As Deborah Cater once wisely said, “You have to taste a culture to understand it.”
When you picture Kenya, you might imagine a pride of lions traversing the vast plains of the Serengeti, huge hippos bathing in Lake Naivasha, or the incredible migration of wildebeest, antelope and zebra in the Maasai Mara. Kenya is, without a doubt, one of the best places in the world to go on safari. But if you want to experience Kenya’s rich and vibrant culture, you need to eat the food.
From melt-in-the-mouth meats slow-grilled over hot coals to creamy coconut chicken curry, here are 10 must-try dishes to eat on your trip to Kenya.
First up we have ugali – the staple of Kenyan cuisine. Made from white or yellow cornmeal, salt and hot water, this starchy, spongy side dish is served with almost every meal. It’s usually served on a platter in the middle of the table so everyone can take some. The best way to eat it is by tearing off a piece, rolling it into a ball, and hollowing out the middle with your finger to use as a spoon. It’s the perfect way to mop up stews, soups and grilled meat or fish. Plus, food tastes so much better when you eat with your hands.
Irio (pronounced eer-e-o), also known as mukimo, is originally a dish of the Kikuyu people of Central Kenya, and is now a family favourite across Kenya. Made with a nutritious mixture of mashed potatoes, corn, peas, and occasionally spinach, kale or beans, it’s an upgrade on your standard mashed potatoes and is delicious served with stews, or barbequed meat and fish – although you could simply dig into a bowl of it with a spoon.
Githeri is another dish that originated from the Kikuyu people. This comforting one-pot stew is popular in many parts of Africa, but the Kenyan version is made with red beans, potatoes, onion, meat and corn in a rich tomato and beef gravy that is spiced with curry powder, paprika and chilli. It can be served as an appetizer or as a main meal with chapati or rice. It’s a popular lunch in Kenya and you’ll often see and smell it simmering away in a big pot on the street.
Matoke is a type of green cooking banana native to southwest Uganda. This dish is a firm favourite across East Africa, and you’ll find it on the menu at most restaurants in Kenya. Kenyan matoke stew is a rich combination of green bananas, tomatoes, onion, garlic and flavoursome spices which are simmered in a large pot until the bananas soften up and create a thick gravy sauce. It’s served with rice, ugali or chapati and also tastes great with roasted meat.
5. Nyama choma
Nyama choma means ‘grilled meat’ in Swahili, and it’s considered to be the unofficial national dish of Kenya. This dish is as simple as it gets: meat (the traditional meat of choice is goat but beef, chicken and fish are also popular) which is seasoned with salt and slow-cooked over hot coals. The meat is so ridiculously succulent it’ll melt in your mouth. You can dig into nyama choma on its own, but it’s also delicious with rice, chapati and kachumbari – a tangy relish of red onions, tomatoes, coriander, chilli and lime juice. You’ll find nyama choma everywhere from the finest restaurants in Nairobi to local street vendors cooking up a storm. The smell alone will be enough to make you salivate!
Nyama, or Kenyan stewed beef, is one of those dishes that will taste different each time you eat it. Every family and restaurant has their own take on the dish, which is why it’s great to try it several times on your trip. The base ingredients include braised beef, onions, tomatoes and carrots, but it might also have a bunch of other veggies such as potatoes, peas and plantains. It’s then seasoned with spices and left bubbling over the stove until all the flavours merge and the sauce thickens. Enjoy nyama with ukama wiki and a generous helping of chapati to soak up the sauce.
Mutura is one of the most popular Kenyan snacks. A bit similar to Irish black pudding or Spanish morcilla, mutura is made from animal intestines – usually goat, cow or lamb – which is stuffed with a mixture of meat, onions, herbs, spices and animal blood. It’s then rolled into a sausage spiral, boiled and grilled over hot coals to give it a smokey flavour. It’s an acquired taste, but you might like it if you like the salty, fatty taste of meat. It tastes great washed down with an ice-cold beer.
8. Sukama wiki
If you love your greens, you’ll be hooked on sukama wiki. This earthy, fragrant side dish is made from leafy greens or kale, garlic, onions, tomatoes and spices such as turmeric, cayenne pepper and paprika. It’s healthy, packed with flavour and tastes delicious with nyama choma, or mopped up with ugali.
9. Kuku Paka
Kuku paka is the Kenyan take on a chicken curry. It’s popular along the East African coast and is a prime example of Kenya’s culinary influence from India. This creamy bowl of goodness is made with charcoal-roasted chicken which is simmered in a pot of coconut milk, tomato, onion, garlic, ginger and various other spices to give it an aromatic and slightly fiery kick.
To finish off we have mandazi, Kenya’s favourite sweet treat. Mandazi is like a doughnut, except it’s infused with coconut and fragrant cardamom and fried in the shape of a samosa. Eat like a local and have one (or two) for breakfast with a cup of tea or coffee, or grab one on the go as a sugary snack.
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