East Africa comprises ten countries: Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya. Among residents of this region, the name Eastern Africa usually refers to these ten countries, while the name East Africa means the political region comprising Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. In this article East Africa refers exclusively to the ten countries mentioned. This region covers an area of about 2.3 million square miles and in 2002 had a population of about 190 million people. East Africa has over 500 linguistically distinct communities, which fall into five distinct groups: the Bantu, Nilotic, Cushitic, Sudanic, and Semitic peoples. This area is also home to many people of Arabian, Indian, and European origin.
Besides being ethnically diverse, East Africa is extremely geographically diverse. Bounded to the east by the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, the land rises (often on a plateau) to the Ethiopian and East African highlands, which contain five of the highest mountain peaks in Africa, such as Mount Kilimanjaro. Dividing these highlands is the Great Rift Valley. In East Africa, where it forms two arms (eastern and western), the Great Rift Valley has a series of lakes on its floor and all around it. All these geographical features have a heavy influence on the climate of the region, which has extremes of temperatures, humidity, and precipitation. Most of the lowland areas are hot and dry. Djibouti, regarded as the warmest city in the world, has a mean annual temperature of 86°F. Seventy-five percent of the region is either arid or semiarid, the Horn of Africa and upper half of Sudan being extremely arid. Rainfall is erratic, and there is a high incidence of famine in the region. The highlands are generally cooler and receive more precipitation. Near the equator, the rainfall has two peaks per year.
Much of the agriculture is concentrated in the highlands and around the Great Lakes of East Africa, and these areas contain the highest concentration of people. Ninety percent of East African people are employed in agriculture and livestock, with the highlands being used mainly for crop production and the dryer lowlands for animal production.
The great diversity in East Africa's climate, physical features, and ethnic groups is reflected in its food culture. This culture is further enriched by the long history of interactions with people from other continents, especially the Arabian and Indian peninsulas.
Introduction to East African Food Culture
Perhaps some of the best and oldest evidence of what human ancestors ate can be found in Olorgesailie, a historical site on the floor of the Great Eastern Rift Valley that is about 40 miles (66 kilometers) south of Nairobi, Kenya. This hot, dusty site located in a semidesert scrub was once (during the Stone Age) a lake in a lush environment that teemed with wildlife. At this site, thousands of wedgelike stone tools (handaxes, cleavers, scrapers, knives) of varying sizes litter the ground. These were the tools that human ancestors fashioned skillfully and used to dig for food and to tear up their kill, probably antelopes, giraffes, and other ungulates that came to drink water at the shores of this lake.
About five thousand years ago, much of East Africa was occupied by hunters and gatherers, commonly referred to as ndorobo. Although a few of these people still exist, most of these groups were assimilated by later migrants and therefore lost their identity, including their food culture. With spears, snares, and poisoned arrows they hunted big and small game—from rabbits and dik-diks to buffalo, giraffes, and elephants, and in some cases stray cat and dog families, as well. The practice of hunting still exists in East Africa, but only at low levels since it is forbidden in most countries. Gathering wild foods—such as fruits, nuts, tubers, honey, grasshoppers, caterpillars, termites, eggs, and some birds—was also an important way of acquiring food for ancestors who lived in this region. Today the contribution of gathering is less significant but many aspects of it remain. For example, during the rain season, the flying reproductive forms of termites (tsiswa in Luhyia) emerge from termite mounds. These are trapped, dried or roasted, and eaten or preserved in honey, or used as a snack and occasionally in sauce. A variety of caterpillars (maungu in Giriama) are also harvested and eaten. Wild birds that resemble a small chicken, such as tsisindu in Luhyia or aluru in Luo, are considered delicacies. Tubers and nuts obtained from the ground are a source of energy and water among people who herd livestock. The Maasai potato (oloiropiji or Ipomoea longituba ), which is characterized by a flat taste, may weigh up to nine pounds and contains enough water to last a herder a whole day.
