For the vast majority of Kenyans, meals are plain and filling. Most people’s living standards don’t allow for frills, and there are no great national dishes. For culinary culture, it’s the coast, with its long association with Indian Ocean trade, that has produced distinctive regional cuisine, where rice and fish, flavoured with coconut, tamarind and exotic spices, are the major ingredients. For visitors, and more affluent Kenyans, the cities and tourist areas have no shortage of restaurants, with roast meat, seafood and Italian restaurants the most common options among a range of cuisines that runs the gamut from Argentine to Thai.
In the most basic local restaurant, a decent plate of food can be had for less than Ksh200. Fancier meals in touristy places rarely cost more than Ksh2000 a head, though there are a number of establishments where you could easily spend Ksh5000 or more. When checking your bill, remember there’s a 16 percent value added tax (VAT) on food and drink and a 2 percent government training levy in all but the smallest establishments. In most establishments, taxes are included in the prices on the menu, but in some they are extra, basically adding nearly one-fifth to the bill. An “optional” service charge can be added, too, and of course you may want to add a tip.
Many restaurants on the coast serve halal fare, and elsewhere in the country you’ll usually be able to find a Somali-run hoteli that has halal meat.
Home-style fare and nyama choma
In any hoteli (small restaurant) there is always a list of predictable dishes intended to fill customers’ stomachs. Potatoes, rice and especially ugali (a stiff, cornmeal porridge) are the national staples, eaten with chicken, goat, beef, or vegetable stew, various kinds of spinach, beans and sometimes fish. Portions are usually gigantic; half-portions (ask for nusu) aren’t much smaller. But even in small towns, more and more cafés are appearing where most of the menu is fried – eggs, sausages, chips, fish, chicken and burgers.
The standard blow-out feast for most Kenyans is a huge pile of nyama choma (roast meat). Nyama choma is usually eaten at a purpose-built choma bar, with beer and music the standard accompaniments, and ugali and greens optional. You go to the kitchen and order by weight (half a kilo is plenty), direct from the butcher’s hook or out of the fridge. There’s usually a choice of nyama – goat, beef, mutton. After roasting, the meat is brought to your table on a wooden platter, chopped to bite-size with a sharp knife, and served with crunchy salt and kachumbari – tomato and onion relish.
Snacks and breakfast
Snacks, which can easily become meals, include samosas, chapattis, miniature kebabs (mishkaki), roasted corncobs, mandaazi (sweet, puffy, deep-fried dough cakes) and “egg-bread”. Mandaazi are made before breakfast and served until evening time, when they’ve become cold and solid. Egg-bread (misleadingly translated from the Swahili mkate mayai) is a light wheat-flour “pancake” wrapped around fried eggs and minced meat, usually cooked on a huge griddle. While you won’t find it everywhere, it’s a delicious Kenyan response to the creeping burger menace (McDonald’s, happily, is still not here). Snacks sold on the street include cassava chips and, in country areas, at the right time of year, if you’re lucky, roasted termites (which go well as a bar snack with beer).
Breakfast varies widely. Standard fare in a hoteli, or in the dining room of a boarding and lodging house, consists of sweet tea and a chapatti or a doorstep of white bread thickly spread with margarine. Modest hotels offer a “full breakfast” of cereal, eggs and sausage, bread and jam, and a banana, with instant coffee or tea. If you’re staying in an upmarket hotel or safari lodge, breakfast is usually a lavish acreage of hot and cold buffets that you can’t possibly do justice to.
At upmarket lodges and safari camps, you will usually be offered nibbles or appetizers – “bitings” as they are usually called – with your pre-dinner drink, as part of your package. Look out for the excellent feta and coriander samosa with chilli jam, which has spread from Nairobi to become a bit of an obsession among foodies.
Kenya’s seafood, beef and lamb are renowned, and they are the basis of most restaurant meals. Game meat used to be something of a Kenyan speciality, most of it farmed on ranches. Giraffe, zebra, impala and warthog all regularly appeared at various restaurants. These days, only captive-farmed ostrich (excellent, like lean beef) and crocodile (disappointingly like gristly fish-tasting chicken) are legal.
Indian restaurants in the larger towns, notably Nairobi and Mombasa, are generally excellent, with dhal lunches a good standby and much fancier regional dishes widely available too. When you splurge, apart from eating Indian, it will usually be in hotel restaurants, with food often very similar to what you might be served in a restaurant in Europe or North America. The lodges usually have buffet lunches at about Ksh1200–2000, which can be great value, with table-loads of salads and cold meat.
Fruit is a major delight. Bananas, avocados, pawpaws and pineapples are in the markets all year, mangoes and citrus fruits more seasonally. Look out for passion fruit (the familiar shrivelled brown variety, and the sweeter and less acidic smooth yellow ones), cape gooseberries (physalis), custard apples and guavas – all highly distinctive and delicious. On the coast, roasted cashew nuts are widely available, but not cheap. Never buy any with dark marks on them. Coconuts, widely seen at roadside stalls in their freshly cut, green-husked condition, are filling and nutritious. At this stage, when the nuts are young, they’re full of coconut water and the flesh is like soft-boiled egg white. If left to ripen on the tree until the husk goes brown, the liquid reduces, and the flesh becomes firm.
