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Lacing earthy indigenous dishes with the heat and spice of various Asian influences make these Kenyan foods one of Eastern Africa’s most unique and intriguing culinary surprises.
A land renowned for its awe and beauty, naturally the rawness, freshness, and magic of Kenya’s highlands and coasts have helped define this ancient cuisine over thousands of years.
Fused with more recent Asian influence, and you have an African cuisine that brings some truly mouthwatering combinations to the foray, as these 23 must-try Kenyan dishes pay testament to. Let’s dive in, and find out more!
Appetizers/Sides Popular in Kenya
1 – Mahindi Choma (Roast Maize)
Mahindi choma is a popular roadside delicacy in most parts of Kenya. It is a dish of corn on the cob, roasted over an open charcoal fire and served with a rub of chili or lime.
Vendors commonly use corn husks to handle and serve the hot maize. Due to its affordability and accessibility, most Kenyans buy mahindi choma as they walk home from work.
On average, each Kenyan consumes about 98 kilograms of maize annually, meaning Kenyans from all walks of life enjoy maize in whatever form, be it ugali, mahindi choma, or uji (porridge).
2 – Smokie Pasua (Smoked Sausage)
It is hard to imagine that before the 1990s, Kenyans did not know what ‘smokies’ were, considering the massive demand for them today.
Smokies are a type of encased meat, with fillings of meat such as chicken, beef, pork, or a combination of all. A smokie is almost similar in texture and taste to a frankfurter.
Smokie pasua comes about when the smokie is cut into a longitudinal half, then kachumbari (salsa/salad) is smothered in between the meat. Other flavorings of chili sauce, tomato sauce (ketchup), and salt are added.
3 – Mutura (Kenyan Sausage)
Kenyan mutura can be likened to Ireland’s black pudding or Spain’s morcilla, and a trip to Kenya is simply not complete without a taste of the land’s iconic blood sausage.
The dish is a combination of goat or cow meat, fresh blood, and a condiment of spices, all stuffed into clean intestines. These are then grilled over an open flame at medium to high heat.
Mutura is a famous street food, hailed for its inexpensive cost. Typically, 3-4 bite-sized mutura would cost about $0.2. Every mutura joint also sells beef soup which is prepared by boiling water with cow bones, and some of these joints serve mutura with ugali and soup.
In Kenya, a group of people standing over a mutura vendor station dipping the cut slices into salt and eating it with kachumbari is a very common sight.
4 – Samosas (Triangular Pastry)
Indian cuisine has had a significant influence on Kenyan food, as has Middle Eastern and neigboring African cuisines. Hence, a range of dishes, such as the Indian samosa, in time have become popular and beloved foods in Kenyan cuisine.
Samosas are pastries consisting of minced meat (or mashed potatoes), spring onions, coriander, ginger, garlic, and chili. The mixture is placed into triangular dough pockets, resembling dumplings, and fried in oil until golden.
A difficult cooking technique to master, samosas require plenty of practice and patience to craft their iconic triangular shape from the oil. Once prepared, they are enjoyed with lime or any chutney of choice.
5 – Bhajias (Potato Fritters)
Kenyan coastal food is heavily influenced by Indian and Arab cuisine, and in this region, bhajias can be eaten as appetizers, finger foods, or as a main dish.
Kenyan bhajias are a dish of potatoes, cut into spherical slices, dipped into a spiced flour batter. These potato slices are then fried in oil until golden brown.
The dish is best enjoyed with any sauce, tomato, chili, or tamarind (ukwaju). To bring out the golden yellow color that bhajias are famed for, turmeric or yellow food covering is often used during preparation.
6 – Chips Mwitu (Street French Fries)
By the end of this article, it should become very clear that we Kenyans love both our potatoes, and our meat! Chips mwitu, loosely translated as ‘wild French fries,’ are in essence a simple dish of French fries, cooked over an open flame by street vendors.
There is something very magical about eating food prepared by the roadside for Kenyans, in a similar vein to a campfire food experience. Chips mwitu is a very inexpensive dish and is a popular choice for both brunch and lunch.
7 – Kachumbari (Salsa/Salad)
Perhaps the most common side dish for most Kenyan meals, kachumbari is a salsa made of tomatoes, onions, and chili. Avocado may be a huge contender for the kingpin of side dishes, but kachumbari maintains its reign for its versatility, as it can be eaten with practically anything.
Kachumbari is a complimentary meal in most restaurants or roadside vendor stations. It is of Indian origin and packs quite the punch due to the heat of the chili in the dish.
8 – Mandazi (Kenyan Doughnut)
Mandazi is a type of Swahili bun, which can be eaten as a snack, side dish, main dish, and dessert. Hugely popular, traditional Kenyan breakfasts will nearly always consist of tea with either bread or mandazi.
