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A Kaleidoscope of Food in Kenya by Colette Weil Parrinello, FACES Magazine, March 2016, Cricket Media, Chicago, IL
The food of Kenya is a kaleidoscope reflection
of the cultural diversity, foreign influences,
and different lifestyles of the country’s ethnic
groups. Kenyans eat few processed foods. Each
of the geographic regions has food specialties
based on the locally grown produce, herded
cattle and goats, and lake or coastal fish.
Some of the most fertile land in Africa is
in Kenya. Kenya produces staple crops such as
wheat, corn, potatoes, green vegetables, sweet
potatoes and many varieties of fruit. About 80
percent of Kenyans work at least part-time in
agriculture, livestock, and ‘pastoralism’ activities.
Three-fourths of Kenya’s population live in
rural areas and are poor. The vast majority are
farmers who rely on local markets, or a small
A Kaleidoscope of Food
by Colette Weil Parrinello
plot of land for their limited income and food.
The World Bank classified 41 percent of Kenya’s
population as undernourished.
Maize, bananas, chilies, peppers, sweet
potatoes and cassava were first brought to the
Kenyan coast by the Portuguese in 1498. The
Portuguese also brought oranges, lemons, limes,
and pigs from China and India. In the 1800s,
Europeans introduced potatoes, cucumbers, and
tomatoes, while the Indian workers brought by
the British to build the railroads shared chutneys,
curries, and chapattis (a flat round bread made
from wheat flour).
Cattle herding, introduced in A.D. 1000,
has a long tradition in arid regions. The Maasai,
Rendille, Senguju, and Samburu ethnic groups
A variety of spices are used in Kenyan cooking.
rely on the by-products of milk and blood from
cattle. Goat and sheep meat are eaten more
frequently, while beef may be eaten on special
The coastal areas have a more varied diet
including rice, fish, and curries flavored with
exotic spices from Asian and Middle Eastern
There are two common national dishes, ugali
(oo-GAL-ee) and nyama choma. Ugali is the
traditional main part of a meal. It is filling,
inexpensive, and relatively healthy. Many
Kenyans eat it daily. Many families rely on this
staple. Ugali is a simple mixture of ground
corn and water and is cooked until nearly
all the water has evaporated creating a stiff,
thick porridge. The traditional way to eat ugali
is to pinch off a piece, shape it into a scoop
by pressing in the middle of the piece with a
thumb, and using it as a scoop for meat stews
(chicken, goat, or beef) or dipping it into gravy
or to wrap vegetables.
An alternative to ugali is irio (ay-ree-OH).
The Kikuyu and Gikuyu ethnic groups in the
highlands grow corn, beans, potatoes, and
greens. They cook and mix these ingredients,
then mash them to together. Spices and spinach
might be added. Irio is rolled into balls and
dipped in meat and vegetable stews.
Kenyans love nyama choma, Kiswahili for
“roasted meat.” The roasted or grilled meat is
usually goat and sometimes beef. This is not
like barbequed meat in the United States. When
someone has nyama choma at a restaurant or
Fresh fruits are sold at local markets.
roadside stand, they pick the piece of meat they want and pay by the kilogram. The meat is grilled
without any seasoning except salt and pepper and served in chunks to be eaten with the hands,
perhaps along with ugali and vegetables.
Half of Kenya’s population does not have access to clean water. The government continues to add
wells and water systems, but water scarcity has been dire for decades. Women are responsible for
collecting water from the closest river, lake, well, or standpipe. They haul the water on their head or
back in large plastic containers.
Locally grown tea or chai is the number one Kenyan drink. The tea is brewed with milk and sugar
and served sweet. The most popular juice is known in English as “passion,” or passion fruit juice that
is sold everywhere.
For something sweet, Kenyans will reach for fresh fruits where available and affordable. Smalls farms
and local markets may have papaya, pineapple, bananas, watermelon, mangos, oranges, guavas,
passion fruit, and coconuts. Sugar cane is always a treat for children.
• When a knife and fork is not used, Kenyans require that hands be washed before every meal eaten
with the hands. Restaurants post signs to emphasize this necessity.
• Snacks sold on the street might include cassava chips, roasted corncobs, and at certain times of
the year in the drier areas, roasted termites.
• Sambusas and mkate mayai are common snacks, along with grilled corn, sold by vendors on
street corners. Sambusas are deep-fried pastry triangles stuffed with spiced minced meat. Mkate mayai
is wheat dough spread into a thin pancake filled with minced meat and raw egg, and then folded.
A young Kenyan grills meat.
A woman and her children grind corn for ugali.
4 cups water
3 to 4 cups white cornmeal/maize
• Bring water to a boil in a pot.
• Add the maize meal and stir to prevent lumps.
• Add more maize meal to make a thick
• Keep stirring until the maize meal is well
cooked and pulls away from the sides of
• Let cool a few minutes. Put a plate on top
and turn pot upside down so the ugali drops
out. It should be thick enough to cut with
2 cups of corn
2 cups of red kidney beans
4 potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 cups of spinach
Salt and pepper
• Place potatoes into a pot, cover with water
and boil until soft, about 10 to 15 minutes.
• In a large saucepan, combine corn, beans, and
spinach and cook over low to medium heat
until the vegetables are soft.
• Add potatoes. Season with salt and
pepper and mash the mixture with a fork or