The key animals that are raised in East Africa are cattle, sheep, goats, camels, pigs, and donkeys. Cattle, which are the most important of these, were introduced into the region from North Africa in 3000–2000 B.C.E. and are the economic base for livestock keepers/ pastoralists who live in drier regions. The foods of livestock-raising groups are animal based, with milk products being by far the most important. Milk is obtained from camels, cows, goats, and occasionally sheep. It is taken fresh or is fermented in containers—mainly gourds (kuat in Sudan or kibuyu in Swahili) or hollowed-out wood, as is the case with many pastoralists to the north and east of the region. The milk is then churned to make butter and sour milk (rob in Arabic or chechirot in Dinka), which are very popular foods in southern Sudan and among pastoralists. A variety of sticks are burned in such milk containers to disinfect and to impart a nice flavor to the milk. A popular tree for this purpose is the African olive (oloirien in Maasai or Olea europaea ssp. africana ). The Somali community adds the aromatic hoary basil (Ocimum americanum ) to milk as a flavoring. Butter, which was a major item of barter trade in the past, is used in preparing other foods or is mixed with other foods to add flavor. Milk, which people often drink sweetened with sugar, may be used as an accompaniment for ugali or sima (asida in Sudan), which is a type of stiff porridge.
To most pastoralists, fresh blood obtained by darting the jugular vein of an animal (usually a cow) is an important food, especially during times of food shortage. Blood is normally mixed with milk and stirred vigorously into a uniform brown mixture. Among the Somali, fresh blood from goat (diik ) is recommended for women after delivering babies. A more common use of blood is stuffing it in the intestines of an animal (with spices) and cooking or roasting them. This dish, called mutura, is usually served in the form of large sausagelike segments. Bone soup is also popular among pastoralists. Plant parts such as bark of olkiloriti (Maasai for Acacia nilotica ) are used both as a flavoring for soup and as medicine. Pork is not allowed in most of Ethiopia and among the Muslim communities, and is not tolerable in many communities. Its consumption, however, is well established in fast foods.
Agriculture is, by far, the most important production system in East Africa. Agriculture in Eastern Africa was pioneered by Cushitic speakers from the Ethiopian highlands. Other cultivators came in from the south, west (Bantu), and northwest (Nilotes). The earliest food crops of most agriculturalists included sorghum, finger and pearl millets, hyacinth (lablab) beans, Bambara ground-nuts, bottle gourds, cowpeas, and yams. East African farmers eventually acquired a number of Asian crops such as banana, cocoyams, and sugar cane, as well as crops from South America, such as pumpkins, cassava (manioc), groundnut, and sweet potato. In the years following the explorations of Christopher Columbus, East Africa began to receive American crops such as maize, peanuts (groundnuts), kidney beans, and potatoes, as well as European cabbage and kales. Such foods quickly spread in popularity during the colonization era (c. 1850–1960) and became the most important foods in the region. In spite of these more recent introductions, many cultural groups retained their traditional foods, but with modified preparations.
Common Foods of the East African Peoples
Over the years, East African communities have developed and adopted specific recipes. In southern Sudan the more common foods are milk (sour or fresh), kisira (a type of pancake), rice, asida (ugali, or stiff porridge), and fish. In Ethiopia, typical foods would be injera/firfir, kichah (spiced pancake), dabo (bread), and bula (ensete, or stiff porridge). These are normally served with a variety of hot sauces (wat, or watt ) on one large tray for the entire family. In Somalia the more common foods include milk (camel and cow), canjeero (a type of enjera ), pasta, otkac/nyirnyir (dried meat), xalwa (a type of dessert), and labee (blood). In Kenya the most common foods include ugali, githeri (a mixture of maize and a pulse—that is, seeds of legumes, such as chickpeas, lentils, field peas, peanuts), pilau (spiced rice cooked with meat), and chapati. In Tanzania, wali/pilau and makande (a mixture of maize and beans) are common dishes. In Uganda, a common food is steamed matooke (banana) and also sweet potato and cassava products served with groundnut sauce. In Uganda ugali is a rather recent dish and is not very popular. In Rwanda and Burundi, beans cooked with vegetables and other starchy foods such as sweet potatoes, cassava, and green bananas are most popular. A type of ugali made from cassava—ubuswage —is also common.
