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Kenyan Culture, Explored in 10 Dishes

Wondering what Kenyan cuisine has to offer? Here's an introduction to some local dishes that you’re sure to come across on your visit.

Did you know that Kenya has around 43 different ethnic communities? While tribes like the Luo, Maasai, and Kikuyu have their own unique culinary traditions and distinct foods, you’re more likely to encounter these ubiquitous Kenyan foods loved by most locals.

Whether it’s an everyday meal at home or a lavish wedding, these dishes will give you a real taste of Kenyan culture. Read on as I explain the stories behind each one!

1. Ugali

Ugali is undeniably the staple food in many Kenyan households, especially those from the Western part of the country. The dense white cake is made by stirring corn flour in boiling water into a thick consistency. The maize is sometimes substituted with sorghum or millet flour to make brown ugali.

A plate of Kenyan ugali with sukuma wiki (collard greens)

The Ugali itself scores little in terms of flavor, but the magic is in the accompaniment.

On a common day, ugali is served alongside sukuma wiki (collard greens or kale). For a superior experience, throw in a meaty stew such as beef or chicken. Nyama choma, or grilled meat, is also an epic accompaniment for this dish.

Want to sample your ugali like a real Kenyan? Ditch that spoon. And don’t even think of a fork here. Dig in with your bare hands.

I like my ugali rolled into small balls that I then dip into the stew. Some roll out theirs into makeshift spoons then scoop the stew. No matter how you choose to sample your ugali, this meal will leave you with a full belly and an even fuller heart.

2. Nyama Choma

Nothing spells Kenyan cuisine better than these supple cuts of meat grilled over coal fires. The resultant smoky, crunchy exterior gives way to the succulent inner flesh bursting with aroma and flavor. Beef, pork, chicken or goat meat; all you have to do is ask.

You’ll have it served on a wooden platter with a side of kachumbari and a pinch of salt. Sometimes the waiter delivers the entire chunk of meat to your table and slices as you watch, the sizzling off-the-grill juices whetting your appetite.

Nyama Choma (BBQ the Kenyan way)

There are a dozen nyama choma joints around the capital city of Nairobi, from indoor restaurants to outdoor spaces. Of notable repute are Coco Jambo and Jiweke Tavern. Wash your nyama choma down with a Tusker beer to complete your Kenyan experience.

3. Mandazi

If you like donuts, you’ll love mandazi! These puffy “African donuts” are incredibly tasty and are often enjoyed with a cup of tea. What gives this snack its unique twist in flavor is the addition of cardamom to the dough. I also like to flavor mine with coconut milk and cinnamon.

From schools to workplaces, tea time is not complete without mandazi and you’ll find it in upscale restaurants, street food carts, or in homes. Either way, a bite of mandazi will keep you going back for more.

Plate of mandazi, a Kenyan deep-fried snack

4. Githeri

Some decades back, githeri was regarded as food for the poor. This simple stew primarily consists of maize and beans, which were cheap and widely available especially among the Kikuyu in Central Kenya. It was that ‘here we go again’ meal. I remember having githeri for several days in a row, and that was nothing out of the ordinary. 

The boiled maize-and-beans dish has since evolved with time and enhanced cooking skills. The dish I once loved to hate is now a regular on my plate, all spiced up and delicious. 

The githeri recipe can always be altered to accommodate your taste. The boiled mixture is just the basis. You can fry it and add diced potatoes, carrots, vegetables, spices or any combination as you please. Githeri goes particularly well with avocado (Kenyans are extravagant with their love for the good old avocado!) 

5. Pilau

This spicy rice dish is common among the coastal Swahili community, where Indian ocean trade has flourished since medieval times. The coastal Swahili are also widely recognized for their meticulous cooking skills – for them, every meal is a work of art. 

A plate of Swahili pilau with tomato and onion garnish

The rice here is cooked in a spiced meaty broth, taking on a golden hue and an aroma that wafts far and wide. The array of spices used includes ginger, garlic, cardamom, cumin, cloves, cinnamon and so on. 

