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| Updated on May 8, 2016

Strength in a Handful of Ugali

Modern Kenya is a large and intricate cultural tapestry.

This is owed in large part to its diverse inhabitants.

While most of the nation's population consist of native peoples from the various tribes throughout the land, Kenya has also been heavily influenced by other cultures due to colonization and immigration. The land now has a wide variety of non-native Kenyans who have brought their unique cultures with them. While these factors have certainly contributed to Kenya's diversity, a look at the country's cuisine reveals an ethnic identity all its own.

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Kenya's dietary staples mainly consist of hardy and inexpensive starches such as maize, corn, beans, and potatoes. One such traditional dish is called ugali, which is a type of porridge made from maize and usually served with a small portion of cooked vegetables or stew.

Ugali is prepared like oatmeal or grits, where the cornmeal is poured into a pot of boiling water and stirred until thickened. The dish may sound simple, but it also holds a deeper meaning which resonates with the spirit of the Kenyan people "One person is thin porridge or gruel; two or three people are a lump (handful) of ugali."

This well-known African proverb illustrates the value Kenyan's place on cooperation and unity—and on a hardy bowl of cornmeal.

While starchy meals like ugali are at the center of the Kenyan diet, meat does play a starring role in several of their native dishes.

Kenyans have a long history as cattle herders, and this is where most of their meat and other animal byproducts originate. A popular entrée traditionally prepared using either beef or goat is called nyama choma (Swahili for "roast meat").

This dish is made by marinating meat with lemon juice, garlic, and spices such as curry powder. The meat is then grilled over high heat and served with ugali or irio—a flavorful dish made of corn, mashed potatoes, and peas.

Another feature of a typical Kenyan diet is stew. Stews can be made with any meat (though again, goat and beef are commonly used), a tomato base, and a variety of vegetables such as carrots, peas, peppers, or potatoes. This thick stew, eaten with starches like ugali, allows Kenyans to stretch their meals quite far. However, it is no flavorless, stomach-filler.

Kenyan stew is often prepared using their famous mchuzi mix—a delicious blend of spices and seasonings including coriander, cinnamon, fennel seeds, turmic, ginger, garlic, cumin, and methee seeds. Yum!

A peek into the daily eating habits and rituals of any people can tell a lot about their culture and values. The people of Kenya value unity and cooperation, as is seen in their ugali. They also appreciate depth and substance, which is clearly evident in their flavorful roasted meat dishes, and thick stews. Kenya's culture has been inexplicably shaped by its cuisine, and vice versa.

By learning to prepare a Kenyan dish, or perhaps traveling to Kenya for oneself, one can experience their rich, and often delicious, culture.

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