In the inland part of Kenya, food preparations tend to be simple. Frying with oil and onion is the most popular way of improving food flavor. However, preparations are more complex and time-consuming in coastal parts of Kenya and Tanzania, where the use of coconut as a flavoring is widespread. Consequently, the foods in these regions are tastier than in inland regions. In Sudan some preparations, especially those involving food fermentation, are quite elaborate and may take up to two weeks to complete. In Uganda, steaming food that is wrapped in banana leaves is popular for preparing things such as sweet potatoes, ugali, bananas, cassava, vegetables, yams, and cocoyams. Of all the East African countries, Ethiopia seems to have the most elaborate food preparation methods, usually involving fermentation and spicing, especially with hot pepper.
Maize, sorghum, and millets. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, maize replaced sorghum as the most important cereal in East Africa. It is common to see people in urban areas fanning a charcoal fire in the streets and roasting fresh soft maize. Passersby buy this roasted maize (mahindi ya kuchoma ) and eat it as they walk. Green maize is also boiled in water (amakhaye in Kisa), with or without the inner covers, and is salted and eaten just like roasted maize. Alternatively, fresh maize is removed from the cob and boiled fresh or when dry (inete ). Among the Somali, fresh maize (galeey ) is fried in oil and taken as a snack. Dry maize is fried in sesame oil to make popcorn (salol ), which is often served with coffee to men as they chew khat (miraa ).
Another popular East African food is githeri. This is basically a boiled mixture of fresh or dry maize with seeds from beans, garden peas, lablab beans, groundnuts, cowpeas, and pigeon peas. Githeri may be consumed alone or mixed with leafy greens or stews, especially meat stew.
When githeri is cooked with potatoes or cocoyams and occasionally leafy greens (mainly leaves of pumpkin, cocoyams, or Malabar gourd) and mashed, the sticky green substance that results is called mukimo. Among the Taita of Kenya, mukimo is made by mashing cooked cassava, sweet potatoes, or plantain with leguminous seeds, and it is known as kimanga or shibe.
Muthokoi (naamis in Mbulu) is a dish similar to githeri, but it is prepared from dry maize that has been processed to remove the tough seed coat (testa). In the Arusha region of Tanzania, cooked maize (makande ) and rice are mixed with sour milk and served. A dry mashed mixture of maize and beans is mixed with smoked, nearly ripe bananas and mashed. This food, called mangararu by the Meru of northern Tanzania (makukuru in Swahili), can last for several days.
Ugali (sima). Probably the most important food in East Africa is ugali or sima (asida in Arabic, kun in Dinka, kawunga in Baganda, akaro in Banyankore, buro in Banyoro). Ugali is a sticky, moist dish that is made by mixing flour from a starchy food (mainly cereal and usually maize, but it can also be sorghum, finger millet, pearl millet, wheat, and occasionally cassava, or a mixture of any of these) in hot water and cooking as one mixes the substance to a paste that varies in consistency from place to place. Ugali by itself has a mild taste. It is usually eaten with one's fingers. It may be eaten with sour fermented milk, a vegetable stew (for example, beans, cowpeas, pigeon pea, green gram), meat stew, green vegetables, chicken, or fish. In the Lake Victoria region, fish is a common accompaniment. The combination of roasted meat (commonly known as nyama-choma ) and ugali is considered a delicacy in beer-drinking places. Ugali is very filling and is known for its ability to make people sleepy; hence it is good for the evenings.
Ugali made from finger millet (sometimes mixed with sorghum) is popular among the Banyankore, Bakiga, Batoro, and Banyoro of western Uganda. Among the Karimojong of northeast Uganda and the neighboring Turkana of Kenya, a soft type of ugali (locally known as atapa ) is often made from sorghum or pearl millet and is usually taken with sour milk, which may occasionally be mixed with animal blood.
