Kenyan Cuisine

By Chef Nancy Berkoff, EdD, RD

Ugali, nyama choma, githeri, samosas, chapati, and sukuma wiki are some of the melodious sounding names for popular Kenyan dishes.

Kenya, located in eastern Aftrica, borders five other African countries as well as the Indian Ocean. Much of Kenya’s cuisine was influenced by Britain and East India. The British imported tea, cereals, coffee, some fruit and vegetable crops, and cattle to Kenya, and hired East Indians to oversee their properties. You can see these influences in chai (flavored black tea), samosas (crunchy pastries), rice pilaf, and the uses of seasonings such as cumin and dried peppers.

There are not a lot of commercial Kenyan cookbooks, but there is a proud oral tradition of cooking in Kenya. The Kikuyu, Abaluha, and the Luo tribes have often been recognized as having a fine cooking tradition, and the men of the tribes do more of the cooking than the women. The Kikuyu make irio (greens, beans, and corn), stewed and puréed beans, roasted maize (corn), and potatoes.

Ugali, from maize flour, has become an internationally recognized dish. For breakfast, Kenyans eat a thinned version of ugali, called uji. Light Ugali is made with cornmeal, and dark Ugali is made with millet. Either may be served with m’baazi (cooked and mashed peapods); black-eyed peas, bananas, and yams; or a stew of beans and corn. Groundnuts, similar to peanuts, are used for soups and stews in some regions, and are a good source of protein.

Kenyans enjoy manioc, sweet potatoes, bananas, and plantains, along with rice, sorghum, millet, corn, and wheat. Pombe, a flavorful beer, is brewed at Tusker, the national brewery. Snacks include fruit and sugarcane. Dessert, when served at all, is usually very simple, like fresh papaya or pineapple, served with maziwa ya kuganda (soured skim milk). Ndizi is a wonderful dessert of bananas cooked in their own leaves.

In order to conserve fuel, as well as to soften texture and extract flavor, many dishes are stewed or braised. Githeri, a starchy and filling stew of maize and beans, can be the basis of a main dish if seasonal vegetables are added.

And practically every meal seems to be served with sukuma wiki. Sukuma wiki is collard greens, a member of the kale family. Its name translates from Swahili as “stretch the week.” Ugali and sukuma wiki served together can make a meal. Chapati, wheat-based flat bread, can be served alone, as a “scooper” at meals, or topped with fried potatoes or other vegetables.

The remainder of this article is an interview with James Mbugua, a culinary student extraordinaire and winner of many culinary and food service scholarships, including the James Beard and International Association of Culinary Professionals award. Only two years after his arrival from Kenya, James graduated valedictorian from Los Angeles Trade Technical College. He is currently attending California State Poly-technic University, Pomona, where he was recently elected to represent the hotel and restaurant department student body at the National Restaurant Association. I first learned of James’s extraordinary management and culinary skills when he coordinated a gourmet vegetarian dinner for 500 people at Chasen’s in Beverly Hills. You can read all about the dinner in Vegetarian Journal’s Foodservice Update Volume VII, Number 3 (“Upscale Vegan for 500—No Big Deal!”). James was kind enough to take time out of his demanding schedule of full-time student, school food service director, and loving husband and father, to answer some questions on Kenyan cuisine.

According to James, “Kenya, with a geographical area twice the size of the state of Nevada and a population of about 30 million, is divided into seven provinces and one area: Central, Coast, Eastern, Nairobi Area, North Eastern, Nyanza, Rift Valley, and Western. Climates range from arid to tropical. Each place has its own unique culture and cuisine. Ethnic divisions account for many of Kenya’s current problems. During the 1990’s, tribal clashes left many dead or homeless.”

What is a typical meal plan for an average Kenyan family?

JM: Breakfast is sour or aged porridge made from millet or chai, an Indian-influenced tea brewed from black tea leaves and mixed with milk, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, and nutmeg. Lunch can be ugali and sukuma wiki (collard greens). Dinner is usually a vegetable stew and mashed potatoes with corn and peas. Desserts are not common. Meals are generally served in several courses. Many people practice vegetarianism by default, as they cannot afford meat.

Does the cuisine differ in the city and the country?

