Traditional Kenyan food is influenced, in part, by its African landscape. Cuisine on the east coast is infused with Hindu, Indian and Arab flair, due to their presence during the Colonial era. Alternatively, inland, the traditional styles of the indigenous tribal herdsmen have had their own band of influences.
Each area of the country stamps its own take on traditional Kenyan food by using local spices and ingredients as well as incorporating community, ethnic, and cultural inspiration.
Here are 10 traditional Kenyan food staples as well as a few things to drink.
1 Nyama Choma (roasted meat)
No one has ever been more excited than me to learn that nyama choma, which translates to “barbecued meat” in Swahili, is Kenya’s unofficial national dish. I follow a Keto lifestyle which is virtually unheard of in some parts of Kenya, so to find they naturally offer dishes that I can eat was like a gift from heaven.
Nyama choma can be traced back to the nomadic Maasai tribes who were herdsmen.
My favorite place, where I was allowed to devour as much charred flesh as I could handle, was at a festive, open-air restaurant aptly named “Carnivore.” Carnivore specializes in nyama choma and runs the gamut with offerings such as lamb, goat, ostrich, crocodile, pork, ostrich, beef, camel, chicken, duck, sausage, ribs, and buffalo balls are roasted on traditional Maasai swords over a huge charcoal pit.
Waiters will continuously circle the restaurant, enticing you to take more until you tip over the little white flag on your table to indicate you’ve had enough.
2 Ugali (cornmeal)
Cornmeal is undoubtedly the most common staple in Kenya. Similar to polenta, ugali is made by adding maize flour to boiling water and cooking until it transforms from grain into a thick, dense paste with a consistency of grainy dough.
Maize, which is indigenous to Mexico, came to Kenya via the British during the colonial era. In the 1960s, local farmers began to grow it in Kenya, and since then, it’s become an everyday staple.
Ugali served with stew is one of Kenya’s everyday meals; the tasty saucy dish is complemented by the more bland starch.
3 Chapatti (flatbread)
Kenyans eat the flatbread called chapatti with most meals, including breakfast. Similar to the Indian version, it’s made with white flour, salt and oil to form a dough that is wound then rolled flat and fried in a skillet until it’s crispy on the edges but soft and doughy in the middle.
4 Irio (peas and potatoes)
Irio is a tasty side dish of green peas and potatoes that is often served with nyama chroma or stew. The peas and potatoes are boiled, then mashed. Corn is sometimes added to give extra texture.
5 Pilau (seasoned rice)
Influenced by Hindu settlers on the east coast, pilau rice is cooked in chicken stock and seasoned with pungent and flavorful spices like cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. The dish is served with spicy beef or chicken.
6 Kachumbari (tomato & onion salad)
Kachumbari is the equivalent of salsa in other parts of the world. Made with diced tomatoes, chili peppers, onions, and cilantro, it goes well with just about anything, such as a snack alongside chapatti, or served with a meal such as nyama choma as a main course.
Tilapia is the most common fish in Africa. Traditionally it is served grilled or sometimes fried, and served with kachumbari and ugali. It was one of my favorite dishes!
8 Mutura (sausage)
Matura is a hearty Kenyan high-protein sausage, traditionally made by stuffing the intestines of an animal such as a goat or cow with minced meat, spices, and sometimes even blood. The resulting sausage is charcoal-grilled in the usual tasty Kenyan style.
9 Samosas (stuffed fried dough)
The influence of Arab and Indian colonization on Africa’s east coast introduced snacks such as samosas. These small triangular pockets of spiced meat, cheese, or vegetables are placed into a pastry wrapper and deep-fried to a golden brown.
10 Githeri (beans & corn)
A simple, but rich and nutritious side dish, githeri is a casserole of maize and kidney beans. Traditionally, they are boiled and stewed together in a clay pot over an open fire with salt, and often served with a side of avocado.
11 Kenyan Coffee
Unbeknownst to many, coffee originated in Africa – in Ethiopia, Kenya’s northern neighbor. Kenya itself is renowned for producing some of the best coffee in the world, a fact to which I hardily agree.
Kenyan coffee is known for having a rich flavor and pleasant aroma. The beans have a bright taste with a trace of fruit and berries.
About 70% of Kenyan coffee is produced by small farmers. The acidic soil and right amount of sunlight and rainfall provide excellent conditions for growing coffee plants. Coffee produced in Kenya is mild, similar to Columbian coffee with delicious intense flavor. Kenyan coffee is among the most sought-after coffees in the world.
Kenyans love their tea, especially chai masala. Chai is the Swahili word for tea. Influenced by the Indian chai, the lightly fragrant tea is served with milk and sweetened with sugar, but the Kenyan version also adds ginger.
13 Tusker Beer
If you are a beer drinker (and I confess, I am not), you’ll want to try the local brew, Tusker. The brand is owned by East African Breweries, with over 700,000 hectolitres (2,366,980,000 ounces) sold in Kenya per year. It is a 4.2% ABV pale lager that boasts a local heritage, integrating barley sourced from the Maasai Mara, local yeast, and spring water from the Aberdare mountains.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.