Ugali made from cassava is common in the Lake Victoria region and in Burundi (ubuswage/ubutsima bw'imyumbati ). Large balls of this ugali are wrapped in banana leaves (imitoto ) and stored in a basket. These are picked and served with fish (ifi ). Among the Lugbara and Madi of northwest Uganda, cassava flour is often mixed with millet or sorghum flour to prepare a type of ugali known as enya (Lugbara) or linya (Madi). The Iteso of Eastern Uganda and neighboring Kenya make a similar type of ugali, which is often eaten with groundnut paste.
In Ethiopia's Oromia region, a soft type of ugali, locally known as genffo, is prepared from wheat or maize flour and is served on a plate. A hole is then made in the middle and butter and powdered pepper and some salt are added. A more elaborate preparation is that of a breakfast food known as kijo. These are balls or lumps of fine, half-fermented maize starch wrapped in maize leaves and cooked by dipping the balls in boiling water. Each ball is given to one person and it is eaten with fresh or sour milk, tea, or coffee.
Another type of ugali is chenga, which is made from coarsely ground maize. Chenga is usually eaten with sour milk. In southern Sudan, sorghum is used to prepare a type of chenga, which is served with sour milk (amok, chekipiu ), fish (rech ), or meat (ring ). This food is served at weddings and special ceremonies surrounding the event of a woman's first menstruation. Among the Kamba of Kenya, cleaned sorghum seeds are boiled with pigeon peas (ngima ya munyala ). In southern Sudan, millet is also used to prepare a type of chenga known as dukun (Arabic) or awuo (Dinka). It is served with groundnut sauce (mulaa keimot ) and mixed with fish stew.
Sour ugali is popular among peoples of southern Sudan. It is made from fermented maize or sorghum flour (akilamuat or kun ayupwach ) or sour milk in water (akileben or kuncha ) or tamarind water (asidamot/akilamot kunchuei ). Ugali is occasionally eaten with ghee (zet, miok ) instead of milk. This is popular in southern Sudan (where it is called kundiung ) and among pastoralists. It is common to find the Wambulu of Tanzania eating this dish ( faa ) as they sit on mats.
Porridge (gruel). Porridge (uji in Swahili) is a popular breakfast food in East Africa. It is a healthy food, especially for children and breast-feeding mothers, as it is easy to digest and provides both water and energy in readiness for the day. However, tea has replaced porridge as a breakfast food in most parts of East Africa, which has further complicated the problem of malnutrition.
Porridge is mainly made from cereals. Depending on the area, porridge may be thin or thick and may be flavored with sugar, salt, lemon, tamarind, baobab, coconut, cow ghee/butter, or milk. Probably the most delicious type of porridge is the fermented type, obusera obupuute (Kisa). Preparation of this dish, however, is tedious and time-consuming. In some areas this dish has cultural significance: Among the Kikuyu of central Kenya, a circumcised boy stayed in seclusion for a certain period, after which a caretaker (mutiili ) led him to his mother's house, where the boy was served fermented porridge (ucuru wa mukio ) as a sign of welcome. Finger millet (wimbi ) porridge is the most popular of all porridges in East Africa.
Rice (wali). Rice is an important dish for the Ethiopian, Asian, and Muslim communities in East Africa. A common dish is wali usambara, which is rice prepared with coconut milk, salt, and a bit of oil. Biriani is a very spicy dish composed of rice (usually spiced) and spiced meat or chicken stews. Pilau is a spicy mixture of meat stew and rice that is popular both inland and in coastal areas. Spices in this dish include coriander, cardamom, cumin, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, onion, and garlic. Pilau is a popular dish in ceremonies all over the region. Preparing pilau is a delicate undertaking that requires a lot of patience and is usually performed by several women working together. Pilau is often eaten with spiced stews. Wali ubwabwa is a soft type of rice that cooks as one stirs it. Mkate wa sinia is made from rice flour mixed with yeast, water, sugar, and coconut milk and heated from below and above. All of these dishes are common in coastal areas.