JM: Yes! Very much so. In the city there are influences from many cultures, especially Indian and Arabic. There is a tiny bit of Western influence in home cooking, but not much. There are more ingredients available in the city.

In the country, most people stick to traditional foods and are hesitant to try foods from other tribes or cultures. A few dishes have crossed tribal lines, such as ugali and sukuma wiki. These have become “national” dishes.

What are some of the regional cuisines?

JM: Central Kenya has very plain foods, with little or no spice. The diet is centered around maize. Githeri is a maize and bean stew, cooked dry. It can be eaten dry or moistened with a stew of carrots, potatoes, and tomatoes.

The Coast area has more exotic and adventurous cuisine, with strong Asian and Arabic influences. The food is spicier and cooking is respected as an art. Men tend to do more cooking in this area than other areas. Spicy rice pilaf is made with ginger and cumin and is a main attraction at weddings across the country; going to “eat pilau” is the same as saying you are going to a wedding. Sometimes the pilau is served plain, sometimes with meat, and sometimes vegetarian, with tomatoes, peas, and potatoes.

Are there any areas known for their non-meat dishes?

JM: The provinces that are landlocked, such as the Central and Eastern provinces, tend to eat more vegetarian because they are further away from fishing areas and meat is unaffordable. A few tribes are better known for eating a particular vegetable. For example, Luos are known for eating collard greens and are credited with introducing the greens to the rest of the country.

Is there typical “street food” for snacking and such?

JM: In the villages it is almost impossible to find anything more than “chips” (greasy French fries). In the cities you will find Western-influenced fast food places. You can purchase roasted maize (corn on the cob barbecued over charcoal, no butter or sauce) dressed with chili powder and lemon juice. Samosas (crunchy pastries filled with spicy beef or vegetables) and mandazis (deep fried doughnuts) are both popular for breaks and are usually served with chai.

Is there an organized school lunch program?

JM: No. In the 1960’s and ’70’s there was a program for elementary school children funded by city governments. This became too costly and was closed. In the 1980’s the president started a “school milk for all elementary school children” program. Children got about eight ounces of milk a day, at no cost to the parents. The program has struggled to stay afloat.

What is the basis for most diets?

JM: Maize (or corn) eaten on the cob, cut, or made into meal, is the most common ingredient, followed by potatoes. The Coast region grows some rice.

Ugali is a maize meal mash served at most meals and, of course, githeri. Mukimo is mashed potatoes with corn, dried beans, and plantain. Muthokoi is githeri made with hominy.

What are the most used fruits and vegetables, depending on the season?

JM: Collard greens are very popular, as they are cheaper than most other greens; spinach and cabbage are also very common greens. Tomatoes, peas, string beans, and carrots are used to flavor stews.

Seasonal tropical fruits range from different types of mangoes to pineapples, papaya, guava, and oranges. Fruit juice is made from oranges, pineapples, and passion fruit. There is a papaya wine that is doing pretty well on the market, considering that wine is not part of the culture.

We would like to thank James again for all the wonderful information. We wish him well in his studies and food service career.


(Serves 4-5)

Irio originated in central Kenya and is now popular in many areas. Vegetables vary according to season and area. You can add any type of greens you like, such as kale, mustard, or beet greens. Irio is better made with fresh greens, but if you need to use frozen, be sure to thaw them and squeeze all the water out. Irio is also usually made with fresh corn, but frozen, thawed corn can be used.

  • 2 cups fresh corn, cut from the cob (about 4 ears), or thawed frozen corn
  • 1 cup cooked black or kidney beans (about ⅓ cup uncooked beans)
  • 1 pound boiling potatoes, washed, peeled and diced
    (red rose or white new potatoes work well)
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 pounds chopped fresh spinach (or thawed, frozen chopped spinach or other greens)
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper

If using fresh corn, steam for 3 minutes or microwave on high for 1 minute to cook lightly. In a medium pot, combine corn, beans, potatoes, and ½ cup water. Cook, covered, on medium heat until potatoes are soft (10 minutes). Add spinach and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and mash slightly, until beans and potatoes are in very small pieces. Return to heat. Cook for 3 more minutes to warm mixture, and serve. Add pepper to taste.

