A popular way to start the day in Kenya is with a milky sweet cup of tea (chai) and a doughnut (mahamri or mandazi) or chunk of sweet bread. This simple but energising breakfast is one example of the many outside influences on Kenyan cuisine, from the Arabs who traded and settled on the coast, to the colonial Europeans who settled in the interior, and to the Indians who came to work on the railways.
Kenya is the last stop on my African food journey. Its climate and geography varies widely – it has a tropical coast, parts of the north are arid and some inland areas are temperate. Food is often particular to specific regions and ethnic groups.
Kenya’s original inhabitants were hunter gatherers and its first migrants were Cushitic speaking people from the Horn of Africa, around 2000 BC. Another migration came about 500 BC, with the arrival of Nilotic speaking pastoralists from South Sudan. Nilotic groups in Kenya today include the Samburu, Luo, Turkana, Kalenjin and Maasai.
The Luo people, many of whom inhabit the shores of Lake Victoria, are stereotypically known for their love of fish. Obambo is the Luo name for the sun-dried fish (often tilapia or Nile perch) that can be found in many Kenyan markets. In Australia, you’re most likely to find dried freshwater fish in Asian markets.
2 pieces dried tilapia (or similar dried freshwater fish)
1 tbsp oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, grated
1 clove of garlic, crushed
3 tomatoes, grated
1 cup of milk
1 tbsp chopped coriander
salt to taste
Rinse the fish in tepid water (you may need to do this a few times to get rid of any excess ‘dust’ or stubborn scales on the fish).
Place in a large pot, cover with water and bring to the boil.
Turn off the heat, cover and leave the fish to sit in the water for at least an hour.
Heat the oil in a pan on medium-high.
Fry the onion and carrot until brown.
Add the garlic and lightly fry for about a minute.
Add the grated tomatoes and cook until they are ‘saucy’.
Pour in the milk and stir.
Add the chopped coriander.
Bring gently to the boil.
Take the fish from its soaking liquid in the pot and place it on top of the ‘gravy’ in the pan, Reduce the heat and a simmer for 20 minutes.
The Bantu migration from West Africa early in the first millennium also helped shape Kenya, as it did many other African countries. Bantu groups in Kenya today include the Kikuyu, Luhya, Kamba, Kisii, Meru, Kuria, Ambeere, Wadawida-Watuweta, Wapokomo and Mijikenda.
Among the Kikuyu (Kenya’s largest ethnic group), yams, cassava, potatoes and legumes are popular traditional foods.
Njahi banana (turtle beans with banana)
2 cups dry njahi (turtle beans in Australia)
4 green bananas, chopped
2 ripe bananas
salt to taste
2 tbsp butter
Rinse the turtle beans under the tap.
Cover with at least four cups of water and soak overnight.
Drain the beans and place in a large pot with enough salted water to cover.
Bring to the boil.
Turn the heat down and simmer for one hour or until cooked.
Add the green bananas and cook for a further 20 minutes or until the bananas are soft.
Drain the liquid from the pot.
Peel and roughly chop the ripe bananas; add them to the bean and green banana mixture.
Mash all ingredients together – you might need to add some extra liquid.
Add salt and butter to taste.
Serve as a side dish!
Kenya’s second largest ethnic group are the Luhya, who live mainly in Kenya’s west and whose ancestors arrived with the Bantu expansion. A traditional seasonal delicacy among the Luhya is chiswa, or tsiswa. These are winged termites harvested during the rainy season by building mud traps and placing branches outside ant holes. The branches are tapped to mimic the sound of rain and the ants run out to meet their fate!
The integration of Bantu and Arab groups along Africa’s east coast is thought to have contributed to the development of Swahili culture. The Swahili built cities like Mombasa in Kenya into major centres of trade. A colourful cuisine emerged along the way, influenced by the diverse collection of people who visited. Seafood features significantly in Swahili food, as do spices like cloves and cinnamon.
Swahili mutton pilau
750 g mutton pieces, on the bone (substitute lamb or beef if they’re more to your taste)
For boiling with the mutton: salt, 3 thin slices of ginger, 1 clove garlic, 3 black peppercorns, ¼ tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp oil
2 large red onions, chopped
4 cardamom pods, crushed
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ tsp black peppercorns, crushed
2 small cinnamon sticks
2 cloves garlic, chopped and ground to a paste
2 tsp fresh ginger, grated and ground to a paste
2 whole small green chillies
1 x 400 g can chopped tomatoes
4 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
750 g pre-boiled mutton (see ingredients above)
½ tsp salt (or to taste)
2 cups basmati rice, soaked and rinsed
1 l mutton broth retained from boiling
Lightly salt the mutton pieces.
Add the mutton to a large pot with the ginger, garlic, peppercorns and cumin seeds.
Cover with water.
Turn the heat to medium-high and bring to the boil.
Turn down to a simmer and cook slowly for about two hours, or until the meat has softened.
Remove the mutton from the pot and retain the cooking liquid (broth).
Heat the oil on medium in a heavy-based pot.
Fry the onions until they are soft.
Add the cardamom, cumin seeds, peppercorns, cloves and cinnamon sticks.
Stir the spices with the onions until aromatic and lightly browned.
Stir in the ginger, garlic and chillies and fry gently until fragrant.
Pour in the can of chopped tomatoes; reduce the liquid until it has nearly evaporated.
Add the potatoes and pre-boiled mutton.
Season to taste with salt.
Cook the contents of the pot gently for five minutes.
Add the rice and stir to combine.
Pour in the broth and bring to the boil.
Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook for about 20 minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed.
In the late fifteenth century the Portuguese made their first visit to what is today Mombasa (they went on to dominate Africa’s east coast for 200 years). The Portuguese were supplanted by the Omani Arabs in the seventeenth century. By the late nineteenth century, the Germans had taken an interest in the region and contested the Sultan of Zanzibar’s claims over the coast. In 1890, the Germans signed over their coastal holdings in what is now Kenya to the British.
The British claimed the interior in 1895 and began to settle in the fertile central highlands, driving many of the local Kikuyu people into the cities. Some British farmers soon found success in growing tea and coffee. They also introduced the potato, which was easier to grow and prepare than yams and cassava. It has since become a central part of Kikuyu cooking.
Irio is the Kikuyu word for ‘food’ although the term has come to be associated with a particular type of dish where various ingredients are mashed together.
750 g potatoes, peeled and cut into eighths
2 cups frozen peas
1½ cups frozen or tinned corn (you can use fresh, but you will need to pre-boil it before adding)
salt, to taste
pepper, to taste
2 tbsp butter
Place the peas and potatoes in a pot and cover with water.
Cook until the potatoes are soft.
Mash the peas and potatoes together until combined.
Stir in the corn.
Add salt, pepper and butter to taste.
Serve as a side dish.
After the arrival of white Europeans, thousands of Indians were recruited to work on the Kenya Uganda Raliway Line and a number stayed. As in other parts of Africa, the Indian influence on food can be seen in the popularity of dishes like chipati and samosas.
Kenya was declared a British colony in 1920, but disagreements with the colonisers led to the Mau Mau rebellion from 1952–60. One of those detained during this time was Jomo Kenyatta. He went on to become the country’s first president after independence.
Kenya’s economy is still growing (despite recent disputed elections, unrest and drought). Today, modern restaurants are found alongside traditional cuisine and street food. There are restaurants dedicated to Nyama Choma (the Swahili name for charcoal-grilled meat, also popular in Tanzania), many which have their own butchery. Nairobi is also home to a Nyama Choma festival and a restaurant which roasts meat on massai swords and invites guests to lower a white flag to signal they are full!