Kenyan Food Primer: 10 Essential Dishes And Drinks

"What are they feeding them?" That's a question you might ask yourself as you watch a Kenyan cross a marathon finish line, followed by a second, a third chasing them, and you guessed it — a fourth Kenyan might just be on the way.

It's a tough question, though, when you realize that most of the Kenyan runners we know well mostly come from one tribe — Kalenjin, of the high-altitude Western Rift Valley, where they're raised on a high-starch diet. But the number of communities in Kenya? Approximately 50. Which is to say, it's a tough cuisine to track. And then there are the Indians who were hired from erstwhile British India to build the Kenya-Uganda Railway, bringing with them Hindu flavors during Kenya's colonial period. It's a mixed cuisine, to say the least.

To get an understanding of true Kenyan dishes, we asked the students at Karen Blixen Hospitality School — a cooking school at Karen Blixen Camp, a safari property in the Mara North Conservancy aimed at training locals in the culinary arts (guests are treated to their finished products, too) — to call out a few known staples, aided by their teacher, chef Rune Eriksen. Here's the lineup:

Ugali (white maize meal)

We know what you're thinking: Maize is indigenous to Mexico, not Africa. But maize gets around — or at least, the British do. "During the colonial period, African farmers would be paid with maize rations," explains Eriksen. Once the British left in the 1960s, local farmers began to cultivate maize on their own. Now, ugali is the most common staple dish in Kenya, especially in the West. And there's little finesse to the recipe: Boil water, add maize flour, stir vigorously. Eventually you get a consistency — a thick porridge — that can be molded into rounds, used to pocket food with your hands as an edible utensil, or dipped into stews.

Sukuma Wiki (collard greens, tomatoes and onions)

"This literally translates to 'stretch the week,'" says Eriksen. Sometimes mistaken for kale, sukuma wiki is a collard green that earned its Swahili name because it's available year round and is perennially cheap. Sautéed with vegetable oil, onions and tomatoes, it's almost always taken with ugali, making it the second-most common staple in the country.

Githeri (red kidney beans, white corn)

Maize wasn't the only payment for farmers — beans were, too. It's no surprise that the ingredients would be served together in one dish. "The traditional way of cooking githeri involves boiling both the corn and beans together in a clay pot over an open fire that is set up on three stones," says Eriksen. For the seasoning? Just salt; no spice. The mixture is sometimes lightly fried with onions. Still, don't forget that salt.

Mahamri (super-awesome pastries)

"'Kenyan cardamom doughnuts' would best describe these heavenly, tasty and super-awesome pastries," says Eriksen. (Eriksen, and not just his students, digs these sugary delights.) You'll find these particularly in coastal towns like Mombasa, Malindi, Kilifi and Lamu, but luckily, other regions can't resist them. Mahamri follows a simple and sweet dough recipe: flour, water, sugar and baking powder, plus dried coconut, coconut milk and sometimes, but not always, cardamom and cinnamon. Cardamom has its own history in Kenya. "The Indians helped build the British Railway, and once it was complete, some settled within the coastal towns," explains Eriksen. As such, locals adopted Indian cuisine and integrated it with their local cuisine — thus, pastries like mahamri.

Nyama Choma (lamb or goat)

"You cannot understand Kenya without trying nyama choma," says Eriksen. We're talking about grilled meats. Nyama choma can be traced back to the Maasai community living around Maasai Mara, the area in which Karen Blixen Camp operates. "Nomadic by nature, and being pastoralists, the Massai's source for protein was mainly from cattle, especially beef, milk and blood," explains Eriksen. These meats are grilled over an open fire but really serve as an excuse to gather and chat. "It can all be summed up as Kenya's social lubricant," says Eriksen, not forgetting to mention that nyama choma goes down well with a Tusker, Kenyan beer.

Mukimo (potatoes, pumpkin leaves, white maize and peas)

In central Kenya, mukimo is often reserved for special ceremonies, and it's always a smash: Whatever the variation of ingredients, things like potatoes, green peas, pumpkin leaves and maize are all mashed together. "Mukimo can be traced back to early communities living around Mt. Kenya, where it was a meal associated with weddings and initiation ceremonies, or special occasions like [the] naming of a child, or when the elders had a meeting in the village," explains Eriksen.

Fried Omena (fish, tomatoes, onions and chili)

Similar to anchovies and sardines, omena is the name given to this specific fish by the Luo tribe, who live by the shores of Lake Victoria in the western part of Kenya. "On moonless nights, the lake will be dotted with boats having tin lamps, which attract the fish to the surface of the water," says Eriksen. The fish are caught, boiled and deep-fried.

Mutura with kachumbari (African sausage)

Initially a delicacy for the central Kukuyu tribe, muturu achieved ubiquity; you'll find it throughout the country at roadside shacks, being grilled and cut into pieces. "The mutura itself is prepared by mostly stuffing the large intestines of a cow or a goat, mixing ingredients like blood, minced meat and spices," says Eriksen. "Then the two ends will be tied firmly and placed over a charcoal grill and grilled until tender."

Pilau rice (rice, onion, tomatoes, garlic and pilau masala)

Along the Swahili Coast, it's not just the ocean breeze you'll catch. "During festive seasons, you won't miss the waft of pilau rice being prepared in every house," says Eriksen. It's a specialty of coastal people who mingled with Hindu settlers. "The rice is usually flavored with spices, then cooked with well-seasoned beef or poultry," says Eriksen. And of course, vegetarian variations are available, too.

Chai ya tangawizi (milk, ginger, sugar and black tea)

"Chai is the most popular beverage in the country," says Eriksen. Chai, obviously influenced by Indian chai, is the Swahili word for tea, and it's taken every morning with family. The Kenyan variation, tangawizi tea, is brewed with ginger. Eriksen's students hasten to add that chai ya tangawizi goes well with those super-awesome mahamri pastries. How could it not?