Wheat products. Some amount of wheat is grown in the dryer highlands of East Africa, especially in Ethiopia and Kenya. Probably the most popular wheat food in the region is the Asian flat, round, thin bread widely known as chapati. Chapati is mainly served with stews, hot beverages, and soft drinks. In general, bread (mkate in Swahili, dabo in Amharic) has gained increasing importance in East Africa and now is the most popular starchy food for breakfast in urban areas.
The greatest variety of wheat products is found in Ethiopia. These include kichah, a dish made from a mixture of onions fried in oil and wheat flour. Another wheat product is chechebsa, which is cooked with teff (a type of cereal grass). Small pieces of salted dough (lite ) are cooked on a pan without oil to a brown bread. This is buttered and spiced with pepper. Fettira is a thin breakfast bread made from wheat and egg and eaten with butter or yogurt.
Arakip (Arabic) or ayup (Dinka) is a type of dry bread prepared from maize, sorghum, wheat, or millet flour in Sudan. This bread is popular with people looking after cattle. Kisira (kun pioth in Dinka) is a Sudanese pancake like enjera that is prepared from maize or sorghum flour mixed with a little wheat and water. This pancake is served with beans, okra, or okra mixed with meat or ayak (Corchorus ), a mucilaginous vegetable.
A whole range of wheat products, generally of European or Asian origin, are available in East African restaurants and homes. Common products include samosas (sambusa, isambusa ), kaimati, mandazi and the related mahamri, and French bread, to name a few. Mandazi (imandazi, ibitumbula in Burundi), as they are called in Kiswahili, and the related mahamri are very popular types of buns served in restaurants. Mandazi are made by mixing dough with baking powder and sugar, while in mahamri the dough is mixed with yeast and often coconut milk. Both are cooked briefly in oil. In Dar es Salaam it is customary to eat mandazi with cooked beans (maharage ). The mixture is called zege, and it is eaten along with tea for breakfast. Kaimati, on the other hand, is spherical and more solid than mahamri.
Cakes are most popular in formal ceremonies, especially weddings. Among the Luhyia, a popular cake is made by mixing ripe banana and maize flour, which is then kneaded into a dough, cut into balls, and wrapped in banana leaves and steamed in water. This sweet traditional cake (omukati kwe lisotsi ) is served with tea or porridge.
Barley. Cheko (Ethiopia) is a type of spiced bread made from barley. Barley is also used to make a type of porridge known as baso. This is often flavored with honey, sugar, salt, and butter.
Teff. Teff (Eragrostis tef ), a type of cereal grass, is grown traditionally only in Ethiopia, particularly in the western region. Most teff is made into enjera (injera ), a huge, flat, flabby, rather elastic, and slightly sour pancake that is eaten with spicy meat or vegetable stews such as doro watt (hot, spiced chicken curry), sega watt (lamb sauce), and key watt (hot, spiced beef sauce). One tears off pieces of the pancake and uses them to scoop or roll the stews. Enjera is a typical food in Ethiopian restaurants all over the region. The Somali type of enjera (canjeero ) is usually made from a mixture of maize and wheat and is often flavored with garlic and iliki. Sugar and milk cream are usually added to breakfast enjera. Enjera may also be made from a mixture of rice and wheat.
Cassava. Cassava is important at the coastal areas and among the Iteso and Luo of Lake Victoria basin and their relatives in Uganda, the Acholi, Langi, and Alur. Dry cassava can be roasted or boiled or eaten fresh. In the coastal region, fried cassava is flavored with lemon and powdered pepper and eaten with tea. Cassava is also deep-fried (mgazija wa kukalanga in Giriama). Cassava leaves (mchicha kisamvu ) are used as a vegetable throughout the region.
Potato (English/Irish potato). Potatoes are used to make a popular stew (called karanga in Kenya) of carrots, tomatoes, meat, and onions. These are usually served with ugali, chapati, or wali (rice). Chips, or french fries, are the most popular foods in fast-food kiosks and are usually served with pork or beef sausages. In Burundi, chips are also prepared from green bananas (ibitoke ) and sweet potatoes (ibijumbu ).
