Eating and drinking in Kenya
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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 only on the coast, with its long association with Indian Ocean trade, that a distinctive regional cuisine has developed, with rice and fish, flavoured with coconut, tamarind and exotic spices, 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 Ksh300. 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.
In any hoteli (cheap local café-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, usually goat, beef or mutton). 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. 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, which can easily become meals, include samosas, chapattis and miniature kebabs (mishkaki). Also look out for mandaazi (sweet, puffy, deep-fried dough cakes), and mkate mayai (“bread of eggs” in Swahili), a light wheat-flour pancake wrapped around fried eggs and minced meat, usually cooked on a huge griddle. Snacks sold on the street include cassava chips, roasted corncobs, 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 B&L, 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.
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, papayas (pawpaws) and pineapples are available 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), physalis (cape gooseberries), 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.
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, is often just instant coffee granules if ordered in a cheap hotel or restaurant. However local chains of American-style coffee shops have sprung up in Nairobi, Mombasa and Nakuru and it’s steadily getting easier to order a latte or cappuccino, often accompanied by a swoosh of air-conditioning and free wi-fi. Prices reflect the modern interiors and the baristas’ professional training, and an espresso will cost at least Ksh200 and a frothy coffee up to Ksh400. Nevertheless, the coffee is often excellent, and many chains such as Java House and Dorman’s also sell packets of Kenya-produced coffee beans. 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. The Krest brand (also produced by Coca-Cola) produces a good bitter lemon, tonic and soda, but their ginger ale is a bit watery and insipid; Stoney ginger beer has more of a punch.
Fresh fruit juices are available in the towns, especially on the coast (Lamu is fruit-juice heaven). Passion fruit or mango, the cheapest, are excellent, though nowadays are 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). Minute Maid is the most popular commercial juice brand (again also owned by Coca-Cola), and comes in small 300ml and large one-litre cartons in various flavours. Their drinks are available at supermarkets and many petrol station shops, along with fizzy soft drinks.
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. Brewed by East African Breweries, 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 Ksh200 in local bars up to about Ksh400 in the most expensive establishments. 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. East African Breweries also produce a head-thumping 6.52 percent-alcohol version of Guinness. A number of slightly pricier (about ten percent more) imported beers are also available, mostly under the umbrella of South Africa’s SABMiller, including Castle Lager, Castle Milk Stout, Castle Lite and US brand Miller Genuine Draft. Also look out for South Africa-produced Savanna Dry, a clear, refreshing and dry-tasting cider that is usually thrown into cool boxes along with the beer for sundowners at safari lodges.
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. Sodas and beer in cans are available in supermarkets, but expect to pay about 10–20 percent more than the bottle price.
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 Rift Valley Winery makes the increasingly well-known Leleshwa.
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.
Although there is often a furtive discretion about pombe or mnazi sessions, 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.
If you’re a vegetarian staying in tourist-class hotels you should have no problems, as there’s usually a meat-free pasta dish, or various egg-based dishes. In more expensive establishments, vegetarian cooking is taken seriously, with creative options increasingly available that are more just stodge. If you’re on a strict budget you’ll gravitate to Indian vegetarian restaurants in the larger towns where you can often eat well and cheaply. Otherwise, it can be tricky, because meat is the conventional focus of any meal not eaten at home, and hotelis rarely have much else to accompany the starch; even vegetable stews are normally cooked in meat gravy.
If you’re a vegan, you’ll find there are nearly always good vegetables and lots of fruit at safari lodges and the more expensive hotels. Once again, where you’ll struggle is if you’re on a strict budget and eating local restaurant food.