Kenyan favourites: An acquired taste for the visitor, the traditional staple food of Kenya is ugali (a stiff dough), or uji (porridge), made from yellow maize meal, millet, or sorghum flour. Ugali is eaten with a stew of beans, goat, beef, lamb, chicken or fish. Rice and chapatti (flat bread) are also eaten, particularly on the coast. The all-time winner as far as most Kenyans are concerned is the national dish of ‘Nyama Choma’ or roasted meat. This carnivorous marathon features hunks of goat (the preferred choice), beef, mutton or chicken served flanked by traditional clay pots of: githeri, a rich vegetable stew, irio, a Kikuyu dish made of creamed peas, maize and potatoes, ugali, a thick maize porridge or sukuma wiki, a spinach dish (cooked with onions, garlic, tomatoes and coriander) whose name when more or less literally translated means ‘to get you through to the end of the week.’
Getting your goat: Goat meat is a universal favourite and goats will be slaughtered (often at home by the man of the house) for all feast days, celebrations and holidays. Traditionally the whole goat will be roasted over a brazier of hot coals. Specific cuts are reserved for honoured guests, others for men, women, young girls and young men. Nothing is wasted; the blood and entrails are made into savoury dishes, the head and hoofs boiled. The ultimate compliment when eating goat is to say that it is ‘very soft’ or ‘very sweet’.
Carnivore country: Beef (preferably with plenty of fat and usually ‘Halal’) is popular, as is chicken (known as kuku); and ‘up country’ Molo lamb is prized. The most famous game meat is served in Nairobi’s Carnivore Restaurant, which is regularly listed amongst the ‘best restaurants in the world’. Here you can sample crocodile, giraffe, impala, gazelle and ostrich as well as all the more normal and vegetarian choices.
Something fishy: On the coast, crab, lobster, prawns, king fish, parrotfish, tuna, sailfish and marlin make excellent choices but it’s worth checking that they’re fresh, i.e. just caught and not what the Kenyan salesmen sometimes term ‘fresh frozen’, which means: recently defrosted. Kenyan brown and rainbow trout (introduced from Scotland by the early settlers) can be caught in mountain streams, and fresh-water crayfish are a delicacy around Lake Naivasha.
Grape and grain: Kenyans love beer (primarily lager); and there are bars everywhere ranging from simple roadside shacks to five-star cocktail bars with waiters in bow ties. In Nairobi, bar fashions are fickle; one month the bar of the moment is a timber-built cowboy-style hang out, next month it’s a roadside pull-off. Discerning which bar is favourite is easy – just look for the number of cars pulled up outside. As for the beer, there is a bewildering selection of brands headed up by the famous ‘Tusker’, a lager named after the brother of a brewer who was killed in an elephant stampede in the 1920’s. White Cap (named after Mount Kenya) is another brew much-loved by the old school, while the relative newcomer ‘Castle’ is widely available. Guinness has a small but assertive fan base.
Beer Drinking Etiquette: Order a beer and you will be asked if you will ‘take’ your beer cold or warm. Strange as it may seem to western tastes, most Kenyans prefer it warm; some have even been known to refuse to drink it chilled. Beer bought in bars is usually served in bottles and it is very bad form (a criminal offence even) to leave the bar with the bottle – there is a deposit on it. Once solely the preserve of Kenyan men, in the cities beer drinking in bars is now socially acceptable for ladies.
Wines, spirits and cocktails: Most hotels, other than those in strictly Muslim areas, will offer a choice of wines and spirits. The higher echelons of hotels and lodges will also offer cocktails, some of which are ‘themed’ to suit. A favourite is ‘Dawa’ (meaning medicine) which is made with vodka, lemon juice and honey: deceptively sweet and innocent, it is more likely to collapse you than cure you. Both Nairobi and Mombasa boast a selection of ‘fashionable’ bars and cocktail haunts, the ascendancy of which fluctuate according to the whims of the local ‘glitterati’. Wine lists vary enormously but tend to feature ‘New World’ choices, especially South African – for the simple reason that they’re more easily shipped. Kenya also boasts its own wine, made from grapes grown on the shores of Lake Naivasha; and a wine made from papaya; both could best be termed interesting.
Mocktails and juices: Large numbers of Kenyans don’t drink – for religious or social reasons. Inordinately fond of sweet sugary concoctions, the non-drinking fraternity tends to favour ‘sodas’ such as; Coke, Fanta and something known as ‘Stoney Tangawizi’, which is ginger beer. Failing that there are always plenty of fresh fruit juices to choose from (passion, mango and orange being the favourites).
Lethal brews: Kenyans are very fond of brewing their own ‘Pombe’, which is a fermentation of either bananas or millet. Strong, frothy and unusual in taste, it should be regarded with caution by the visitor.
Teatime: Kenyans love ‘chai’ (tea), which they drink all day long; it’s also interesting to note that the word ‘chai’ also means a tip or a bribe. Originally native to China, tea was first grown in Kenya in 1903, but did not become economically viable until 20 years later. Now it is one of the country’s major exports and is grown in vast swathes of bright green; largely around the town of Kericho, which is the ‘tea capital’ of Kenya. When ordering tea, if you want good old-fashioned ‘British-style’ tea, best to ask for ‘tea, very hot please, with COLD milk’.
Arabica coffee: Kenya grows some of the finest Arabica coffee in the world. Recently a number of coffee shop chains have also been established (along the lines of the American Starbucks chain). On the coast you can sample the powerful Arabic coffee, served from triangular brass pots into tiny china cups, and often flavoured with cardamom.