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Ninataka Chakula! Spotlight on Food from Kenya

August 15, 2012

A typical Kenyan meal: ugali and kale

Our cultural spotlight today is on chakula! Chakula is food in Swahili!

Contrary to popular belief, I did not hunt my own food (total monkeys eaten=0). The food we ate was prepared for us by the women working in Honorable Okundi’s house, which is where we stayed for a month in Kochia. Below is what we ate:

A Kenyan Menu!

*We did not have all of these at every meal, but rather a combination of these foods for the month we were in Kochia. As my professor Liz explained it, “it’s like eating in a Mexican restaurant for every meal for a month”


  • White bread with peanut butter, jelly, and butter.
  • Tea and juice.
  • Ugi, a brown porridge like a liquidy oatmeal.
  • Hard-boiled eggs, mandazi (a fried equivalent of a Kenyan donut), or pancakes/crepes


  • Rice, noodles or chapatii (a type of kenyan tortilla)
  • Beans, lentils, soya (soy meat), or vegetables (carrots and peas).
  • Watermelon or pineapple.
  • Cabbage


  • Fish, chicken, or beef.
  • Rice, chapatti, or potatoes
  • Ugali. Ugali is like a dense moist cake made out of corn millet it).
  • Mango, passionfruit, watermelon, pineapple, or papaya
  • Kale

Snacks: Tea or soda with chips or popcorn.

The food was all fresh and entirely local. Essentially, we would purchase I have never felt better than when I was on a Kenyan diet. I had energy from 7am-11pm and felt less drowsy than I do here. Most everything is cooked with cooking oil and not butter. There is also very little dairy aside from milk and very little processed sugar. Even the sugar we put in our tea was unrefined. Food simply grows everywhere; my friend Brendah took me to a friend’s house and pointed out 5 different fruit trees on one property.

Fun Fact: Oranges are not orange in Kenya. But the word for orange in Swahili, chungwa, and the word for the color orange, machungwa, are the same. Weird.

Below is the recipe for chapati which was everyone’s favorite food! I was lucky enough to help make it. It’s relatively simply and every woman knows how to make it after watching her mother do it for years.

Chapati Recipe:

  1. 1 bag of flour in a large mixing bowl
  2. Air the flour out with your fingers
  3. Mix a pitcher of warm water with salt and vegetable oil
  4. Gradually pour it into the dough and mix as you go
  5. Once the dough looks doughy and slightly wet, mix in more vegetable oil
  6. Let sit for 10 minutes
  7. Put oil down, roll out dough, and put oil on top
  8. Cut into one inch strips and roll up like a cinnamon bun
  9. Flatten them using a rolling pin and flour
  10. Put into a hot pan and pour oil around the side
  11. Flip when golden brown
  12. TA DA! Serve with lentils, ugali, chicken, beef, you name it!

Now this makes a lot of chapatti, but as you can see, the ratio is more up to your own judgment so you definitely don’t need to use a whole bag of flour.

I also have a greater appreciation now for where our food comes from and just how removed we really are from production and harvesting. Peanuts,also called ground nuts, are grown in Kenya and must be harvested off the bush. This is done by hand by the women of the house and even spending a few hours pulling peanuts off of roots made me realize how much work it is for just a handful of nuts. I was even surprised to see the plant in the first place, I had no idea what a peanut plant even looked like.

The choices for the village and Ombogo were more limited but similar to what we ate. Corn is the staple food of Kenya and everyone eats ugali which is the signature dish/meal of Kenya. It’s very heavy and dense and you roll it in your fingers to form a spoon and use it to scoop of food. Ugi is typically eaten for breakfast and also fed to children before they can eat solid foods. Meat is more expensive but fruit can be found off the trees and kale is also eaten often. Food is viewed as sustenance and fuel, not as we view it here where we eat something different everyday.

In Swahili, kale is called skuma wiki which means “Push the week”. It’s aptly named because it fills stomachs when other food has run out towards the end of the week.

Question: As maize is the staple food of Kenya, I was asked what is our staple food in America. What is your staple food? Comments welcome!

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