I recently traveled to Kenya with Big Five Tours & Expeditions, a partner who helps me meet the bespoke demands of travelers who love to go way off the beaten path for deeper cultural immersion. On this trip, we were the first to experience the homecoming of the company’s owner, Ashish, to the country of his birth for some very special experiences with him as our host. We got to watch him delight in moments, and experience an insider’s view.
One of the first things we did was visit his boyhood neighborhood and eat delicious street food tradition, recreated at a local restaurant. Here is our culinary adventure that day, in Ashish’s own words.
Ashish just returned from a trip to his first home… Kenya, where he was born. He was in Nairobi with a small group and he took them to a place near his old neighborhood to introduce them to some of the foods familiar from his childhood. They went to the Mint Shack for some street food.
“It just a few blocks from where I was born. The food is called Karogi, Swahili for street food,” said Ashish. “The Parklands is where Swahili street food meets Indian street food. Everything is cooked on open hot rocks and nothing has a written recipe.”
While Nairobi has an active restaurant scene, it does not have a reputation for its street foods as some major cities do, but Kenyans love it.
Many Kenyan dishes have Indian influences, such as samosas and kuku paka, which is coconut chicken curry.
Maize grows abundantly in the rural areas so roasted corn or makai is readily available from food stalls. White maize is roasted and charred on a wire mesh, and served with lime dipped in chili salt. It is wrapped and served in its original green husk so it can be devoured piping hot.
In the morning, look around for mandazi, a sweet, sugar-coated doughnut with a touch of cardamom and sweet coconut milk. Covered in icing sugar, it is wickedly good.
Ugali, cornmeal, is a staple and the most common Kenyan food basic, usually made from cornmeal that is boiled and heated until it becomes a dense block of cornmeal paste. Ugali has the consistency of a grainy dough and very heavy. For many Kenyans, ugali along with a small amount of cooked vegetables or saucy stew is a normal meal.
Sukumawiki, collard greens, is one of the most popular vegetable Kenyan dishes and often eaten with ugali. Collard greens/kale is a nutritious green leafy vegetable often cooked in oil with diced tomatoes and onions, and flavored with a sprinkle of a Kenyan mix called mchuzi. The mix is a combination of everyday spices including garlic powder, paprika, turmeric, coriander, cummin, coriander, salt, fennel as well as vegetable oil and corn flour.
Potato bhajia is a staple Kenyan street food, also known as Maru Bhajiya, battered potato in Swahili. The original Asia bhajia, came to the country through the arriving Indian population that were settling in the country. Sliced potatoes are battered and spiced with cumin seeds and turmeric and then deep fried. It is often served with Kenyan tomato salsa. Favorites such as samosas and kuku paka, a coconut chicken curry, were also introduced into the culinary scene from India.
You can also try brown-and-white-striped crisps called Dumo Kachri, Zebra crisps. No, it doesn’t include zebras. Made from local arrowroot, or dumo, and thinly sliced and fried to reveal its beautifully colored interior. Seasoned simply with salt, these savory delights become super-crispy and take on an incredible nutty flavor.
Mukimo is a mix of potatoes, corn and green vegetables such as cow peas and rose cocoa beans. This dish is served at events, from wedding to funerals. Mukimo is commonly served with meat or chicken stew.
Kenyans are also meat eaters, of course, and common foods include kebabs. Some have vegetables, while others offer spicy meat on skewers. Mutura is a Kenyan sausage made with meat, spices and sometimes blood. It is roasted on an open grill, but vendors vary in how they prepare it. It is often presented along with bone soup, a popular local dish.
This is just a sampling of Kenyans’ favorite dishes. Every country has its own individual personality when it comes to its street foods, but whether it’s a taco stand or a Zebra crisps stall, it’s all worth a try.