Kenya’s Ugali – Everything You Need To Know
In my guide to the top traditional Kenyan foods, I introduced you to one of the most popular dishes in Kenya, Ugali. I also gave you the top 10 places to eat traditional Kenyan dishes in Nairobi, and I assure you that Ugali will be on the menu.
The word “Ugali” is a Bantu language term that is derived from the Swahili language.
You cannot come to Kenya and fail to eat Ugali. That is like visiting Paris for the first time and not taking a photo at the Eiffel Tower (I love Paris if you cannot already tell).
Ugali is so popular in Kenya, that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, ate it on his very first trip to Kenya. He enjoyed some Ugali and fish (“Samaki”). Barrack Obama, former US president, has also talked of how he used to eat Ugali with his sister.
Some tribes in Kenya like the Luhya tribe even believe that if you have not eaten Ugali for dinner, then you are sleeping on an empty stomach, regardless of whatever else you have eaten.
So what is this “Ugali”?
Ugali is an African meal made by mixing maize flour (or corn meal) with hot water consistently until it reaches a stiff or dough-like consistency, over a fire.
Ugali goes by different names in Kenya and the sub-Saharan Africa including “nsima” or “nshima” in Malawi and Zambia, “pap” or “mealie pap” in South Africa, and “sadza” in Zimbambwe. Different tribes in Kenya also have different names for this meal. They include “ngima” by the Kikuyus, and “obhusuma” by the Luhyas.
Maize flour is the common ingredient for making Ugali, but you can also use sorghum or millet flour.
In Kenya, there are different types of maize flour sold in all the supermarkets. Some brand names includes “Jogoo”, “Soko”, “Pembe”, “Hostess”, among others.
In the villages, most people prefer a heavier flour that is made by grinding maize in a maize mill, without sifting or removing any of the nutrients. This type of Ugali is denser in consistency, and tends to be more filling and nutritious (in my opinion).
How to prepare Ugali (5 servings)
- White/Brown cornmeal, finely ground
- Heavy cooking pot
- Wooden cooking stick
- Fill your heavy cooking pot halfway with water, and place it on your stove to boil.
- Once it starts to boil, let it boil for about 2 minutes straight, then stir in your cornmeal slowly, in small portions.
- Stop adding your cornmeal as soon as you realize the dough has formed, and let it cook over medium heat.
- After about 3 minutes, stir the meal again, and keep repeating this process for about 10-12 minutes.
- Once you are satisfied that it is well cooked, wet your cooking stick and use it to press your dough inwards towards the center of your cooking pot, making sure to go round the insides of the cooking pot with your cooking stick.
- Prepare a large flat plate and take your cooked Ugali while still in the cooking pot, and turn the cooking pot over the large plate.
- Remove your cooking pot that is now upside down, being very careful not to get burnt by the steam from the pot.
- Your Ugali is ready to eat.
There are many variations to making Ugali. You can choose to add salt in your cooking water (I would not recommend), you can opt for milk instead of using water, you can add some butter to your water, and instead of using cornmeal, you can opt for millet, sorghum, or coarse cassava flour. If you want very soft Ugali, then you have to use more water and vice versa.
Kenya’s Ugali is usually served as an accompaniment to vegetable stew or meat, but can also be taken with fresh or soured milk. If you have left over Ugali, you can also take it with tea for breakfast, and it would be best not to warm it if your tea is hot.
How to eat Ugali
Now that you have learnt how to prepare the Kenyan Ugali, we need to sit down and eat it. Traditionally, Ugali would be placed at the center of the table or on the floor, with smaller plates of stew around it, for the family members. Then you would each dig into the Ugali in turns until you finished it. There are people who still do this.
Generally though, to eat Ugali, pinch a sizeable lump with your fingers, and mush it with the same fingers to make a round shape. Then form an indentation into the round shape with your thumb, and use this to scoop up your accompanying stew. This could be vegetables, meat, or even beans (“madondo”).
If you would rather not use your hands (though this is the best way to eat Ugali if you ask me), then feel free to use a fork and knife to cut pieces that you can transfer to your plate.
Points to note
- The taste of Ugali – Basic Kenyan Ugali (as per the recipe above) has a popcornish taste, unless it has been flavoured with either milk or butter.
- The amount of Ugali to eat depends on how much your stomach can take in. Some people eat small portions while others have been known to eat very big portions with just a little stew.
- The cooking pot that has been used to cook Ugali has to be soaked in water if you want any success in washing it. I personally prefer to soak my cooking pot the whole night (assuming I had Ugali for dinner), then wash it the following morning.
- Once Ugali has been removed from the cooking pot and assuming it has been well cooked, there is a crisp lining that forms around the insides of the cooking pot. This can also be eaten and is quite tasty actually.
- The more basic your Ugali, the better the taste. Avoid adding too much flavour and just prepare it with the above basic steps.
There you have it! Kenya’s Ugali. Everything you need to know. Let me know what you think once you get the chance to try it.