The pleasure of traditional East African food.

East African food has developed over the centuries from a variety of influences. From the indigenous people whose wealth was concentrated in goats, sheep and cattle and led to a culture where meat is not a primary dietary source. To the colonization of the area by explorers and adventurers who travelled through East Africa.

Farmers here grow as staples grains and vegetables. Traditional East African foods include corn or rather maize that is used everywhere and is the basis of ugali a type of corn used in stews. Matoke is a dish of steamed green bananas that is a favourite and dishes are spiced beautifully with Arabic and Indian herbs and spices brought here 1000 years ago.

East African food the Masai people

The Portuguese introduced new ways of cooking and preserving foods in the 1400s and brought with them items they had discovered in their journeys to the Americas. These items included chiles, lemons, tomatoes, pineapples and corn.

After the Portuguese explorers came the British colonizers. They brought with them Indian spices and also introduced an entirely new repertoire of foods from South East Asia.

East Africa is a vast expanse of land of 20 territories and includes Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya,  Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia to name a few. The area is vastly different depending on where you are but it is full of some of nature’s most incredible landscapes and wild animals. East Africa is home to 100’s of languages of which Swahili is the most common and the people’s beliefs range from Christian, Muslim and Native Indigenous religions.

East Africa is an exciting region to explore lush, green, adventurous and drop-dead gorgeous, East Africa is a treat on every level.

map of East Africa

East African food – Dining etiquette

East African food varies widely from country to country.  It is also crucially important that certain protocols and rules of etiquette are followed. Many East Africans are Muslim so there are varied dietary restrictions including nothing from a pig.

Common East African Dining Etiquette

  • Wash your hands before and after meals. Your hostess will more than likely go to each guest with a bowl of water and soap to wash hands.
  • Men, women, and children dine separately. Men are offered the best food first, women next, then children.
  • Etiquette requires that you take off your shoes before entering Kenyan homes.
  •  The most honoured position is next to the host. When seated, your toes and feet should not be pointing toward the food or other diners.
  • Accept offered cups of tea and/or coffee, even if you only put it to your lips or just take a few sips. Your cup will always be refilled if it is less than half full.
  • Do not drink and eat at the same time. Eat first, then drink. Do not pour your own drink. Wait to be served.
  • The honoured guest is served first, then the oldest male, then the rest of the men, then children, and finally women. Do not begin to eat or drink until the oldest man has been served and has started eating.
  • Eat with your right hand. If offered a spoon or fork, hold them in your right hand.
  • Do not put your left hand on bowls or serving ware. When one communal bowl is present, eat from the part of the bowl/plate in front of you.

Traditional East African Cuisine

East African food varies widely depending on the location of the country. In the Indian Ocean, the islands of East Africa is very much influenced by southern India. The food tends to be richly spiced with ingredients such as tropical fruits, seafood and rich spices.

East African food the variety of spices

Sugar cane juice is a favourite and curries are the backbones of many meals.

There is a vast savannah area in East Africa and in this area meat is not eaten often as it is the tribes’ wealth and so must be preserved. The diet in this region is dominantly vegetables and grains.

Africa’s most famous ethnic group, the Maasai people are semi-nomadic people located primarily in Kenya and Northern Tanzania. They do eat the meat and blood or their cattle and their food dishes are quite similar to those of central Africa.

You may have heard of a dish called Ugali which is a very traditional East African food. It is quite similar to West Africa’s fufu but made from corn so much like polenta.

east african food ugali
©Mark Skipper / CC

Nyama Choma is a  traditional Kenyan dish of roasted goat or beef that is served with Ugali and vegetables such as okra or greens along with mashed bananas in places like Tanzania. Kenyan dishes are generally served with a side of mokimo or mashed potatoes mixed with peas and pumpkin leaves.

Asun - Spicy Roast Goat, popular Nigerian electable spicy roasted goat chopped into bite-sized pieces

In Ethiopian cuisine, the star of many dishes are vegetables and the food is perfect for vegetarians, vegans and with the use of Teff in the injera bread is great for those with gluten intolerances. 

Guide to the deliciousness of East African Food 1 Guide to the deliciousness of East African Food

Traditional East African Foods

Breakfast

In Uganda and Kenya breakfast usually includes baked bread such as chapatti.  This is similar to Indian chapatti which is simply flour and water dough rolled thinly and then fried. Kenyans love their Uji a sort of sour porridge made from a variety of grains including corn, sorghum or millet.

East African food a chapatti and cabbage dish

This is also known as Ogi, Akamu, Burukutu, Mahewu, Pap, Akamaor Pito depending on which country you are in. This mix soaks the grains in water for around 3 days and then it is milled wet to remove the husks. The cereal is then fermented for up to 3 days until sour when it is ready to eat. In Somalia, they would eat something similar to Injera bread called Anjoo.

Lunch

Just like other hot countries such as Spain and Portugal lunch will be the largest meal of the day. In East Africa lunch will usually consist of a dish of boiled rice typically eaten with a vegetable or meat stew. Depending on the country a type of bread like Ugali will also be included. Side dishes will include starch heavy dishes mixed with grains.

Dinner

Dinner is most often a much lighter and smaller version of lunch. Favourite East African food dishes include; Kuku na nazi with African, Indian and Arabic flavours. It’s a chicken-based coconut curry usually served with chapatti and rice.  It has Arabic, Indian and African influences. Kuku in Swahili means chicken.

a bowl of chicken curry made with a curry powder

Another popular dish is a Banana curry with Beef called Ndizi Na Nyama. Which is a curried Kenyan beef stew with plantains.

Cambuulo or ambulo as it is known in Somali is a dish made from azuki beans which are mixed with sugar and butter or oil. It is quite similar to Koshari an Egyptian dish but without the macaroni. The dish requires the azuki beans to be well cooked and mixed in with white boiled rice. This is then served with oil and or butter and a sprinkling of sugar.

Guide to the deliciousness of East African Food 2 Guide to the deliciousness of East African Food

Favourite East African Foods

Congo Tofu:

Is a blend of tomato paste, peanut butter, onion, garlic and tofu

Curried Potatoes:

Exactly what is says, spicy curried potatoes

Guide to the deliciousness of East African Food 3 Guide to the deliciousness of East African Food

Nyama na irio:

Mashed-up potatoes, peas, beans, corn and onion and often served with spiced roasted meat

Doro Wat:

Whole chicken, stewed in a variety of Ethiopian flavours, is usually served on the fabulous injera bread.

Guide to the deliciousness of East African Food 4 Guide to the deliciousness of East African Food

Ugandan Matoke:

Is a spicy green banana mash

Vitumbua:

Tanzanian coconut doughnuts, deep-fried deliciousness

Samaki Wa Kupaka:

A spiced infused grilled fish must be cooked over charcoal

East African Food grilled fish over charcoal

Atakilt Wat:

An Ethiopian cabbage dish made with cabbage flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom and other warm spices – delicious.

That’s just a tiny taste of East Africa. Have you any recipes or favourites from the region that you would love to share?

Guide to the deliciousness of East African Food 5 Guide to the deliciousness of East African Food

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