In order to write this list of 10 must-try dishes from East Africa, I did not solely rely on personal experience. I also consulted friends (many thanks to you!) from several East African countries and asked them what their favorite dishes were. It was interesting that not a single one cited a dish from a country other than their own.
Now, if you read my last column, you will know that ugali will not be on this list, simply because I wouldn’t list it as one of the best, even if it is very popular. Others such as matoke from Uganda, or mkate wa mayai from Kenya/Tanzania are not listed, simply because I haven’t had a chance to try them myself. Who knows? Maybe you’ll see a revised list soon (can someone overnight me some matoke?), but for now, here’s my list.
10. Chai and Coffee
This is well known. The region has amazing tea and coffee. I know, I know, those are not actual dishes, but they can be prepared and enjoyed in a way that gives them the status of a meal, or at least a glorified snack. From Rwanda’s hills to Kenya, great tasting and flavored coffee is grown and enjoyed. East Africans do enjoy the coffee they grow and I have had some of the best coffee ever in Nairobi. As for the tea, I can’t figure out where its special flavor come from, but it makes it distinct and very much enjoyable.
Ethiopian chicken in red pepper sauce. An all-time Ethiopian favorite. Served with injera, it makes for a pleasant eating experience: carnal, almost sensual as no cutlery is used, only your hands. I am not a fan of hard-boiled eggs with my spicy chicken, so I usually leave those on the side. Do as you please, but do try it.
8. Roasted Maize (Kenya)
Roasted maize can be found in many cultures and I wouldn’t necessarily call it a Kenyan specialty, but it featured on the list of a couple of my experts, so if Kenyans want to claim it, let’s give it to them. It is a very simple snack, which heavily relies on the quality of the corn being grilled as not much is added to it. It is nutritious, healthy, and again here, eaten straight from the cob, after it’s taken on a wonderful charcoal-grilled flavor.
Many East African dishes are the product of a mix with Indian culture and dishes and biryani is one of them. A Tanzanian friend of mine argues that an Indian biryani and a Tanzanian biryani taste completely different, but honestly, I haven’t been able to tell them apart, so I must have been eating mine at the wrong places. Is there a dinner invitation in my future (wink, wink)? Either way, this is a specialty widely available in East Africa. Unlike pilau, the meat and the rice are cooked in two different pots and then mixed together.
6. Sukuma Wiki
Collard greens cooked in a little oil with diced tomatoes and onions. Honestly, I just like the name of it. It is so whimsical. I also like the fact that it is so great for you, entirely made of green leafy vegetables and still so tasty. If you are looking for a way to get your kids to eat their greens, this might be the way. Doesn’t “come eat your sukuma wiki” sound so much more appealing than “come eat your spinach?”
5. Maandazi (Kenya) (right)
Fried dough. Need I say more?
I do? Okay. Maandazi was my favorite breakfast item in Kenya. They are flavorful, with a nice doughy interior and a glorious golden exterior layer. Great with chai.
4. Pilau (Kenya, Tanzania)
Pilau is a rice cooked with tons of spices such as cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves (yes, some Indian influences here, too). A good pilau will make you forget what your name is. It is excellent eaten with the wide variety of stewed meats available in East African cuisine.
3. Chapati (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda)
I think I had chapati every single day I was in Kenya. This version of the Indian roti is ubiquitous in East Africa. It is delicious and even though it usually comes as an accompaniment to other dishes, I always ordered an extra one that I would eat plain. It takes some special skills to make very good chapatis, and to my dismay, I have not been able to successfully reproduce the taste or texture of the ones I had in Kenya, but isn’t life all about hope? Maybe one day.
2. Kachumbari (Kenya)
Fresh, light, and colorful. Kachumbari is irresistible and a great addition to any meal. It is a mix of fresh tomatoes, onions, and cilantro, seasoned with chili and lime. It is very easy to make and it’s healthy. The most fireworks ever are set up on your plate and then sparkle in your mouth.
Roasted meat is hands down the king of dishes in East Africa. Goat, lamb, chicken, East Africans have a way of grilling them, which maintains all their natural juices and flavors. They even have entire restaurants dedicated to the chomas. Served with a side of kachumbari, a little salt, or just plain, these could make even a hardcore vegetarian reconsider their choices.
Linda Dempah co-founded and writes for Tropical Foodies, a blog dedicated to dishes using tropical ingredients. She is living a passionate, lifelong love story with plantains and is sharing her enthusiasm for all the other tropical ingredients on her blog. Follow her on Twitter and like the blog on Facebook.