Tannia and cocoyams or taro. Tannia (Xanthosoma sagittifolium, called Marumi in the Meru region of Tanzania) is commonly used in Uganda and parts of Tanzania, especially among the Chagga, Ameru, and Arusha peoples. The tubers may be cooked with meat, beans, and maize or boiled and eaten with tea.
Cocoyams or taro (Colacasia esculenta ), on the other hand, are widespread in the region and are commonly planted along water courses. The tubers are prepared in the same manner as tannia. Both tannia and cocoyams are popular breakfast foods.
Yams. In East Africa yams (Dioscorea ) come in various types and include such varieties as the aerial yam or air potato, whose tubers are borne on the stems. Yams are prepared in the same ways as tannia and cocoyams.
Bananas and plantains. Many varieties of bananas exist in East Africa. Different varieties are used for brewing beer and cooking, and others are eaten when ripe, such as kisukari (Swahili) or igisukari (Burundi). Kisimiti and kibungara (found in the Mount Meru section of Tanzania) are varieties used to make traditional beers called banana and mbege. Also in Mount Meru, the soft varieties of bananas called Uganda and ng'ombe are preferred for meat and maize dishes. A cooked mixture of ndizi ng'ombe and maize meal, served with milk, is known as loshoro and is a favorite food for the Arusha. In Tanzania, mashed beans and bananas (kishumba ) are often served as a wedding cake with dengelwa (local sugar cane beer).
Green bananas (matooke ) are the most important foods of the Baganda of Uganda. They are usually wrapped in banana leaves, steamed, and then mashed and eaten with a variety of steamed sauces usually containing groundnuts.
Ensete. Ensete (enset ) is a bananalike plant (Ensete edule ) exploited in southern Ethiopia for its pseudo-stem and leaf midribs—a source of a starchy product that is the staple food of parts of Ethiopia. This starch is fermented in the ground for periods lasting weeks or months. It is made into several products, including kocho (bread) and bula (porridge). Kocho is usually eaten with kittifo (kitfo )—hand-minced beef mixed with butter and pepper and served raw or cooked. A major disadvantage of ensete is its low protein content.
Beans (kidney bean, common bean) and peas. In Rwanda and Burundi beans are eaten for breakfast, lunch, supper, and as a snack. They are cooked with starchy foods such as sweet potatoes, green bananas, cocoyams, and cassava, as well as leafy green and fruit vegetables. In coastal parts of Tanzania, beans (maharage ) are cooked in coconut milk (tui ) and served with ugali. Among the Giriama of Kenya this stew is known as borohowa ya maharagwe.
Other pulses commonly made into stews are cowpeas and green grams, locally known as pojo or ndengu. Pojo stew (borohowa ya pojo ) goes well with chapati, but it is also eaten with ugali and rice. In Ethiopia meat is prohibited during fast days. In such times, chickpeas, lentils, field peas, peanuts, and other pulses are used to make the local sauces and stews, watt, and alechi.
Bambarra groundnuts. Bambara (Vigna subterranea ) seeds are boiled with maize (usually after overnight soaking) to make a type of githeri (amenjera ke tsimbande in Luhyia) usually eaten as a snack. These seeds are also fried like groundnuts.
Groundnuts and other nuts. Groundnuts (ibiyoba in Burundi) are the most widely grown nuts in the region and are eaten raw, roasted, boiled, or in stews. In southern Sudan, ground roasted groundnuts are mixed with honey and eaten.
Groundnuts are extremely important in Uganda as they are used to make the most commonly used sauce—groundnut sauce—that is used to eat most starch foods. The sauce is usually mixed with meat, mushrooms, fish, chicken, or just tomatoes.
Among the Somali, a mixture of iliki, roasted groundnuts, and sugar is fried in ghee (subag ) to make a sticky jellylike substance called xalwa, which is usually served with coffee or as a dessert after meals. Cashew nuts are grown in coastal areas and are a popular snack.
