Different communities in Kenya have their own native food and drinks for which they are known, stereotypically or otherwise. Let’s journey through different regions of this country and explore the six major cuisines that will always come up in conversation regarding what Kenyans eat.
Nyama choma (roasted meat) has got to be the unofficial Kenyan national dish. In Nairobi, the scenario you’re likely to encounter is roasted goat (or beef) coupled with a cold Tusker preferably swigged straight from the bottle; a side of Kachumbari, sukuma wiki, ugali and copious amounts of salt, with a European League football match playing at either some dingy or fine establishment. Really though, any social gathering is an excuse to start up a grill as nothing has captured the hearts of Kenyans quite like the charred taste of a freshly slaughtered, grass-grazed goat, slowly roasted over an open charcoal fire. When in Kenya, for the authentic Nyama choma experience, the meat has to be well done. In fact, unless you’re in luck, it will probably be so tough that you’ll pretty much feel the fibres of a goat that spent much of its days bleeting and running wildly about the plains of Narok.
I once chatted up a reknown YouTube food guru who for all the bizarre food he’d eaten in Asia, matter-of-factly told me that the strangest thing he’d ever had was actually Mursik. This popular drink among the Kalenjin is pretty much just sour milk. Sounds harmless, right? Cow urine is first poured into a gourd and left for a few days to season and cleanse it- though this step is optional. The insides of this gourd are then smeared with charcoal and ash from specific trees. Traditionally, blood could be added to the milk while it was fresh or after fermentation. The milk is then boiled and allowed to cool, after which it is poured into the gourd and stored into a cool dry place to ferment for at least one week. The gourd is finally shaken to give the milk a smooth consistency. The resulting drink has a sharp taste that’s almost bitter in some cases, and is well served with ugali.
The luo have long been stereotyped to love their fish- particularly Tilapia and Nile Perch (Just don’t ask them to pronounce the word ‘fish’!) This perhaps stems from the fact that fish in Kenya comes mostly from Lake Victoria, along which the tribe resides. In fact, should you ever find yourself in Kisumu, be sure to head to the Lwang’ni chain of shanty hotels along the shores of the lake where you’ll find fish about the size of your arm, and so fresh it’s like it jumped right out of the water into the frying pan. Generally, the Luo way of making fish is deep fried or stewed with Kachumbari, sukuma wiki (or a variety of indigenous vegetables) and ugali. In Nairobi, the go-to place for fish made in the authentic Luo style is Mama Oliech Restaurant which resonates fondly given the reference to Kenyan star footballer of the same name.
The Kikuyu penchant for traditionally just boiling their food without as much as adding spices is legendary. Githeri is a simple meal made of boiled maize and beans, and it’s origin can be traced to Central Kenya. It has since found its way to Meru, Embu and the rest of the country, albeit with different names. This popularity has perhaps been fueled by public Kenyan boarding schools, most of which have it on their menu. You probably ate it out of necessity then and after your time was done, couldn’t stand it anymore. There are however various ways to spice it up and increase its nutritional value by for instance adding peanuts and making it into a stew with the addition of potatoes, carrots etc. It can also be used to make Mukimo, another authentically Kikuyu dish by adding potatoes, bananas,greens and mashing up the mixture.
Another Kenyan stereotype: all Luhya people love chicken. I am told there are more Luhya songs dedicated to the love for eating chicken than to a man’s love for a woman. I am in no position to confirm or deny that. You’ve probably seen those memes for how everyone else in the world eats chicken and how the Luhya do it, leaving nothing but gnashed bones. They have traditional sports like cock fighting and should you head into Vihiga, you’ll see chicken unabashedly stuffed behind bicycles and on top of matatus. Traditionally, there are even specific parts like the gizzard that should only be eaten by certain members of the household. The common way to serve it is stewed with sukuma wiki or indigenous vegetables and ugali. Oh, and preferably after a cup of hot tea!
The closer you get to the Kenyan coast, the more exotic the cuisine becomes due to the influence of merchant traders. Swahili cuisine is therefore largely influenced by India and a bit by the East. Chapati is for instance from India but has become such a staple that it’s like a little sun just radiating it’s goodness to this country. Swahili food is spicy, full of flavour and a testament to the fact that there are more than a thousand ways to cook rice. Pilau, very popular in Kenyan households albeit in varying degrees of semblance to the original swahili dish can be traced to the Middle East. It is made of rice cooked in heavily seasoned broth and to which meat or potatoes may be added. Wali, rice cooked in coconut milk, is another gem from the coast, as well as Biryani in all its variations.