Given the prevalence of vegetables in Kenyan cuisine, our entire Dinner in Nairobi menu is inherently vegan and gluten free!
The undisputed backbone of Kenyan cuisine and one of the few dishes eaten by almost every tribe in the country, Ugali is to Kenyan food what pasta is to Italian food - a simple, white maize dough that perfectly sops up any stew or sauce. Portuguese traders brought maize from Brazil to East Africa in the 16th century and British colonists undertook large-scale production for export in the 19th century. With the introduction of hammer mills in the 1920s and a mysterious disease that decimated millet and sorghum yields in the late 1800s, maize slowly overshadowed traditional grains. Today it is possibly the single largest cash crop in all of Africa, ingrained into everyday life in Nairobi.
A note on how to eat ugali: pinch off a bit, roll it into a small ball and use your thumb to make a small indent in the middle for scooping up stews.
This is another dish that epitomizes Kenyan cuisine and highlights how complex and convoluted trade routes have shaped modern Kenyan gastronomy. Black-eyed peas are native to West Africa, brought to the Americas with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Traders and colonialists then brought the bean BACK from the Americas to East Africa. Add the fact that peanuts are originally from South America and tomatoes from Mexico and kunde becomes more than a luxurious peanut stew - it’s literally history in a bowl.
Translated to “beans” in Swahili, maharagwe is a staple lunch-time meal in Nairobi, where the hearty beans and coconut milk are perfect to keep you going. There are infinite ways of preparing the beans, but one of the tastiest stews is accentuated with chilies, ginger-garlic paste, and curry powder. At this point you may be thinking that this sounds much more like an Indian curry, and you’d be absolutely correct. Between 1896 and 1901, the British recruited about 32,000 indentured laborers from India to build the Ugandan Railway, otherwise known as the Lunatic Express because of the high fatality rate among the workers. Since then, there has been a sizable and influential diaspora of Indians, primarily Gujaratis, in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.
Matoke and Vegetable Stew
Matoke or the East African Highland Banana is another important staple cereal in Kenya, primarily because of the relative ease with which it grows and its ability to be dried and ground to a flour. Bananas were originally introduced to East Africa around 2,000 years ago from Southeast Asia through a prospering network of Indian Ocean trading between Arabs, Indians, and Chinese merchants. Since real matoke is hard to find in the US, we’ve substituted them with green plantains. This matoke and vegetable stew is a staple of the Abagusii people of Western Kenya and can be found across the city of Nairobi.
Sukuma wiki is perhaps the second most important dish in Kenyan cuisine, after ugali. These sauteed collard greens literally translate to “stretch the week” - in other words this dish is readily available and can be added to any meal to make it go a bit further. For us, it’s just plain delicious, especially spiced up with some cumin, coriander, and turmeric.
This crisp, refreshing tomato, onion, and cucumber salad is the perfect foil for a rich Kenyan meal. Popular all over the East African Great Lakes Region, this ubiquitous salad completes every meal.
A popular condiment found in any roadside food stand is pilipili, which means “pepper” in Swahili. The Portuguese initially brought the malagueta pepper from Brazil to Mozambique from where it spread across East and Southern Africa (peri-peri chicken, anyone?). While we’ve opted to use habaneros as an ode to the famous Rwandan akabanga sauce, the marriage of unripe green mangoes with chilies provides a tangy and spicy accompaniment to all the dishes.
Vimumunya vya Sukari
This dessert is a popular celebratory dish in Kenya, staple of both Ramadan and Christmas festivities. Pumpkins are stewed with both light coconut milk and coconut cream and finished off with a touch of cardamom, a spice originally brought over by Omani merchants and now ingrained in coastal Kenyan diets. This dish is the perfect injection of some warm vibes to the increasingly cold Michigan nights.