Pilau remains synonymous with special occasions. In fact, a wedding can be metaphorically referred to as “pilau”: when you get engaged, Kenyans will tell you they’re waiting for pilau, which simply means they’re waiting for the wedding. 

In Nairobi, restaurants like Al Yusra, Manara, or Shangrila Restaurant will give you an authentically Kenyan pilau experience. That said, you can also enjoy a tasty pilau at any kibanda, or small food shack – ask a local for recommendations!

6. Chapati

This flatbread, a close equivalent of the Indian naan, is a delicacy that you cannot go without in Kenya. The dough is rolled out into a circle which is then shallow-fried on a heavy pan. 

Chapati. Photo: Usman Yousaf / Unsplash

For those who grew up in the 80s and 90s, chapati was synonymous with celebrations. So special was this dish that in some homes, Chapati was only cooked during Christmas. These days, however, chapatis are consumed often, even at roadside eateries. 

On most days, Kenyans enjoy their chapatis with madodo (bean stew). You can also have it with meat or vegetable stew, or even a cup of tea. Here’s a famous variation we loved as students: the chapati is rolled up with a fried egg or sausage. We fondly referred to the resultant snack as “rolex”.

7. Mutura

If you have a knack for street food (and a resilient stomach), mutura is a must-have in Kenya. Here you have ground tripe stuffed into cleaned-out goat or cow intestines, then grilled over an open fire.

One running joke in Kenya implies that one of the key ingredients of mutura is darkness. This refers to the curious habit of mutura street carts appearing only at dusk and operating into the night. 

The chefs and their merchandise can be a tad too greasy, but that should not keep you from savoring these succulent sausages, accompanied by some kachumbari (tomato and onion salsa). 

A long-standing tradition of mutura eating is to stand around the vendor’s grill and enjoy your snack. Some restaurants also serve mutura, but nothing rivals what you’ll find on the street. You could say it hits differently! For me, standing by a street vendor and eating these delectable sausages with a toothpick is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. And for as little as 10 shillings.

A nighttime mutura stall in Kenya

8. Samosa

Just like pilau and chapati, the samosa has its roots in Indian culture. It basically consists of a triangular pocket of dough filled with meat or vegetables before being deep-fried to golden brown perfection. If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll love samosas stuffed with lentils or mung beans.

I love my Samosa stuffed with meat and fried mashed potatoes – yum!

9. Roasted Maize

This is the Kenyan version of corn on the cob. You’ll always find this healthy snack on the streets: green maize roasting over a charcoal grill as passers-by wait eagerly for the next ready piece. The ready corn is usually garnished with a salt-and-pepper powder, applied with a slice of lemon. For just a few shillings, you can grab a piece and eat as you go.

Grilled roasted maize. Photo: Dragne Marius / Unsplash

10. Kenyan Tea

This list would not be complete without a mention of Kenyan tea. Harvested straight from Kenya’s fertile highlands, Kenyan tea is a prized export to the West. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience this beverage right at the source.

Kenyans love their tea: It is often said that they take tea as they wait for more tea to get ready. I love my tea brewed dark, with plenty of fresh milk, two teaspoons of sugar, and a pinch of masala (ground spice blend). Or, simply try it as is – Kenyan tea boasts bright, refreshing notes with little astringency. Cheers!

Kenyan tea. Photo: Eric Njoroge / Pixabay

Beyond these icons of Kenyan cuisine, don’t hesitate to try dishes like fried tilapia, kuku paka (chicken in coconut gravy), irio (mashed potatoes with corn and peas), and more. You might just fall in love with Kenyan food and its rich, bold flavors.

Plan Your Trip

Get there: Compare flights to Nairobi
Explore: Go on safari in Kenya
Learn: Lessons from a month of volunteering in rural Kenya

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