Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Kenyan Cuisine

Culture Tuesday is a new weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores the cuisines of different cultures across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Before you start exploring vegan Kenyan cuisine with her today, you might want to click here to read her column about Indian cuisine, here to read her column about Ghanaian cuisine, and here to read her column about Jamaican cuisine.

Culture Tuesday – Kenyan Cuisine

The cuisine of Kenya is a delicious combination of general East African cooking styles with Indian, Portuguese, Arab, and Native American influences as well as more unique Kenyan flavours. Therefore, unique dishes, as well as those similar or identical to that of other cuisines exist as part of the Kenyan cuisine. 

Despite the cuisine not being predominantly vegan/vegetarian, a lot of dishes are traditionally vegan or can easily be made suitable for vegans with or without substitutions. Kenya has a plethora of fresh beans, starches, grains, spices, and vegetables which make every dish a wonderful and nutritious taste experience.

An Exploration of Kenyan Cuisine: Cabbage stew with ugali.
Cabbage stew with ugali. Image credit: @kenyankitchenabroad. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Staple Starches

The main starches consumed in Kenya are corn and rice. Corn is used to make sauces, soups, stews, and a fufu-like dish known as ‘Ugali.’ On the other hand, rice is either cooked plain and served as an accompaniment to sauces, sauteed vegetables and stews, or cooked with a range of herbs, spices, nuts, dried fruits and/or vegetables to make fragrant dishes such as pilau and wali wa kukaanga.

Ugali is a white mound/stiff porridge made from cornmeal. It is often eaten by hand as an accompaniment for, and vessel to carry sauces and stews from a dish to one’s mouth. It is made by combining cornmeal with salted boiling water then repeatedly stirring the mixture as it cooks until a very thick, somewhat mouldable porridge is formed. This is then shaped in a bowl or using a large spoon before being served. As the ugali cools it becomes stiffer and more usable for dipping in or scooping, soups and stews.

Another starch commonly eaten is wheat. This is used to make breads and flatbreads such as chapati which are used to make breakfast meals or to accompany saucy/soupy dishes.

An Exploration of Kenyan Cuisine: Green grams, ndengu or mungu beans in coconut milk and chapati.
Green grams, ndengu or mungu beans in coconut milk and chapati. Image credit: @kenyankitchenabroad. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Greens, Beans, Potatoes, Tomatoes….

Vegetables, legumes, tomatoes, and potatoes are common ingredients in Kenyan cuisine, especially when it comes to dishes served at lunch and dinnertime. These ingredients are often seen in Kenya’s soups, sauces and these dishes are usually served with a starch of choice – rice, chapati, or ugali for a more filling meal.

Ndengu, also known as ‘green grams,’ is a curry-like sauce made from mung beans. The beans are cooked with tomatoes, garlic and onions then seasoned with spices such as turmeric, coriander, cardamom, dried chilies, garam masala, and curry powder and finished off with coconut milk to make a creamy delectable sauce.

An Exploration of Kenyan Cuisine: Githeri
Githeri. Image credit: @kenyankitchenabroad. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Githeri is a dish similar to the Narragansett tribe (Native American) dish known as, ‘succotash.’ It is made by cooking beans (often kidney beans) and corn together in boiling water then simmering them in a curry consisting of tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, turmeric, curry powder, and coriander. Sometimes, vegetables, such as cabbage, as well as, potatoes, are cooked as part of the githeri to make a more filling and nutritional dish. Githeri is one of the most popularly served school lunches in Kenya.

Sukuma wiki is a sauteed, or stir-fried, sauce made predominantly of collard greens (which are often substituted with kale by members of the Kenyan diaspora when collard greens are unavailable). The collard greens are sauteed in oil with onions, tomatoes, and spices. It is often served with a side of ugali.

An Exploration of Kenyan Cuisine: Sukuma Wiki
Sukuma Wiki. Image credit: @andrew_nsubuga. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Matoke is the name given to any sauce or pottage made from green highland banana (sometimes substituted with unripe plantains) as the matoke literally means green bananas. Some cooks simply make it simply by cooking the bananas with tomatoes, onions, oil, and spices while others experiment or elevate the taste experience with the addition of other ingredients such as coconut milk and peanut butter which also offer a somewhat thicker and creamier consistency to the dish. Matoke is either served on its own as a meal or with a side of chapati.

An Exploration of Kenyan Cuisine: Matoke
Matoke. Image credit: @kaluhiskitchen. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Maharagwe is a stew made with red beans. The beans are cooked in boiling coconut milk with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and warm spices such as cardamom, chili powder, cinnamon, and curry powder. It is usually served with a side of ugali. However, it is also often served with chapati in place of the ugali.

Irio, although the word simply means, ‘food,’ is a mashed potato side dish. Unlike Western, or more European, mashed potatoes, it is made by boiling and mashing the potatoes with vegetables and grains – most commonly, peas and corn.

An Exploration of Kenyan Cuisine: Irio
Irio. Image credit: @blueprintafric_food. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Vitafunio – Snacks

Snacks are common in Kenya, especially as part of its street food. These snacks range from relatively healthy boiled or roasted foods with/or fresh salads to deep-fried ones which, sometimes, are filled with vegetables.

Roasted or boiled corn (mahindi choma) is perhaps the most popular snack available in Kenya. It is often eaten with just a seasoning of salt. However, it is possible to find the roasted version also flavoured with pepper and lemon. Roasted sweet potatoes are also commonly found more so in more present times.

Samosas are an Indian snack adopted by Kenya. They are triangular pastry parcels filled with a mixture of sauteed vegetables (and/or meat-substitutes for a veganized version of non-vegan samosas) and deep-fried till golden brown.

Mandazi
Mandazi. Image credit: @asili.kitchen. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Mandazi is one of the most commonly found and homemade snacks in Kenya. It is a fried yeasted dough similar to the Ghanaian bofrot and Nigerian puff puff. However, the consistency of the dough is soft but firmer than that of bofrot and puff puff, and the dough is made using coconut milk in place of water and is flavoured using ground cardamom powder.

Kachumbari is a delicious fresh tomato and onion salad that is served with some street foods and snacks, either as a topping, filling, or side to the dish.

Viazi Karai
Viazi Karai. Image credit: @swahiliafrodelicious. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Viazi Karai is a common street food made by boiling potatoes then coating them with a batter made from flour, spices, salt, and water before deep-frying them. They are often garnished with fresh coriander leaves or served ungarnished.

Ugali Fries are a treat or breakfast food that can be used to repurpose leftover ugali. The ugali is cut into stick shapes and coated with spices of choice before being deep-fried till golden brown and a crispy exterior is formed.

Recipe – Ndengu

This ndengu recipe by Kaluhi (@kaluhiskitchen on Instagram) is a delicious combination of mung beans with fresh ingredients and seasonings. It should be noted that in place of the “1 tablespoon of royco” in the recipe, any vegan-friendly bouillon powder or stock cube will suffice.

Garlic Cumin Ndengu by @kaluhiskitchen

Garlic and Cumin Ndengu
Garlic and Cumin Ndengu. Image credit: @kaluhiskitchen. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Click here to see the full recipe.

Author: Samantha Onyemenam.

If this article on vegan Kenyan cuisine inspired you to learn more, you might also like:

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