The Melting Pot

In a special feature for msafiri, Eat Out provides us with an overview of East African cuisine and makes some tempting recommendations


Much like anywhere else in the world, the cuisines of East Africa are largely influenced by its geographical location and anthropological influences, which in the case of East Africa relates to over a thousand years of invasion by the Arabs and Portuguese and colonisation by the Germans and the British (who also imported over 30,000 labourers from South India during the construction of the Uganda Railway in the late 1800s and early 1900s). Over the last millennium, every ‘foreigner’ who has set foot on East African shores has brought with them a certain level of culinary persuasion. The Arabs, savvy traders, brought with them the aromatic spices of black pepper, cardamom, cloves, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg and turmeric from the East. The Portuguese brought the introduction of New World crops such as maize, avocado and citrus fruits, among other things. The Indian labourers brought with them dishes such as samosas, chapati, curries, rice pilau and chutneys that remain popular in Kenya and East Africa.

Juxtaposed with East Africa’s exotic legacy, for thousands of years its people have largely lived a traditional way of life. The pastoralists herding cattle, sheep and goats have supplemented their diet with wild greens and tubers. The fishing tribes, around Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean have lived mainly on a diet of Nile perch, tilapia and saltwater fish and seafood. The farming tribespeople have cultivated traditional crops such as sorghum, millet and yams. As a result, East African food from the inland is largely simple but wholesome, with a focus not necessarily on flavour but on inherent nutritional value.

Meat is not commonly eaten on a daily basis in Kenya. Instead ugali is the staple accompanied by stews or greens such as sukuma wiki and ndengu (green lentil stew) .

Nyama choma is arguably the most common of culinary staples in Kenya. This meal of barbequed goat or beef is meant for special occasions to be shared with family and friends, but in the urban sprawl of Nairobi you’ll find ‘nyam chom joints’ a dime a dozen in the main business districts of the city.

Along the coast, you’ll find the strongest Arab and Eastern influence in food. Delicacies here include mutton, goat or beef pilau cooked with coconut milk and laced with ginger, cumin, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon and cardamom accompanied by kachumbari (a salsa of tomatoes, coriander, chillies, cabbage, and onion). Walk behind the busy streets of Makadara Avenue in Mombasa and you’ll find roadside hawkers selling fresh sugarcane juice, mahambri and mbaazi (sweet fried doughnuts served with pigeon pea and coconut stew) and daal bhajia, (lentil, onions, spinach and coriander fritters with mango and coconut chutney).

Thanks to East Africa’s generous climate and fertile soil, fruit is plentiful and, on every street corner across the region, mkokotenis (hand pulled carts) showcase a colourful spectrum of locally grown produce such as mango, avocado, pineapple, passion fruit and pawpaw, and, come lunchtime, the hawkers are busy preparing freshly cut fruit salad for their customers.

01 Tamasha & Buffet Park – Kenyan
Rumour has it that when musician and philanthropist Bono (of U2 fame) came to Nairobi a few years ago he made a beeline for Tamasha. This popular pub and restaurant is the upscale sister to Buffet Park, one of Nairobi’s most popular nyama choma joints. A visit here will give you a real taste of Nairobi’s buzzing nightlife scenes, with plenty of music, beer and meat to keep the evening and conversation well lubricated.
• Nairobi West

02 Ronalo’s – Kenyan
This establishment, located in the heart of Nairobi’s vibrant CBD, is extremely popular with Nairobi’s discerning working professionals, especially at lunchtime when the place is brimming. Not only is the food here great value, it’s wholesome, authentic and filling. You’ll see all the traditional Kenyan delicacies here, including tasty pilau, ugali and beef stew and a host of other delicious dishes.
• Kimathi Street, Nairobi

03 Habesha – Ethiopian
Renowned for its authentic Ethiopian/Eritrean cuisine, Habesha restaurant, located on Arwings Kodhek Road, Hurlingham, has been winning legions of fans in the city. Voted as the Best Value for Money Restaurant at the Taste Awards, Habesha offers a wide array of traditional, hearty Ethiopian/Eritrean cuisine served in a rustic and homely atmosphere. Don’t miss the coffee ceremony. The coffee (or bunna) is taken through its full life-cycle of preparation in front of you in a ceremonial manner.

04 Amaica – Kenyan
Nestled on the fringes of the lush Karura Forest, Amaica Restaurant stands out as a treasure trove of authentic Kenyan culture. The menu is designed to take you on a culinary journey of Kenya, from delicacies of the lush Kakamega forest in western Kenya to the coconut-laced fare of the balmy Kenyan coast. This is definitely for the adventurous – just be warned that fried rain ants seasoned with chilli and lemon are served as nibbles.

05 Carnivore – Kenyan
This establishment is something of an institution, and is considered one of Africa’s greatest eating experiences. Expect to be served up every type of meat imaginable including a selection of exotic meat that is roasted over charcoal and carved at your table. Finish off the fixed-price feast with freshly brewed premium grade Kenyan coffee.

06 Asmara – Eritrean
This new Eritrean restaurant boasts two distinctly different types of cuisine – Italian and Eritrean (similar in flavour to Ethiopian). Eritrea was for many years occupied by the Italians and so this restaurant is a modern reflection of the culinary legacy of a country. Both the Eritrean and Italian fare make it worth a visit.