Kenya is known for its welcoming spirit, its athletic champions, beautiful scenery, and majestic wildlife. It’s about time it’s also more known for its excellent food. But what is Kenyan food, exactly? Read on for a primer on some of the best Kenyan foods, and where to find them in Nairobi, the country’s capital—and the ideal place to embark on an incredible Kenyan food adventure. If you really want to experience traditional Kenyan cuisine passed down through many generations, you’re in the right spot.
Maize ugali, courtesy of Paresh Jai/Flickr
Ugali is the main staple food of Kenya, prepared by mixing maize flour with boiling water to form a semi-solid, dough-like consistency. There are some variations to it, such as using millet flour instead of corn, and it’s mostly served alongside vegetables or meat stew. How significant a dish is this? In some parts of the country, a woman’s cooking is traditionally judged solely by how good her ugali is. No pressure.
The best part about eating ugali is you can just roll it between your fingers—there’s no need for utensils. Just rip off a piece, roll it up, and use it to scoop up some stew.
Where to find it: As it’s such an essential dish, ugali can be found at nearly all Nairobi restaurants serving Kenya food in Nairobi. K’Osewe Ranalo (Kimathi St., map; open daily, 10:30am-3am) is one of the best places, however, where you might try ugali with meat stew, fish stew and greens.
Mukimo, courtesy of Jaymuiaphotography
No family or social celebration in Kenya passes without mukimo, a mashup of potatoes, corn, and green vegetables (often cow peas and rose cocoa beansare added to make this more nutritious). Mukimo is served at all events, whether it’s celebrating the birth of a new baby, a wedding, or a funeral. It originates from Central Kenya, where people have a unique affinity for potatoes, but nowadays it’s common across the country. Mukimo is best served with meat stew or chicken stew.
Where to find it: If you can’t get yourself invited to someone’s wedding, head to the fun and funky Nyama Mama Delta (Delta towers, map; open daily, noon-11pm) for the best mukimo in town. This is one of the best restaurants in Nairobi, and it does mukimo right. Pair it with its chicken biryani stew and greens.
Githeri, courtesy mzeecedric/Flickr
Another very common food in Kenya, githeri is prepared by mixing beans and maize in one pot, and then boiling them until cooked. Most people prefer to fry their githeri, adding chopped onions, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and coriander for a big boost of flavor. It is a stand-alone meal.
Where to find it: This bean and corn stew is sold on the streets of Nairobi, and in most hotels. Of course, it’s advisable to avoid the street githeri if you have a weak stomach. Instead try the Villa Rosa Kempinski hotel (Chiromo Rd., map) where its Café Villa Rosa restaurant often serves traditional food, including githeri.
Chapati, courtesy of Mbabali Denis Jorum
Just like mukimo, chapatis—soft, flaky, pan-fried wheat-flour bread—are mandatory in social celebrations; in fact, they’re the most sought-after food at any social gathering in Kenya. They’re also one of the most widespread India-origin dishes in Kenya, so common as to be adopted by Kenyans for themselves (to compare to Indian breads, however, the Kenyan chapati is more akin to paratha for its use of oil in the cooking process). This and other Kenyan dishes that trace back to India are a result of the Indian traders and indentured laborers who came here under British rule, between 1895 and 1963.
There are many variations of chapati, all of them enjoyable and exciting to make. First a dough is made from the wheat flour and water; then it’s cut up into small chunks. The chunks are flattened by rolling pins to form a circle, then they’re ready to be cooked in a pan with some oil. Like ugali and mukimo, above, chapati usually accompanies stews and greens.
Where to find it:
Chapatis are literally in almost every restaurant in Nairobi, as well as supermarket chains like Uchumi and Tusky. Moreover, food vendors sell chapatis on nearly every corner. You can’t miss them!
Nyama choma grill house, courtesy of Neajjean/Flickr
This Maasai delicacy is among Kenya’s top five foods. Nyama choma simply means roasted meat, and most Kenyans love them some roasted goat or beef. This dish is consumed quite a lot in Nairobi, especially in drinking joints. It is mostly accompanied by ugali, roasted potatoes, mukimo, and kachumbari (see below).
Where to find it: The best places to try nyama choma are Ngong and Kiserian, two towns located on the outskirts of Nairobi that are well known for serving up some of the best roasted meat. There are several butchers to choose from, where you can typically find the meat both raw and already roasted. Nyama choma is best enjoyed with great company and a cold glass of beer.
Kachumbari, courtesy of Charles Haynes
Kenyans love kachumbari, a spicy tomato and onion salad—almost like a salsa—the same way Americans love cheese. It’s a simple mix of fresh chopped tomatoes, onions, and chili peppers (some people add avocado, a match made in food heaven), and it goes with everything: boiled eggs, sausages, pilau, githeri, all the other Kenyan dishes. A Kenyan will always have kachumbari on hand during a meal. It is a national obsession we are quite proud of.
Where to find it: Kachumbari is a very simple dish to make, so you will find it everywhere—in homes, at restaurants, on the street. In Nairobi, every 20 paces or so you take in any direction, you will find three to five street food vendors selling sausages and boiled eggs with kachumbari. Don’t miss it.
Fried tilapia with ugali, courtesy of Mark Souther/Flickr
It’s such a simple meal to prepare, but the thought of it alone makes many Kenyans salivate. Whole-fried tilapia is the staple food of Western Nyanza, owing to its location on Lake Victoria, once home to plentiful native tilapia. According to this Kenyan writer, it is the best and healthiest comfort food you can have.
Where to find it: Former U.S. President Barack Obama (or Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) would probably be the first to recommend Mama Oliech Restaurant (multiple locations including Marcus Garvey Rd., map) for this delicacy—the renowned eatery’s had more than its fair share of famous visitors. It serves the best whole-fried tilapia (from Lake Nakuru, northwest of Nairobi) at the most economical prices.
Pilau, meat stew, and chapati, courtesy of afromusing/Flickr
I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t like Kenyan pilau, prepared by adding spices and meat to rice. This Swahili coastal dish is served at every wedding—honestly, a Kenyan wedding is not a wedding without pilau! There are at least five different techniques for cooking pilau, but in the end all that matters is the aroma and the taste. It is best served with kachumbari and vegetables such as fried cabbage or spinach.
Where to find it: In Nairobi, check out Swahili Plate (Muindi Mbingu St., map; open daily, 7am-10pm) for some mean pilau, or Malindi Dishes (Gaborone Rd, map)—both restaurants specialize in coastal Swahili cuisine.
About the author: Christine Siamanta Kinori is a Kenya-based writer who loves to write about Africa. She is a foodie with an adventurous spirit who enjoys traveling and experiencing new cultures.