Food in Kenya, as in many other countries in post-colonial Africa, has a complex history. Kenya as a country developed quickly under Western influence from a spread-out, rural area of many tribes into a single large nation with huge cities, over the space of just 40 years or so. Thus, the food also developed quickly, going through a sort of accelerated, multi-cultural melting pot over that period.
While this may mean that Kenyan food doesn’t have the millennia of shared history behind it that say, Ethiopian food has, this doesn’t mean that the deliciousness has been impacted in any way. In a much smaller, much more sedate way, Kenyan food reminds me a little bit of Malaysian food, in the way that both nations freely combine many traditions and cultures to create a result that is fiercely their own.
So, down to business. Here are three areas of Kenyan food that I think are important to know about: the pervasive Kenyan lunch plate, the Indian influence you find everywhere, and BBQ’n a way into my heart: nyama choma.
Come to me, delicious lunch. Stay in my stomach and make a little home.
Throughout Kenya, as far as I can tell, the lunch that everyone eats is what I call the Kenyan plate. Man, is it good. The basic template isn’t that surprising: it’s a starch (either rice, ugali, or chapati), with whatever main you order, plus some vegetable sides. Common entree options are beans, beef stew, fried chicken, lentils (called green grams or ndengu), or matumbo (tripe). My personal favorite is beans.
The whole plate shebang will often be topped with a touch of kachumbari, which is something like salsa: tomatoes, onions, peppers, sometimes avocado, all nicely chopped up and fresh.
Often the Kenyan plate is served from a small house or a small business that’s near where people work, and which caters to the lunch crowd only. There’s two lunch places like this within a block of where I’ve been volunteering. They are pretty awesome, homey affairs: just a few people in the kitchen, maybe a waiter to take your order, and some folding chairs and a table in the sun.
The best part about the Kenyan lunch plate, though, is that it changes every day. Every place I’ve had it, and every time I’ve returned, it’s slightly different. Some days you get cabbage, some days you get sukuma wiki (sauteed kale). Some days you get four vegetable sides, sometimes just one. Sometimes they have beef, sometimes they only have ndengu. And sometimes, no matter what you order, you’ll get something totally new. You can’t control it, you roll with it, and it’s great fun.
Counterclockwise, from top left: Stoney, a type of spicy ginger soda; stewed potatoes and vegetables with tomato; sukuma wiki, which is sauteed cabbage/kale; some delicious cabbage; Beef stew, a common lunch entree; pili pili, which are sliced very hot peppers; and steamed rice.
I really, really like the Kenyan lunch plate. It’s one thing I’m really going to miss when I leave Kenya: having a delicious, home-cooked, mostly vegetarian lunch each day for about $1 U.S. The Google cafeteria is fancy and legitimately great, but for me personally, I’d take the Kenyan plate every time.
One thing that I was surprised to learn when I got to Nairobi is how widespread the Indian influence is, both in Nairobi and across Kenya. For a long time, there’s been a sizeable Indian population in Kenya, and you can see this all over town in Nairobi: there’s a ton of Sikh and Hindu temples, there’s a lot of specialized Indian shopping centers and groceries, and one affluent district of town, Westlands, is mostly composed of Indians. (If you watch carefully, you can even see a scene in “Out of Africa” where there’s a parade through Nairobi after the war is over. In a building in the background, a bunch of folks are holding a banner that says, “The Indian Community Salutes The Victory.”)
What this means for you, dear eater, is that there’s all sorts of Indian influence up in your Kenyan food. Which is awesome. One example is chapati, which has been fully integrated into Kenyan food as the most common side bread with a meal. Which, I have to say, is awesome: I will never say no to delicious fried up savory bread goodness.
Lillian, our samosa lady.
Samosas are another way that you see this Indian influence. Kenya has adopted and re-imagined the samosa as a meat-filled, triangular pastry of hot deliciousness. It’s commonly eaten for breakfast, or as a snack. One of the great little pleasures I’ve had while volunteering in Kenya is having Lillian, from the lunch place down the road, come by my desk each morning at 10 AM to give me a freshly made hot meat samosa. Price: 20 cents.
Time from this photo to utter happiness: 4 seconds.
If you ask most Kenyans what they think about Indian food, though, they won’t know what you’re talking about. They’ll firmly assure you that chapati and samosas are not Indian, but are in fact Kenyan. And they’re right. That’s how the melting pot works.
Of course, no investigation of Kenyan (or East African) cuisine would be complete without a long, leisurely drive down Nyama Choma Lane.
What is nyama choma? In swahili, nyama means meat, and choma means grill. But usually, what is commonly meant by nyama choma is mbezi choma, or grilled goat. That’s because goat is the luxury meat of choice, here: a goat strung up on a tree outside your house literally means Party.
And folks, I have a secret to let you in on: I have discovered that I love goat. I mean, I really, really love goat. To the extent that if you now gave me a plate of expertly prepared cuts of goat, beef, chicken, and pork (thank you!) what I’d reach for first is now goat.
Of course, in the US, we don’t really eat goat. Which is a shame. Because, in fact, goat is ideal in so many ways. As a meat, it’s considerably milder than lamb, and not gamy at all. For those who haven’t had it, the taste of goat resembles something like 80% the taste of lean beef (like loin) and 20% of mild lamb. So it’s like beef with a slight added punch of additional flavor, but not too strong at all. De-licious. Because goat meat is a bit tougher than huge lazy beef slabs, that also means that goat can be cooked in many awesome ways and hold up well: fast grill, slow BBQ, boiled, braised, baked.
The Fixins’. Counterclockwise, from the top: ugali (with some pili pili peppers nearby), sukuma wiki (braised kale/cabbage), kachumbari, pilau rice, chapati.
However, nyama choma is more than just the deliciously smoky-charred-juicy goat. Traditionally, you enjoy the grilled goat with ugali, which is something like maize dough (your starch), and kachumbari (your veg), and a little smidgen of salt to dip it in to taste. The goat is grilled naked, with no additional spicing added, and cut into small bite sized pieces for easy pickup. So, take a pinch of ugali, make a little pancake, use it to grab some meat and kachumbari-salsa, dab it in the salt, and enjoy.
Or just eat the whole damn leg, like me.
See the full album of Kenyan Food adventures, including a shot of Page with a camel-milk moustache. No joke.