brought into the country via extensive trade routes.

Aromatic herbs and spices like cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg were traded on the nearby island of Zanzibar, which became the main port for merchants several hundred years ago.

Common Ingredients That Make Up Kenyan Cooking

Most Kenyans live off of a very simple diet. A starchy porridge called Ugali is a staple at most meals, serving as an accompaniment for many traditional stews. Meals are usually eaten with the hands, so the sticky mash is used as a makeshift spoon to scoop the stew of choice on to.

Typical stews include Sumuku Wiki (greens and tomatoes), Karanga (meat and potatoes), Githeri (corn and beans), and Mbaazi (black-eyed peas in coconut milk). Wild greens like kale or cassava are often added to stews, and meat is generally reserved for special occasions.

Legumes and beans often replace meat for many dishes by kidney beans or cowpeas with starches like plantains or yams. Common fruits are also enjoyed alongside traditional meals like mango, melons, and pineapples.

For breakfast, Kenyans eat a thin porridge called Uji accompanied by a cup of chai spiced tea. You may encounter popular food stands that sell Mahindi Ya Kuchoma (roasted corn on the cob), samosas, or Maandazi (donuts) if you’re visiting Kenya.

For beverages, tea is prevalent. Chai is the most commonly enjoyed type of tea and is considered a national beverage. You may also find Maziwa Lala, a kind of fermented milk, or locally brewed beer.

Traditional Recipes

Ugali

Ugali is typically enjoyed as an accompaniment to stews, traditionally eaten with the hands. To consume Ugali, grab a piece of Ugali with your fingers, and create a small indentation with your thumb. Then, spoon some stew into the indentation to enjoy it.

The process to make 4-6 servings of Ugali is very simple and only requires 3 ingredients:

  • 4 cups water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 cups finely ground white cornmeal

To begin, bring the water and salt to a boil in a large saucepan.

Slowly incorporate the cornmeal into the boiling water, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir regularly, mashing any lumps with a spoon.

Continue to stir until it becomes a sticky mush. Set aside to cool.

Wet your hands with water, form into a ball, and place it into a large dish. Serve with your choice of stewed or curried accompaniment.

Sukuma Wiki

Sukuma wiki is Swahili for “stretch of the week.” It is a flavourful, nutritious stew that can “stretch out” resources for several meals. Typically served with Ugali, Sukuma Wiki is a traditional Kenyan meal that many locals enjoy.

The process makes 4-6 servings and is very simple:

  • 3 tbsp oil or fat
  • 1 onion minced
  • 2 lbs kale or collard greens, destemmed and finely chopped
  • 2 cups chopped tomatoes
  • 1 cup water or stock of your choice
  • Salt and pepper to taste

You can also add chili peppers, lemon juice, or other spices to add flavour.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and sauté the onion until translucent. Add the greens in portions, ensuring they are all wilted before adding other ingredients.

Add the tomatoes, water or stock, and spices. Bring to a boil, then simmer gently for 20 to 30 minutes.

Serve alongside potatoes or Ugali with a little of the broth, and season to taste.

Maandazi

Maandazi are traditional Kenyan donuts that can be served sweet or savoury. Most Kenyans enjoy Maandazi with honey or jam or served alongside curries or stews.

The process makes 18 donuts and is a little more involved than other traditional recipes:

  • 1 cup warm milk
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • ¼ cup fine white sugar
  • 1 medium egg
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 3-½ cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 2 cups vegetable oil for deep frying

Combine milk, ¼ cup vegetable oil, sugar, egg, yeast, and cardamom in a large bowl. Mix in flour slowly until a dough begins to form. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it is no longer sticky.

Cover the dough in a bowl and let it rest for 1 hour.

Knead the dough gently and then divide into 4 portions. Roll 1 portion into a ball, and then divide into 4 more portions. Repeat with the rest of the dough.

Heat oil in a deep saucepan or deep fryer. Fry dough until golden brown and puffed, then drain on paper towels.

Visit Kenya

If you’re interested in visiting Kenya, Immersa Travels has you covered! Not only will you get to experience the local culture firsthand, but you can take in some of the underrated breathtaking sights that Africa has to offer. Take a look at our Kenya tours here!

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