Mandazis are small sweet doughnuts, baked with yeast and fried in oil. They rarely have any frosting or glaze and are made from water, flour, sugar, eggs, yeast, and milk. Where coconut milk is used, they become known as mahamri.
Mains Popular in Kenya
9 – Ugali (Cornmeal Hash)
A beloved Kenyan staple, millions of Kenyans enjoy ugali for dinner, commonly accompanied with stew, such as sukuma wiki (collard greens), or any casserole. Ugali, sukuma wiki, and avocado form the fond acronym ‘USA,’ which Kenyans will commonly use to order this beloved combination.
Ugali is a dish of cornflour mixed with hot water over low to medium heat, which allows it to cook evenly. Essentially a wholesome cornflour cake, Kenyans commonly eat ugali with their bare hands as their ancestors did, forming it into a ball first, then using it to scoop up the stew.
10 – Sukuma Wiki (Collard Greens/Kale)
Sukuma Wiki directly translates to ‘stretch the week’, and this simple and nutritious dish is nearly always eaten with either rice or ugali.
It is made from various green leaves, that are first washed and cut into tiny pieces. These greens are added to a pan with chopped onions and fried in oil before the sukuma wiki is added, with tomatoes being optional. The dish should be sautéed for a minute or two before serving, to help enhance its flavor.
A considerable percentage of ordinary Kenyans eat ugali and sukuma wiki on a daily basis, and the dish is no doubt one of the country’s most important foods.
11 – Nyama Choma (Roast/Barbecued Meat)
Most bars and butcheries in Kenya have a nyama choma joint extension. Nyama choma is best served sizzling hot and is commonly enjoyed with a cold beer or soda.
This popular meal is a dish of grilled meat, often soaked in spices pre-cooking. The meat is then deftly roasted on an open fire grill. When nyama choma is cut into pieces and served on skewers, it is called mshikaki. Nyama choma is mainly enjoyed with kachumbari and ugali.
Nyama choma joints are widely popular on public holidays, weekends, and annual festivals such as Easter and Christmas. So much so, it’s fair to say that when entire regions of the country, including Kenol, Kamakis, and Kikopey are closely associated with nyama choma, there’s no doubt that Kenyans do love their barbecued meat!
12 – Chapati (Flatbread)
A Kenyan Christmas simply isn’t Christmas without this favorite delicacy. Unlike the Indian chapati/roti, chapatis are cooked on a heavy pan, and not directly over the flame.
Chapatis are made from wheat flour, which is kneaded into a dough-like consistency and cut into smaller balls. These balls are then flattened, and cooked on both sides in a pan with sizzling hot oil.
Preparing chapatis properly requires much practice and precision. So much so, the dish is generally cooked for special occasions, such as holiday weekends, festivals, or celebrations.
13 – Githeri – Succotash (Beans and Corn)
Githeri conjures up plenty of childhood memories for so many Kenyans, as it’s traditionally the lunchtime dish served in secondary schools.
While in time this dish was loathed by Kenyans after having to eat it every day, recent trends in fitness and healthier eating have seen this dish’s popularity soar, with plenty of Kenyans coming up with new and exciting ways to enhance the flavor of his highly nutritious dish.
Giltheri is a wholesome dish of beans and corn, that are first boiled until soft, then fried with onions, tomatoes, and various spices, depending on preference.
Due to it being something of a ‘one pot’ meal, it is a very diverse dish and can be served with a range of other mains and sides. For many Kenyans, githeri is also the ultimate comfort food.
14 – Mukimo/Irio (Mashed Potatoes and Peas)
Indigenous to the Kikuyu tribe of central Kenya, mukimo is an ancient dish of mashed potatoes, peas, traditional vegetables, and githeri (succotash). This wholesome dish often accompanies beef stews and vegetable salads.
Irio differs from mukimo only slightly; githeri is a primary ingredient in mukimo, but not in irio. Today, mukimo and irio are commonly served for special occasions, such as weddings.
15 – Pilau/Biryani (Spiced Rice)
Indian of origin, classic Swahili pilau is a Kenyan delicacy, prepared for ceremonies such as weddings and graduation parties. It is a highly celebrated dish, especially in the coastal regions of Mombasa, Diani, and Watamu.
Pilau is prepared by cooking meat with plenty of onion, garlic, ginger, pilau masala, coriander, and rice, over low to medium heat.
The onions have to be well cooked, somewhat charred, to give this dish its iconic golden brown color. It is commonly served with kachumbari or a vegetable salad on the side.
