The Kenyan culinary tradition has generally emphasised feeding the masses as efficiently as possible, with little room for flair or innovation. Most meals are centred on ugali, a thick, doughlike mass made from maize and/or cassava flour. While traditional fare may be bland but filling, there are some treats to be found. Many memorable eating experiences in Kenya are likely to revolve around dining al fresco in a safari camp, surrounded by the sights and sounds of the African bush.
Kenya has thoroughly Kenyan street food up to fine-dining restaurants that draw on African and wider international influences.
- Restaurants Plenty of fine dining restaurants in Nairobi and, to a lesser extent, along the coast with more limited options in provincial towns elsewhere. Most hotels have a restaurant of some sort.
- Lodges & Tented Camps These stars of Kenya's accommodation scene often have culinary offerings to match.
- Hotels/Hotelis Cheap (usually) roadside restaurants that serve a predominantly local clientele with simple staples.
- Nyama Choma Wildly popular places serving barbuecued meats; you choose the cut and wait for it to be prepared.
Staples & Specialities
Kenyan cuisine has few culinary masterpieces and is mainly survival food, offering the maximum opportunity to fill up at minimum cost. Most meals in Kenya consist largely of heavy starches.
In addition to ugali, Kenyans rely on potatoes, rice, chapati and matoke. The rice-based dishes, biryani and pilau, are clearly derived from Persia – they should be delicately spiced with saffron and star anise, and liberally sprinkled with carrot and raisins. The chapati is identical to its Indian predecessor, while matoke is mashed green plantains that, when well prepared, can taste like buttery, lightly whipped mashed potato. Also look out for irio (or kienyeji), made from mashed greens, potato and boiled corn or beans; mukimo, a kind of hash made from sweet potatoes, corn, beans and plantains; and githeri, a mix of beans and corn.
Flesh & Bone
Kenyans are enthusiastic carnivores and their unofficial national dish, nyama choma (barbecued meat), is a red-blooded, hands-on affair. Most places have their own on-site butchery, and nyama choma is usually purchased by weight, often as a single hunk of meat. Half a kilogram is usually enough for one person (taking into account bone and gristle). It’ll be brought out to you chopped into small bite-sized bits, often with a salad or vegetable mash and greens.
Goat is the most common meat, and can be surprisingly tender, but you’ll see chicken, beef and some game animals (ostrich and crocodile) in upmarket places. Don’t expect nyama choma to melt in the mouth – its chewiness is probably indicative of the long and eventful life of the animal you’re consuming and you’ll need a good half-hour at the end of the meal to work over your gums with a toothpick. We find that copious quantities of Tusker beer also tend to help it go down.
In addition to nyama choma, Kenyans are fond of meat-based stews, which help make their carb-rich diet more palatable. Again, goat, chicken and beef, as well as mutton, are the most common cuts on the menu, though they tend to be pretty tough, despite being cooked for hours on end.
Fruit & Vegetables
Ugali (and most Kenyan dishes for that matter) is usually served with sukuma wiki (braised or stewed spinach). Sukuma wiki in Kiswahili means literally ‘stretch the week’, the implication being that it’s so cheap it allows the householder to stretch the budget until the next weekly pay cheque. Despite its widespread availability, a dish of well-cooked sukuma wiki with tomatoes, stock and capsicum makes a refreshing change from the abundance of meat in other recipes.
Depending on the place and the season, you can buy mangoes, pawpaws, pineapples, passion fruit, guavas, oranges, custard apples, bananas (of many varieties), tree tomatoes and coconuts. Chewing on a piece of sugar cane is also a great way to end a meal.
Breakfast in Kenya is generally a simple affair consisting of chai accompanied by a mandazi (semisweet doughnut). Mandazi are best in the morning when they’re freshly made – they become ever more rubbery and less appetising as the day goes on. Another traditional breakfast dish is uji (a thin, sweet porridge made from bean, millet or other flour); it’s similar to ugali and best served warm, with lashings of milk and brown sugar.
On the coast, Swahili dishes reflect the history of contact with Arabs and other Indian Ocean traders, and incorporate the produce of the region; the results can be excellent. Grilled fish or octopus will be a highlight of any menu, while coconut and spices such as cloves and cinnamon feature prominently.
The large South Asian presence in East Africa means that Indian food commonly appears on menus throughout Kenya. Most restaurants serve curries and Indian-inspired dishes, such as masala chips (ie chips with a curry sauce), while authentic Indian restaurants in Nairobi and along the coast and elsewhere serve traditional dishes from the subcontinent.