Total calories per serving: 250 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 53 grams Protein: 16 grams
Sodium: 192 milligrams Fiber: 8 gram

Sukuma Wiki (Collard Greens)

(Serves 4-5)

Sukuma Wiki translates roughly as “stretch the week” in Kiswahili. It can be served with chopped steamed potatoes or rice.

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • ½ cup chopped onions
  • ¾ cup chopped tomatoes or drained, chopped canned tomatoes
  • ¼ cup chopped green bell pepper
  • 2 pounds washed and chopped collards or kale, spinach, or other greens
  • 1 pound washed and chopped green cabbage

Spray large frying pan with oil and allow to heat. Add onions, tomatoes, and pepper and allow to cook until lightly browned, 4 minutes. Add greens and cabbage and sauté over high heat for 1 minute, constantly turning. Reduce heat, cover and cook over low heat for 20 minutes or until greens are very soft and mixture is well combined.

Total calories per serving: 100 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 18 grams Protein: 8 grams
Sodium: 210 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams


(Serves 5-6)

Ugali is traditionally served to accompany meat as a starchy side dish. I like to serve it with sukuma wiki and grilled vegetables. It is traditionally made with maize or semolina flour, but you can use cornmeal.

  • 2 cups yellow cornmeal
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon ground white pepper

Sift cornmeal. Place water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Slowly sprinkle cornmeal over boiling water, stirring constantly until all the cornmeal is incorporated into the water. Add pepper. Be sure to stir briskly to avoid lumps. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes or until the mixture is very thick. Stir well, cover, and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Serve hot.

Total calories per serving: 177 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 38 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 23 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Groundnut Stew

(Serves 4-5)

This is a high protein stew. The peanut butter mellows out the flavor and add smoothness to the sauce. If you like, you can add some grilled or baked diced tofu as an extra ingredient.

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 2 cups chopped onions
  • 1 cup chopped green bell peppers
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed
  • 2 cups canned tomato sauce
  • 2 cups thawed frozen corn
  • 1 cup drained canned white or red beans
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • ½ cup smooth peanut butter

Spray a large pot with oil and allow to heat. Add onions, peppers, and garlic and cook until soft, 3 minutes. Add tomato sauce, corn, beans, pepper, and pepper flakes and cover. Allow to simmer over low heat for 30 minutes. Stir in peanut butter. Continue to stir and cook until well blended and sauce of stew has thickened to desired texture. Serve over steamed white rice.

Total calories per serving: 397 Fat: 18 grams
Carbohydrates: 52 grams Protein: 17 grams
Sodium: 1115 milligrams Fiber: 12 grams

Tomato, Corn, and Kale Stew

(Serves 4-5)

This can be made with kale, collards, or mustard greens. If you can’t find fresh greens, use frozen. Allow the frozen greens to thaw, and make sure to squeeze all the water from them before adding to the stew.

  • ¼ cup vegetable broth
  • 2 cloves garlic, mashed
  • ½ cup chopped onions
  • 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes, with juice
  • 2 pounds washed and chopped fresh kale
  • 2 cups thawed frozen corn
  • 1 cup canned tomato sauce

In a large pot, heat broth on high heat for 1 minute. Add garlic and onions and quickly cook until just soft, 1 minute. Add tomatoes and juice and allow to cook for 3 minutes. Add kale, reduce heat, and allow to cook until kale is soft, 10-15 minutes. Add corn and sauce and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes. Serve hot with chapati or ugali, or over steamed rice.

Total calories per serving: 265 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 58 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 213 milligrams Fiber: 11 grams


(Serves 4-5)

This is a salad “relish,” or a chopped vegetable dish served as a “cool” condiment with a meal that may have a lot of spice from chili or other hot peppers. It is a combination of seasonal vegetables served without dressing. There will be chopped chilies or hot sauce on the tables, as well as a vinegar-and-oil style dressing for guests to add as desired.

  • 2 cups washed and chopped green cabbage
  • 1 cup washed and chopped red cabbage
  • ½ cup grated carrots
  • ½ cup diced sweet onions
  • ½ cup diced sweet red pepper

In a medium, nonreactive bowl, combine all ingredients, tossing well. Cover and allow to chill for at least an hour before serving.

Total calories per serving: 34 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 8 grams Protein: 1 grams
Sodium: 16 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE, is The VRG’s Food Service Advisor and the author of, most recently, Vegan Meals for One or Two.