Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Tips for preparing a Kenyan meal - Tues 2/12/2008

Northside Friends in Chicago held a “simple meal” last weekend, serving Kenyan dishes. Other Friends have asked for input on planning a similar event to raise funds and awareness for Kenya.

Here are some thoughts on Kenyan food as it intersects cultural practices. (There is a lot more that could be said about the significance of various foods—for instance, eggs are treasured, because they could be a chicken. So if you receive an egg, you are receiving the hen and all the young it could produce, which is very generous!)

There are about 50 ethnicities in Kenya, and each ethnicity has some distinctive foods. Most Kenyan Friends (Quakers) come from the Luhya group. Due to limited means and the wide availability of the ingredients, many Kenyans of all ethnic groups eat the typical Luhya diet: tea and bread for breakfast, beans & rice for lunch, and ugali & sukuma wiki (greens) most nights of the week.

Most Kenyans think about getting energy and "feeling full" so that you do not "sleep hungry" (it's heavy on carbs), eating meals with a lack of variety that makes most Americans shudder. Kenyans think of getting nutrients over the course of a day or a week, not in each meal--mostly carb, veg, fruit and protein as garnishes--these components may not appear all at one sitting. Many visitors find the diet bland and boring (I confess I used to crave black pepper and mustard when I spent a year eating mostly Kenyan food every day when I was enrolled in a Kenyan government university!).

That said, there is a warmth and sharing and laughter around meals that makes everything taste good! (Writing to you is making me homesick for Kenya!) People in Kenya just do not eat or sleep alone--that is one of the saddest thoughts for them! You would be so lonely! They are used to sharing almost everything and have a very different feeling about privacy than we do in America.

A single woman visitor would be taken to sleep with the young women in the family, or a man to sleep with the young men. Parents often share one “sleeping room” with all the children (or in rural settings, the children sleep with the grandparents, if they stay in the same “shamba” or homestead).

In street restaurants, you would tend to sit with a stranger rather than eat alone--the good restaurants are often so busy that's the only way you'd get a seat! I was often chided in 2006 for reading notes or textbooks while eating in the dining hall (even though we were all studying medicine under great pressure), til I finally gave up. My fellow students said when I eat I must “relax my mind,” or I will not digest the meal well. There is a sort of sense in that advice.

In rural settings or street restaurants, most foods are eaten with the freshly-washed hands (ugali & greens, the ugali molded to scoop up or pinch some greens), but some with a spoon (beans & rice). In urban settings or those where tourists would be found, you would be expected to eat the same foods with Western silverware/cutlery.

Hand-washing is a kind of pre-meal ritual, a very nice thing you could do at your event to make it more authentic.

Your host (usually a woman or girl in the family) brings an empty plastic basin with a bar of soap in it, and a plastic pitcher full of warm water (they always test the temperature so it's not too hot, not too cold), with a towel over the arm. They will pour water over the hands of each guest, first to wet the hands, then saving water while the person rubs their hands to make suds, then pouring slowly while the person continues to rub their hands to rinse. You empty the basin as needed.

In restaurants there is always a tap and sink in the dining room! Or in a "jua kali" (“it means under the hot sun” in Swahili, makeshift or kiosk-style) restaurant without running water, there is always something like a cooler with a basin below just outside the door, so you can turn the water flow on/off and wash your hands before you eat. At Samburu Friends Mission, they taught us about the “local tap.” It was a gallon bottle full of water, hung on a tree branch, with a nail pushed into the side toward the bottom. Remove the nail to get a flow of water, return it to “turn it off”! I thought that was pretty neat!

It's considered very rude to refuse to wash your hands, even if you just did. (Makes sense if you're sharing food and eating with your hands!) Everyone wants to see you wash your hands, and you risk insulting your host--it's the obligation of the host to provide this. It reminds me of the Biblical traditions of Hebrew people washing the feet upon entering a house.

And of course, you always pray before you eat among Friends in Kenya. This is a kind of global prayer of thanks and petition--for life, family, health, and strength.

U Penn has an encyclopedia for East Africa, with a section on Kenyan foods that might be a starting point for you:


[NB: This whole web page sounds like presenting a more elaborate meal (like a feast) than the typical Kenyan meal, which is very simple, often eaten on the fly, with little concern for presentation.]

Frankly the most common food eaten by Kenyans, especially young people living in cities, is "kuku na chips" (fried chicken and french fries). Not very healthy, but true. There is actually rising public health concern about the increasing rates of heart disease and diabetes in urban Kenyans, and diet contributes to this.

You might also try the public library for cookbooks--librarians love research challenges like this, and we often found with home schooling that there were lots of cookbooks that help you explore other cultures.

