21 January 2008

Daily Life: The Food of Kenya

By Jennifer Mueller

Say African food and you get a myriad of options: from Arabic inspired North Africa and the coast of East Africa to the Maasai drinking blood and milk, spicy Ethiopian to San Bushmen eating what they find--the same as they have for thousands of years. While the cities might sport as modern a kitchen as you can find, the countryside still cooks over an open fire. Where I lived in Kenya, the traditional kitchen was a room separate from the rest of the house, with thatched high roofs. It allows the smoke to rise and filter through the thatch, an odd sight to see smoking roofs as you walk by. Only with the advent of tin roofs have lung problems occurred.

The daily routine is centered on water. If you have it close you save hours. If you have to walk kilometers to find a source, things get more complicated. Kenyan breakfast is usually a cup of chai--watered down milk with enough tea and sugar to flavor it--and a thick slice of bread and blue band with a margarine product needing no refrigeration. Uji is also popular, a ground millet sort of porridge with or without fermentation. For anything else, it takes time. Quite a bit of it. There are very few snack foods other than fruit: mangoes, papaya, guava, passion fruit, maybe an orange or pineapple, and little bananas as big around as a silver dollar and half the length of the ones we see in the store. They're like eating candy.

Market day is the center of any village, usually held twice a week. Everyone with something to sell would descend, whether it was a woman with 10 mangoes looking for some extra cash or a seller who went to the larger town and found treasures that no one else had. Staples usually ran along the lines of beans (up to 20 sorts), rice in some areas, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, kale, fruits and, when in season, peas and green beans. Up the mountain where there was access to Mount Kenya, odd fruits--giant green and ugly--could be found if anyone was ambitious enough to go find them.

Kenya was a British colony, but in building the railroad to Uganda, there were thousands of Indians who arrived to work. Modern day Kenyan food is a mix of traditional Kenyan and Indian. Small packets of curry can be bought for only a few cents. Seasonings are minimal: salt, curry, mchuzi mix, bouillon cubes, sometimes hot peppers. But with it they create quite the variety.

It all depends on where you live what you would be eating. In one area the staple food is githeri, another irio, and across the country you haven't eaten unless you've had ugali. All are based on corn to some degree. Githeri is a simple combination of maize and beans. Irio is a mixture of potatoes, maize, and pumpkin leaves. Ugali is corn meal cooked like stiff grits, mainly used as a filler for a soup of some kind.

In the area where I lived, the basis for most dishes were tomatoes and onions. They would be fried in melted shortening before adding the rest, whether beans, kale, cabbage, or githeri, green grams. A few dishes went without, such as mashed bananas and potatoes--only made with green plantains so it is starchy rather than sugary. Mashed potatoes and pigeon peas were served on special occasions.

Meat is expensive. Most families might only eat it only once or twice a week. A special treat is nyama choma, or bits of roast meat. Some places season it; others just cook it plain, like grilling steak. Chickens are raised by most families, as well as goats, cows and, in the north, camel. It's lean meat with no marbling at all. It just takes a little more prep since the connective tissue is rather hard to chew through if left in large pieces.

The coast is an entity unto itself. Middle Eastern spices and coastal ingredients like coconuts all mix to create a menu unlike any in the rest of the country. They make pilau--rice thick with spices and fried--and potatoes cooked in coconut milk, just to name a few.

Barbecued Meat
1 kilo meat
Juice of 2 lemons
2 pounded onions
2 crushed chilies
4 crushed cloves
salt to taste

Marinate: Clean meat and make a few stripes 1/2" deep all over meat. Mix in the rest of the ingredients and let stand for 2 hours.

Barbecue: Prepare the charcoal fire and place grilling wire on top. Place meat on the wire and roast it on a very low heat. Cook evenly on both sides. Garnish with lemon slices. Serve with potatoes.

Pigeon Pea Sauce
1 cup pigeon Peas
2 cups water
2 tablespoons butter
2 onions
1 cup milk

Cook the peas in the water until soft. Fry the onions in the butter until golden brown and add the peas. Cook until all the water is dry. Mash the peas into a paste. Season well and add the milk. Reheat and serve with mashed potatoes or bananas.

3/4 cup water
1/2 cup maize meal
1/2 dessertspoon dried skim milk powder

Boil water. Sieve maize meal, dried skim milk powder, and salt. Add sieved flour to boiling water. Cook for a few minutes stirring continuously. Serve with stewed meat.

Beef stew
1 lb cut beef
2 carrots
2 green peppers
4 tomatoes
4 onions
Curry powder
Black pepper
Seasoning salt, cooking oil, salt

Fry the onions that have been chopped until they turn brown. Add tomatoes and chopped green pepper. Add carrots, black pepper and coriander. Wash the cut meat and sprinkle it with seasoning salt. When the carrots have become slightly soft, add the cut meat. When meat is almost cooked, add some curry powder and salt to taste.

Pilau rice
1.5 lb rice (water according to rice)
1/2 lb green peas
2 T pilau masala (type of spice)
3 onions
3 tomatoes

Wash the rice with cold water. Boil the peas until cooked. Chop onions and then fry until slightly brown. Add tomatoes that have been peeled and cut. Boil some of the rice water with the pilau masala until it boils. Add some salt to taste. Add the rest of the water to the fried onions and tomatoes. Add the green peas when the water starts boiling and the rice; let it cook.

1 cup flour
1 T shortening
1/2 t. or less salt

Melt shortening in a small frying pan. DO NOT boil it. Mix shortening with flour and salt. Mix with warm water (add just a little bit of water at a time and mix the dough thoroughly, make sure the dough is not hard). Keep for at least one hour. Separate dough into small rolls similar to oven cupcake buns. Use rolling pin and roll the dough balls each on a large flat surface as you roll the pin spread a little shortening on the dough and then tear the now flat pizza like dough spread from the center by pulling evenly to all edges and cut one side so you are left with a long lean piece of dough in your hands. Roll it into a coil (snakes) from each end in opposite directions (one clock wise and the other end counter clock wise) when they get together, then twist one of the collected coil and put it over the other.

Clean area over the oven top and keep a wide flat heavy/thick frying pan on the cooking range, turn on the cooker at low. Leave the dough for about 10 minutes then roll with rolling pin on flat surface into an evenly spread round (pizza like) thin spread. Turn the heat on to medium using oiling brush, spread a little shortening evenly all around the pan and cook the chapatis. Keep turning (rotating it) to ensure even cooking and turn over and keep pressing after turning and also put shortening on top but not too much and keep on pressing in the frying pen until light brown.