Food in Kenya: 9 dishes that are are a journey into the country's soul

When you think of Kenya, you probably imagine herds of elephants and prides of lions, burning sunsets, stunning golden beaches, or their talented Olympic runners… But what about the food in Kenya? This East African cuisine is made with delicious ingredients and plenty of love, and takes you on a mouthwatering journey deep into the country’s soul.

From heartwarming Swahili stews and barbecues to the unique flavours of the East African Indian migrants, Kenyan cuisine tells an amazing story. Here are some of our favourite foods in Kenya you have to try on your trip.

1. Nyama choma

Literally meaning grilled or roasted meat in Swahili, nyama choma is one of Kenya’s all-time favourite dishes. It’s a classic barbecue dish, with meat like beef, goat, chicken or fish seasoned in salt and slow-roasted over hot coals in its own juices, until the meat is so tender it practically melts off your fork!

 If you want to try the most traditional kind of nyama choma, go for local roasted goat served with rice and tangy kachumbari, the classic Kenyan relish made with diced tomatoes, chili peppers, onions, cilantro, lime juice and sometimes avocado. This refreshing dish originates all the way from Mexico, and it’s a powerful combination of food and cultures.

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You’ll get to experience a classic Kenyan barbecue when you travel to Kenya with Trafalgar. We’ll arrange a Bush Banquet in the Maasai Mara, where you can relax by the campfire all while your selection of meat and fish is prepared by the chef on the glowing charcoal grill. Paired with fresh salads, desserts and vegetarian options, you’ll end the banquet with a special performance by traditional Maasai dancers.

If you want to get even further into the heart and food of Kenya, we’ll take you to the remote region of Samburu. Here you’ll enjoy a private barbecue in the unique bushveld setting, with the magical sounds of nature all around, for a truly memorable Kenyan food experience.

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2. Ugali

There’s nothing that says ‘Kenyan food’ like ugali. There isn’t a single local in Kenya who hasn’t enjoyed this classic staple, and you can’t miss out either when you visit Kenya. This starchy cornmeal side dish is similar to polenta, and the locals eat it with almost every meal, from rich curries to meat, fish and vegetable dishes. 

Ugali is made by boiling cornmeal until it forms a dense slab of cornmeal paste. The best way to eat it is by grabbing a piece, rolling it into a ball, then making an indentation with your thumb to use it as an edible spoon, dipping it in stews and sauces. Remember, the sign of a good ugali is that it won’t stick to your fingers!

If you want to try ugali in Kenya, one of the best dishes is ugali na sukuma wiki, which is ugali with sukuma wiki, a bright green leafy vegetable similar to kale. The ingredients are fried with tomatoes, red onions and spices, and it’s best eaten with your hands.

3. Indian-inspired dishes

Kenya has a large Indian population, originating from a migration boom which began in the late 19th century when labourers were recruited from India (ruled by Britain at the time) to build the Kenya-Uganda railway. The result was a wonderful blend of Indian and Kenyan food, with traditional Indian favourites like biryani, pilau, chapati, bhaji and samosa given a unique Kenyan spin. 

Biryani and pilau

Chicken biryani is the most famous of these dishes, made with chicken, dried fruit and spices cooked with basmati rice. Pilau is also very popular, and this is usually a one-pot rice dish made with an incredible blend of spices like cumin, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Both of these fragrant rice dishes are best eaten with a stew and kachumbari. 

Chips masala, samosas, bajias, chapati…

For other Indian-inspired food in Kenya, you can’t go past chips masala, which are French fries with a spicy sauce. They’re often topped with cilantro and other herbs, tomato sauce and chilli sauce, and they’re finger-lickin’ good!

There’s also Kenyan bajias, a beloved french-fry dish. It’s made by slicing and seasoning potatoes which are then deep-fried and served with that deliciously tangy kachumbari.

And of course, you can’t miss out on Kenyan-style chapatis. This warming side dish is made with flour dough that is wound into a coil then rolled into a flat round circle. It’s then fried on a skillet with lashings of ghee or vegetable oil so the chapati is crispy on the edge but doughy inside. They go well with stews, beans, curries or even just a cup of tea, and they’re absolutely addictive.

4. Githeri

This hearty bean stew originated from the Kikuyu tribe of Central Kenya, and today it’s the classic working man’s lunch, popular with locals across the country.

You’ll often see large pots of githeri bubbling away on the street, with a combination of meat chunks, beans, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, onions and beef stock simmering slowly in a tomato gravy, spiced with turmeric, cumin and chilli powder.

The locals usually dish it out on its own or you can eat your githeri with chapati, rice or bread. It’s the perfect Kenyan comfort food and your Kenya guide will be sure to point you in the direction of the best githeri in town. 

5. Roasted makai

Maize is one of the most commonly grown crops in rural Kenya, and it’s a star ingredient in many Kenyan dishes. It’s also enjoyed on its own, and you’ll often see makai, or roasted maize, grilling away on almost every street corner.

Keep your eyes peeled for the different vendors, with some grilling the corn cobs to a crunchy crisp over hot coals, and some cooking the kernels like popcorn. Topped with a tangy blend of chilli, lime and salt, and wrapped in its original green husk so you can devour it piping hot, and you’ve got the perfect on-the-go snack. 

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6. Fish

Home to Lake Victoria, the largest tropical freshwater lake in the world, Kenya has no shortage of amazing fish. The most common variety is the tilapia, and it’s traditionally fried whole and served with ugali and kachumbari, or cooked in delicious stews.

If you’re after more freshwater delights, try kamba (prawns) and uduvi (shrimp). They’re best when cooked “wa kupaka”, which means “with a rich coconut curry stew”.

7. Matoke

Matoke is a type of banana native to Uganda, and this dish has made it all the way from Uganda to become a crowd favourite food in Kenya. It’s made with the plantain bananas, cooked in a big bubbling pot with tomatoes, garlic, onions, chilli, lemon juice, and sometimes meat. The bananas become soft, creating a thick sauce infused with the other flavours.

The result? An amazing dish that’s something like boiled potatoes in sauce, but extra delicious, and can be eaten with ugali, chapati or rice. Be sure to give it a go!

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8. Mandazi

If you’ve got a sweet tooth look no further than mandazi, the sugar-coated doughnut found in street stalls across the country. These delightful treats are shaped like samosas, infused with sweet coconut milk and cardamom, and doused in icing sugar.

While the locals love to eat them for breakfast, you can try them any time of the day, and if you don’t see them, the lovely smell of frying dough will surely lure you in. And don’t worry if you can’t stop at one – they’re dished up by the bagful!

9. Masala chai

Kenya may export some of the best coffee in the world but what the locals really love is tea. Masala chai is one of the favourites, brewed dark with plenty of milk and a few spoonfuls of sugar. The soothing combination of cinnamon spices and warm milk is a Kenyan specialty and there’s nothing better than kicking off your day with a mug or two of chai. 

If you also want to try some of that famous Kenyan coffee, come and join Trafalgar on a trip to Kenya. We’ll take you to a coffee plantation in the highlands of central Kenya for a special Be My Guest Experience, where you’ll meet a local coffee farmer and enjoy her freshly baked scones and coffee made from the beans grown on her coffee plantation. You’ll also get to explore the plantation and gorgeous farm gardens before tucking into a lunch of delicious local fare.

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Have you ever tried Kenyan food? What is your favourite food to eat in Kenya? Let us know in the comments below!

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