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. Anyone who has been on a trip to Morocco or Kenya can attest that couscous and Ugali play similar roles in each cuisine. Ugali usually served on a platter in the middle of the table and 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.
Irio, also known as mukimo, is originally a dish of the Kikuyu people of Central Kenya. Made with a nutritious mix of mashed potatoes, corn, peas and greens, it’s an upgrade on your standard mash. It’s typically served with stews or barbequed meat and fish – although you could simply dig into a bowl 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 spiced with curry powder, paprika and chilli. It can be served as an appetizer or as a main meal with chapati or rice.
Matoke is a rich stew made from 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. Matoke is a firm favourite across East Africa, and you’ll find it on the menu at most restaurants in Kenya.
5. Nyama choma
Meaning ‘grilled meat’ in Swahili, nyama choma is considered to be Kenya’s unofficial national dish. The meat of choice is goat, but beef, chicken and fish are also popular. It’s seasoned with salt and slow-cooked over hot coals until tender, and is usually served with rice, chapati and kachumbari (a tangy relish of red onions, tomatoes, coriander, chilli and lime juice). You’ll find it everywhere from the finest restaurants to local street food stalls. The smell alone will be enough to make your mouth water!
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, so definitely try it a few 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 seasoned with spices and left to bubble on the stove until all the flavours merge and the sauce thickens. Enjoy it with a few chapatis to soak up the sauce.
Mutura is one of the most popular Kenyan snacks. A bit similar to Irish black pudding or Spanish morcilla, it’s made from animal intestines – usually goat, cow or lamb – which are stuffed with meat, onions, herbs, spices and animal blood. It’s then rolled into a sausage spiral 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 a 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, garlic, onions, tomatoes and spices such as turmeric, cayenne pepper and paprika. It’s healthy, packed with flavour and tastes delicious with nyama choma and 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 deep-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.
Hungry for adventure? Check out our Kenya tours.