The national beverage is chai – tea. Universally drunk at breakfast and as a pick-me-up at any time, the traditional way of making it is a weird variant on the classic British brew: milk, water, lots of sugar and tea leaves are brought to the boil in a kettle and served scalding hot (chai asli). It must eventually do diabolical dental damage, but it’s quite addictive and very reviving. The main tea-producing region is around Kericho in the west, but the best tea tends to be made on the coast. These days, tea is all too often a tea bag in a cup, with hot water or milk brought to your table in a thermos.
Coffee, despite being another huge Kenyan export, doesn’t have the same place in people’s hearts, and if you order it in a cheap restaurant it’s invariably instant coffee granules. Local chains of American-style coffee shops have sprung up in Nairobi in recent years, however, and it’s steadily getting easier to order a latte or cappuccino, while breakfast with a good cafetière of the excellent local roast is also increasingly the norm, especially in upmarket places.
Soft drinks (sodas) are usually very cheap, and crates of Coke, Fanta and Sprite find their way to the wildest corners of the country. Krest, a bitter lemon, is not bad, and Krest also makes a ginger ale, but it’s watery and insipid; Stoney ginger beer has more of a punch. Sometimes you can get plain soda water. A newer drink is Alvaro, a malty, pineapple-flavoured non-alcoholic alternative to beer, which is very popular but too sweet for some tastes.
Fresh fruit juices are available in the towns, especially on the coast (Lamu is fruit-juice heaven). Passion fruit, the cheapest, is excellent, though nowadays it’s likely to be watered-down concentrate. Some places serve a variety: you’ll sometimes find carrot juice and even tiger milk, made from a small tuber (the tiger nut or Spanish chufa). Bottled Picana mango juice is also available at some shops that sell sodas.
Plastic-bottled spring water is relatively expensive but widely available in 300ml, 500ml and one-litre bottles. Mains water used to be very drinkable, and in some places still is, but it’s safer to stick with bottled.
If you like lager, you’ll find Kenyan brands generally good. The main lagers are Tusker and White Cap (both 4.2 percent) and Pilsner (4.7 percent), sold in half-litre bottles, with Tusker Malt (5.2 percent) in 300ml bottles. They all cost from a little over Ksh100 in local bars up to about Ksh400 in the most expensive establishments. Brewed by East African Breweries, they are fairly inconsistent in flavour: try a blind taste test. While Tusker Malt is fuller-flavoured, Tusker, White Cap and Pilsner are all light, slightly acidic, fairly fizzy, well-balanced beers that most people find very drinkable when well chilled. You can also get a head-thumping 6.52 percent-alcohol version of Guinness.
Occasionally you can get keg Tusker on tap at roughly the same price, and more rarely the cheaper Senator beer, which is only sold in kegs and costs around Ksh50 per half litre.
In cheap bars, the bar counter itself is usually protected by a metal grill, putting the staff in a kind of cage. In this sort of place, you’ll need to specify whether you want your beer cold or warm. Warm is the usual local preference. A point of drinking etiquette worth remembering is that you should never take your bottle away. As bottles carry deposits, this is considered theft and surprisingly ugly misunderstandings can ensue.
Other alcoholic drinks
Most of the usually familiar wines sold in Kenya come from South Africa and Chile, with Italy, California, France and Spain also featuring. Locally made wines struggle a little, but Richard Leakey’s Pinot Noir vineyard is finally breaking through with Zabibu (wzabibu.org), and Rift Valley Winery makes the increasingly well-known Leleshwa (wleleshwa.com).
Kenya Cane (white rum) and Kenya Gold (a coffee-flavoured liqueur) deserve a try, but they’re nothing special. One popular Kenyan cocktail to sample is the dawa (“medicine”) – a highly addictive vodka, white rum, honey and lime juice mix, poured over ice and stirred with a sugar stick.
There’s a battery of laws against home brewing and distilling, perhaps because of the loss of tax revenue on legal booze, but these are central aspects of Kenyan culture and they go on. You can sample pombe (bush beer) of different sorts all over the country. It’s as varied in taste, colour and consistency as its ingredients: basically fermented sugar and millet or banana, with herbs and roots for flavouring. The results are frothy and deceptively strong.
On the coast, where coconuts grow most plentifully, merely lopping off the growing shoot produces a naturally fermented, milky-coloured palm wine (mnazi or tembo), which is indisputably Kenya’s finest contribution to the art of self-intoxication. It’s bottled, informally, and usually drunk through a piece of dried grass or straw with a tiny filter tied to the end. There’s another variety of palm wine, tapped from the doum palm, called mukoma.
Alhough there is often a furtive discretion about pombe or mnazi sessions (in fact, mnazi was recently legalized, at least on the coast), consumers rarely get busted.
Not so with home-distilled spirits: think twice before accepting a mug of chang’aa. It’s treacherous firewater, and is also frequently contaminated with industrial alcohol, regularly killing drinking parties en masse. Sentences for distilling and possessing chang’aa are harsh, and police or vigilante raids common.