16 – Wali wa Nazi (Coconut Rice)
Wali wa nazi is a favorite dish of the coastal regions of Kenya. Traditionally, rice is prepared in boiling water in Kenya, but Swahili culture brought a beautiful twist to this dish by replacing water with coconut milk, making for a wonderfully fragrant and slightly sweet dish.
Wali wa nazi and pilau are two sides of a coin; while wali wa nazi is only seasoned with salt and a few other spices, such as cumin seeds, pilau is heavily seasoned, giving it much deeper, darker brown color.
17 – Matoke (Plantain Banana Stew)
Matoke is a staple food in Kenya’s neighbor, Uganda, with both countries having an influence on each other’s cuisine. This native Ugandan fruit is very similar to plantain and is the key ingredient in this stew that bears its name.
This wholesome dish of plantain stew requires the matoke used to be peeled carefully, and washed thoroughly, to maximize the flavor.
Boiled and mashed into a thick, wholesome stew, matoke can either be eaten alone or as a side dish with beef stew.
18 – Maharagwe (Red and Yellow Beans)
Red kidney beans are a favorite stew option, known in Kenyan slang as ‘mbosho’ or ‘madondo.’ They are commonly cooked by street vendors who sell them in various quantities.
Maharagwe is a delicious stew of red kidney beans cooked in oil with tomatoes, onions, spices, and potatoes, and served with rice or chapati.
In Kenyan cuisine, yellow beans are considered the healthier option and can be used as an alternative to red kidney beans in other meals such as githeri, mukimo, and irio.
19 – Green Grams
The classic Kenyan debate of whether ‘chapo ndengu’ (flatbread and green grams) or ‘chapo beans’ (flatbread and beans) is better is not going to end any time soon!
Green grams are a much-loved cereal, also eaten with rice. They have to be pre-boiled before cooking, and a good tip is to soak them overnight before boiling them, to help save on time.
20 – Terere/Amaranthus
Terere, or amaranthus, is an indigenous plant, of which its green leaves have been used in cooking for thousands of years.
Due to its bitter taste, terere (or mchicha), as with other traditional vegetables, isn’t for the faint-hearted. Throughout Kenya various tribes and regions cook with this ancient plant in different ways. Some cultures will add cream to it, while others will just fry it with onions and tomatoes.
Other creative ways to prepare terere and other traditional vegetables include preparing it with fermented milk, cooking it with softer greens, such as spinach, or preparing it with less salt. Terere is best enjoyed with ugali and avocado.
21 – Kenyan Stew (Casserole)
Kenyan stew is very much a grand showdown of culinary skills. It’s rare to taste the exact same flavor of stew twice, even if cooked by the same person, due to the sheer number of ingredients involved and the diversity of the recipe.
Kenyan aromatic stews are prepared by cooking onions, tomatoes, beef, chicken, potatoes, arrowroots, cassavas, herbs, spices, cereals, and whatever other condiments are within reach. Coriander is added to garnish, and the stew is best served piping hot with a side of chapati, ugali, or rice.
Desserts and Drinks Popular in Kenya
22 – Chai (Tea)
It is always tea o’clock in Kenya; so much so, tea is the go-to for most Kenyans’ breakfast or after-dinner drink.
Kenyan chai is served with milk, and is a sweet drink. The beverage traces its roots to the Indian subcontinent, but Kenyan chai does not use spice, with ginger in tangawizi tea or masala tea being the only exception.
There are different ways to cook chai in Kenya, but one of the most popular methods involves mixing water and milk in a pot to a ratio of 2:1, then adding tea leaves and leaving the beverage to boil.
Once it boils, sugar is added, and finally, the ‘heaviness’ of the tea is adjusted by the water to tea ratio; if you’d like heavier chai, increase the amount of milk or reduce the water.
23 – Maziwa Mala (Skimmed Milk)
Made using a similar culturing process as yogurt, maziwa mala is essentially fermented milk. It is produced both domestically and at large scale and is often consumed with ugali.
Sometimes sweetened with sugar, maziwa mala is a beloved sweet drink throughout Kenya. It is a great way to wash down a hearty main meal.
Kenyan Food Summary
Few African cuisines by as much color, technique, and flavor to the table as Kenyan food does, and this largely unknown cuisine promises to bring an entirely new level of discovery to any visit you make to Kenya.
Built on an indigenous bedrock of wild, fresh ingredients and ancient cooking methods, Kenyan food brings a plethora of flavors and combinations into the picture with the inclusion of Asian influence and modern-day techniques.
When you visit this vast and beautiful country, make food a key component of your trip. Try local eateries, seek out street vendors, and give in to the vibrant spectrum of flavor that is Kenyan cuisine. You won’t regret it!
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Author: Stella Murugi is a content writer from Nairobi, Kenya, with a deep passion for Kenyan culture, cuisine, and travel.
Images licensed via Shutterstock