The most common drink with Kenyan food is typically a cold, refreshing lager, usually a domestically brewed Tusker or White Cap. That said, wine is becoming more popular and accessible in Kenya and there is actually a small, but growing, source of domestic production. Most wine in Kenya comes from Ethiopia (whose Castel Winery is producing some excellent Rift Valley wines) and South Africa. We couldn’t find Tusker or Ethiopian Wines around town but Everyday Wines in Kerrytown has a fantastic South African selection
Lubanzi Chenin Blanc Swartland, South Africa 2019
In true South African chenin blanc style, this Lubanzi is vibrant and incredibly aromatic, with notes of melon, passion fruit, lemon zest, and green apple. This wine is a perfect complement to the rich beans and stews, it’s acidity stands up to the coconut and peanuts and it’s creamy finish melds these flavors on your palate. It’s sold in a can or bottle for $6 - $15
Nairobi is a city of stark juxtapositions, a city that can be overwhelming at first glance since it is one of the most complex, diverse, and vibrant in the world. Kenya is home to some 50 million people, 75% of which are under 30 years old. It is the second largest economy of Eastern Africa after Ethiopia. There are over 47 distinct tribes in the country who speak over 70 languages. It’s home to Christians, Hindus, and Muslims and, interestingly, the world’s largest Quaker community. Nairobi is a melange, a confluence of peoples and influences so diverse it would shame New York.
Historically, Kenya has been home to three broad ethnic groups: the Cushites from Ethiopia, the Nilotes from Sudan, and the Bantus from central Africa. For millennia, the people of this region ate sorghum, millet, fonio, barley, lentils, and yams, along with beef and dairy if you were pastoralists on the plains. Food was simple, based more on satiation than hedonism. But this isn’t the food you’ll find in Nairobi today. More than any other cuisine we’ve researched so far, Kenyan food seems to have changed the most due to the area’s frequent and tumultuous encounters.
Even before European mercantilism, there was already extensive maritime trading between the Omanis, Gujaratis, and Chinese, to name a few, and all made their way to the Kenyan ports of Mombasa and Malindi. Arabs, Indians, and Persians brought spices, sugar, nuts, limes, lemons, rice, and bananas to Eastern Africa. After Vasco da Gama’s fateful encounter with the King of Malindi in 1499, the Portuguese brought maize, cassava, beans, peanuts, potatoes, tomatoes, peas, sesame and bell peppers from Brazil, staple ingredients that are so entrenched and ingrained in the broader African palate that it’s hard to imagine what food in Kenya was like before. It was because of these encounters that ugali, mukimo, githeri, pulao, biryani, kunde, maharagwe, and matoke all exist today. In a twisted form of poetic justice, the crops cultivated by African slaves in the Americas and then sent via colonial powers to Africa actually made the cuisine more nutritious (via vitamin A, iron, and iodine), reduced infant mortality rate, and led to the increase in population we’re now witnessing.
But all of this pales in comparison to the 100 years of rule by the Imperial British East Africa Company that governed from 1895 to 1964. The British occupation, part of the Scramble for Africa, was perhaps the most cruel, most extractive, and most pernicious of anywhere else in the world. And while the British, not surprisingly, didn’t contribute much by way of cuisine, their method of governance certainly reverberates through Kenyan gastronomy to this day. British settlers introduced cash crop farming, forcing tribes (particularly the Kikuyu) out of their land and into small plots called shambas. To this day, cash crop monoculture promotes a diet that is overall less nutritious than that of their ancestors - for example, ugali was traditionally made with millet or sorghum until the mass production of maize began in the 1920s.
So where does that leave Nairobi, and Kenyan food, today? It’s hard to say since Nairobi can feel like a tale of two cities - one for highly paid professionals and bureaucrats, with restaurant pricing that rivals that of New York or London, and one for everyone else in the city who, on average, makes about $1,700 a year. Fast food chains and a globalized diet are taking over - you’re just as likely to find burgers and fries in Nairobi as in the US. But one thing is for certain. It’s a city whose food is deeply linked not only with the rest of Kenya but the entire world. It’s wholesome and comforting, and no matter who you are, no one is above ugali and sukuma wiki.
Featured Recipe: Kunde
(Black-Eyed Peas and Tomatoes in Peanut Sauce)
Makes 4 main servings or 6 side dish servings
3 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoon ground coriander
2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon chili powder
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
Two 15.5 oz cans of black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
½ cup water
Serrano pepper, sliced for garnish
Warm the oil in a medium saucepan and set over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until they change to a golden color, about 8-10 minutes
Add the coriander and turmeric and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds
Add the tomato and a large pinch of salt and cook until the liquid from the tomato has evaporated and the mixture is dry, about 5-10 minutes
Add the peas, peanut butter, and water, increase the heat to high and bring to a boil
Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the peas have absorbed the flavor, about 10 minutes
Season with additional salt if necessary and serve warm, garnished with serrano peppers
Recipes Inspired By:
An incredible organization we're excited to be partnering with, BOMA is empowering women in Kenya whose lives have been impacted by climate change