The Art of Eating Ugali
A meal wouldn’t be a meal in Kenya without ugali. Ugali is made from boiled grains cooked into a thick porridge until it sets hard, then served up in flat (and rather dense) slabs. It’s incredibly stodgy and tends to sit in the stomach like a brick, but most Kenyans swear by it – it will fill you up after a long day’s safari, but it won’t set your taste buds a-tingle.
In general, good ugali should be neither too dry nor too sticky, which makes it easy to enjoy as a finger food. Take some with the right hand from the communal pot (your left hand is used for wiping – and we don’t mean your mouth!), roll it into a small ball with the fingers, making an indentation with your thumb, and dip it into the accompanying sauce. Eating with your hand is a bit of an art, but after a few tries it starts to feel natural. Don’t soak the ugali too long (to avoid it breaking up in the sauce), and keep your hand lower than your elbow (except when actually eating) so the sauce doesn’t drip down your forearm.
We Dare You
If you’re lucky (!) and game (more to the point), you may be able to try various cattle-derived products beloved of the pastoral tribes of Kenya. Samburu, Pokot and Maasai warriors have a taste for cattle blood. The blood is taken straight from the jugular, which does no permanent damage to the cattle, but it’s certainly an acquired taste. Mursik is made from milk fermented with ash, and is served in smoked gourds. It tastes and smells pungent, but it contains compounds that reduce cholesterol, enabling the Maasai to live quite healthily on a diet of red meat, milk and blood. You may be able to sample it at villages or homestays in the Masai Mara National Reserve or near Amboseli National Park.
Where to Eat & Drink
‘Hotels’ & Restaurants
The most basic local eateries are usually known as ‘hotels’ or hotelis, and they often open only during the daytime. You may find yourself having dinner at 5pm if you rely on eating at these places. However, even in smaller towns it’s usually possible to find a restaurant that offers a more varied menu at a higher price. Often these places are affiliated with the town’s midrange and top-end hotels, and are usually open in the evening.
You’ll find that many of the big nightclubs also serve food until late into the night.
Menus, where they exist in the cheaper places, are usually just a chalked list on a board. In more upmarket restaurants, they’re usually written only in English.
Eating fast food has taken off in a big way and virtually every town has a place serving greasy-but-cheap chips, burgers, sausages, pizzas and fried chicken. Lashings of tomato and chilli sauce are present to help lubricate things. A number of South African fast-food chains have taken hold in Nairobi, such as the ubiquitous Steers.
On the streets in Kenya, you may encounter roasted corn cobs and deep-fried yams, which are eaten hot with a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkling of chilli powder. Sambusas, deep-fried pastry triangles stuffed with spiced mincemeat, are good for snacking on the run, and are obvious descendants of the Indian samosa.
Something you don’t come across often, but which is an excellent snack, is mkate mayai (literally ‘bread eggs’), a wheat dough pancake, filled with minced meat and egg and fried on a hotplate.
On the coast street food is more common and you will find cassava chips, chapatis and mishikaki (marinated grilled meat kebabs, usually beef).
Vegetarians & Vegans
Vegetarian visitors are likely to struggle, as meat features in most meals and many vegetable dishes are cooked in meat stock. But, with a bit of scouting around, you should be able to find something. You may find yourself eating a lot of sukuma wiki (braised or stewed spinach served with tomatoes, stock and capsicum), while other traditional dishes such as githeri (a bean-and-corn mix) are hearty, if not particularly inspiring, options. Beans and avocado will also figure prominently in any vegetarian’s culinary encounters in Kenya. Many Indian restaurants will provide a vegetarian thali (an all-you-can-eat meal, usually with lentils) that should fill you up. Buying fresh fruit and vegetables in local markets can help relieve the tedium of trying to order around the meat on restaurant menus.
Note that most tour operators are willing to cater to special dietary requests, such as vegetarian, vegan, kosher or halal, with advance notice.
Dos & Don’ts
For Kenyans, a shared meal and eating out of a communal dish are expressions of solidarity between hosts and guests: here are a few tips to help you get into the spirit of things.
- If you’re invited to eat and aren’t hungry, it’s OK to say that you’ve just eaten, but try to share a few bites of the meal in recognition of the bond with your hosts.
- If eating in someone's home or manyatta (Maasai village), leave a small amount on your plate to show your hosts that you’ve been satisfied.
- Don’t take the last bit of food from the communal bowl – your hosts may worry that they haven’t provided enough.
- Never, ever handle food with the left hand!
- If others are eating with their hand, do the same, even if cutlery is provided.
- Defer to your hosts for customs that you aren’t sure about.