Tour books about Kenya might have information about the food too. The public library probably has a copy of Lonely Planet for East Africa. (Avoid the Maasai diet--fresh blood and milk from your best cow! ha ha)

Having a "Kenyan tea" might be more appropriate! That would be very simple, with less focus on the food and more on the fellowship. That is how we were always welcomed when we made a church visit or viisited the home of a student. (see notes below for what that would include)

If you want to prepare some lunch or supper type dishes, here are some comments (though the website above sounds great and has recipes).

Kenyan food is fairly bland, the main flavor comes from tomatoes and onions, and the only seasoning is salt (it's a coarse kind, placed in a small dish or bowl, and you take a pinch of it and sprinkle on your food). Actually, I should say they often use something like bouillon for the stews, which I found really nasty because it's full of MSG.

Kenyan Menus

1. Accompaniments for meals of any culture/ethnicity in Kenya:

Complements to special morning tea:

Sweet bananas (any kind would be fine here, they tend to eat the finger bananas, the smaller size)

Roasted ground nuts (peanuts) in the skins (more like Spanish peanuts?). They buy them raw in bulk then roast them mostly dry, with a little water and salt, over low heat, in a skillet for about 10-20 mins. I've never seen them here, but maybe an Indian grocery?

Hard boiled eggs

Steamed sweet potatoes (theirs are more whitish and less yellow, but they are kind of more sweet than "Irish" or Idaho potatoes)

Sandwiches – just two slices of white bread with margarine in between, cut in halves and stacked on a plate.

Tea brewed fairly weak (Patrick used to call it "tinted") with lots of milk (half milk, half water) and lots of sugar!

Coffee or milo (hot cocoa) as alternatives are often provided--but mostly Kenyans avoid coffee and children or old men tend to prefer milo.

Tea is a leisurely social time--you peel your bananas and eggs as you eat and chat, the peanuts are consumed a handful at at time, etc. You always must re-fill your cup at least once or twice!

To eat with lunch or supper (see main dishes below):

  • Kachambari: Kind of like a simple salad, salsa or relish, to be eaten with ugali and greens, beans and rice or other dishes. Finely chopped tomato, green pepper, cucumber, (you can add grated carrot or shredded cabbage), and some chopped cilantro (flat parsley). They usually don’t add any dressing, but you might like it better with oil & vinegar.
  • Chapati: These are more like tortillas (greasier) than Indian chapatis which in Kenya are called "dry chapatis."
  • Fruit Salad: a nice dessert, not eaten by rural Kenyan families, but appearing in all the nicer hotels--chopped pineapple, mango, papaya, banana, with passion fruit. In homes, you might be served whole bananas, slices of papaya, or slices of pineapple after the meal.

2. Luhya foods (eaten daily by most Kenyan Quakers):

Ordinary food:

Ugali: very thick porridge like polenta--you use coarse white corn meal--do you have an international grocery there? It's an African staple food, but you might find a substitute maize meal in the Hispanic section? Boil water in a stock pot, reduce the heat, stir as you pour in the maize meal (until it's about as thick as pancake batter), keep stirring as it thickens, it will become very hard to stir, you can keep it on very low heat and covered for 5-10 mins as it continues steaming. My friend Margaret told me it is done when you smell a popcorn kind of smell (very low heat or you'll get a burning smell!). You tip it out of the pan onto a plate or platter, and keep it covered with the pan, which you remove to serve. Cut wedges as servings with a table knife or scoop some with a spoon.

Green grams (mung beans): These are a kind of lentil, boiled with chopped onions and tomato. You can add curry powder and turmeric to give it more flavor.

Sauteed greens: Called “sukuma wiki” (meaning it will “push you to the end of the week” in Swahili). Use kale or collard greens. Chop and sauté onions and tomato in a frying pan, then add the greens, cover and cook well til the greens reduce. (You can start with a huge pile and get quite a small quantity!)

Special occasions (like weddings or Christmas):

Chicken Stew: whole chicken cooked with tomatoes and onions (see a theme developing?) which develop into a broth.

2. Kikuyu foods:

Githeri: pinto beans cooked, then mixed with whole maize (large white kernels, like hominy)

Irio: mashed potatoes with whole peas and whole hominy in it.

Special occasions:

Roasted goat meat (like Greek gyros, but cut in chunks, not sliced)

3. Luo food:
Fish: roasted in the skin with the head and tail on; eat with your fingers, removing the skin, then pinching bits off the bone. You might consider cooking fish another way, as a representative dish!

Ugali or Rice: See Luhya menu above. Or just make steamed rice.

4. Swahili food:
This food from the coast is probably the most interesting and delicious food of Kenya. But it is mostly eaten by tourists, not ordinary Kenyans. The ingredients are too expensive, and hard to get.

It has more influences from the Arabic world and South Asia (India). Lots of stewed fish with coconut milk broth, more spices and flavors than "upcountry" food.

Recipes for this kind of food are probably easier to find here, but most Kenyan Friends have never tasted them.

That's my 2 or 3 cents' worth. Maybe others who know more than I do will add comments and set me straight where I’m wrong—I would welcome correction!

Mary Kay

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