Tea Time: Efficient Cooking in Rural Kenya

When I got to Kenya, everybody told me that I had to try ugali, which is pretty much considered the national dish. So I did. It's corn meal and water, cooked until it resembles bread dough before it rises. I can't honestly say it was the most delicious thing I ate on my trip to Kenya, but I can see the caloric importance of it in the Kenyan diet where maize is plentiful, and not much else is.

Our host Thomas with his avocado tree
Ugali - The National Dish

Thomas, our host in the guest house we stayed in during our stay on the Lipton Tea plantation in Kericho, made some ugali for us for dinner.

It's a bit time consuming to make considering what goes into it, but he stood at the stove, stirring and stirring and adding more maize until he had achieved the desired consistency.

To my Western tastebuds it was beyond bland, but I'm told that this is the dish that expatriate Kenyans long for. More interesting to me was mukimo, another traditional dish, which one of my fellow travelers Kath had for lunch on our last day in Kenya. It's made with mashed beans, corn, potatoes and greens and boasts of more flavour than ugali.


photo: Katherine Younger

In fact, different types of greens seem to play a big role in the food in Kenya. We had some kind of green wherever we went, although Kath and I never actually determined what it was we were eating. When we asked Thomas what he was cooking for us, he replied "African vegetables", so we were no further ahead. They were all cooked down pretty much the same way everywhere we ate them and they were of varying degrees of bitterness.


A Chance to See a Private Home

We headed out one afternoon to visit the tea plantation of Simon, a smallhold farmer who sells tea to Lipton (more on that next week), when it began to rain. Simon's wife Esther graciously invited our mud tracking crew of journalists and Lipton representatives into her spotlessly clean home. While everybody else stayed in the living room discussing the business of tea, Kath and I repaired to the kitchen, where Esther showed us how she cooks.

A Fuel Efficient Stove

I was fascinated by the stove Esther uses. It's made of mud and is quite close to the ground. Wood for fuel is at a great premium in Kenya, so it's important that she cook using as little wood as possible. She told me she could make an entire meal for five or six people using four sticks of wood. The mid-day meal is the largest meal of the day and she provides food for the two tea pluckers her husband employs as well as for her family. We were there late in the afternoon and there was still a fair amount of residual heat in the stove, warm enough for the cat to find inviting, so Esther would require less wood for the smaller family supper that she makes in the evening.

What's For Dinner?

It turns out that Esther's diet is not so completely different from my own, the major difference comes in the way she prepares it. She cooks beans in a traditional hand made pot which sits on one of the "burners" of her stove, a bit off to the side so it isn't directly over the heat source and can sit there for a long time. She cooks vegetables in a pot on the indentation in the centre of the stove and when it is done she can move the pot to one of the corners to keep it warm as she finishes preparing the rest of the meal. Apparently there are modified versions of the stove that are taller so that pots can be placed under the stove, using it as an oven. Esther feeds her family sweet potatoes, kale, onions, and other vegetables which she grows herself and picks as required. She has milk from the one cow they own, and she keeps her milk and water in the traditional calabash, made from gourds.

They have no electricity, nor do they have running water. I expect the water comes from a well. Esther washes her dishes in the yard and leaves them out on a large rack to dry in the sun. Esther and Simon's living room is filled with chairs carefully covered with embroidered cloth, enough for at least ten people to sit. It is apparent, from our little glimpse into their home, that they are frequent and generous hosts.

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Tags: Cooking | Kenya | Vegan | Vegetarian

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