Gild (Cordeauxia edulis ) is an evergreen shrub in the bean family that produces seeds called yeheb (yihib ), which are eaten like nuts. These are very popular with Somali pastoralists. The inner part of marula fruit seeds (Sclerocarya birrea ) is eaten fresh or roasted.
Fish. The most popular type of fish (samaki, rech ) in East Africa is the tilapia (mainly Oreochromis niloticus ) or ngege. People along the shores of Lake Victoria often enjoy this dish with ugali. The large Nile perch (Lates niloticus ) is not as popular as talapia, but it provides large quantities of meat, which are usually made into fish balls. Another common fish is the small sardinelike fish (Rastrineobola argentea ) known by the names omena (Luo) and dagaa (Swahili). These cheap sources of protein are dried and sold in tins in most urban markets.
Meat. Meat (nyama, ring ) is used to prepare a variety of sauces and stews (mchuzi in Swahili and watt in Amharic). In Ethiopia, quanta is meat that is cut in long pieces, smeared with powdered pepper, salted, and dried by hanging it above the fireplace for five to seven days. This meat is used to make a hot stew, quanta watt, which is served with enjera or mixed with broken pieces of enjera and eaten as quanta firfir (Amharic) or sukume (Oromic). Among the Luo of Kenya, such dried meat is known as aliya and is made into a stew that is eaten with ugali. Among the Somali, dried meat (otkac or nyirnyir ) is usually prepared from camel meat (hilib gel ). Strips of sun-dried meat are cut into small pieces that are fried (usually in oil with garlic and iliki ) and immersed in camel ghee (subag ). Nyirnyir can last for several months and is usually served with tea, honey, chapati, and enjera. During breakfast, nyirnyir is served only to men. Preserved camel's meat and dates are served during Somali weddings. The date pulp is separated from the seed, mashed, and put around the preserved meat. On the wedding day, the meat basket is covered with a white cloth as a sign of purity or virginity. The dates and meat are served by the bride's mother to her new in-laws.
In Sudan, most of the meat from a slaughtered animal is dried (shermout ). The layer of fat around the stomach is also dried and is called miriss. Internal organs may also be dried, pounded, mixed with some potash, and molded into a ball that is allowed to dry slowly to make twini-digla. The large intestine may also be cleaned and stuffed with fat and hung to dry as a type of sausage.
A common way of serving meat is to pile pieces of meat and sweet pepper on a stick and roast them. This type of meat, known as mshikaki (mshakiki, umushikaki in Burundi), is very common in the streets of coastal towns in the evening.
Chicken. Most households in East Africa raise chickens, which are usually prepared for guests. The various parts of the chicken hold significance in different regions. In western Kenya, for example, the tail part of the chicken is reserved for the male head of a family. Among the Kamba of Kenya, a gizzard is served to the most important person in a group of visitors, while among the Luhyia the gizzard (imondo ) is never shared. If two people did share it, it is believed they would always be in disagreement.
Milk and milk products. The nomadic tribes of Sudan make a type of cheese called kush-kush eaten with sorghum porridge. Camel herders put milk into a skin bag that is fastened to the saddle of a camel, and the milk (gariss ) is allowed to ferment. This is a major source of food for the herders as they roam with their animals in remote areas.
In the twentieth century many dairy products entered the Sudan from the North, including jibnabeida (white cheese), zabadi (yogurt), and black cumin-flavored mish (Dirar, Harper, and Collins, p. 20).
Meat substitutes. In rural western Sudan, a popular substitute for the meat flavor is kawal, a strong-smelling product derived from a two-week long fermentation of the pounded green leaves of the wild legume Cassia obtusifolia. In the same region, the oil seedcake remaining after oil extraction from sesame seed (Sesamum orientale ) is fermented for a week to make sigda, another meat substitute. Sigda is usually consumed in a vegetable stew. Furundu, a similar meat substitute, is prepared from the seeds of karkade or red sorrel (Hibiscus sabdariffa ). All these products are dried after fermentation in the form of hard, irregular, small balls and may keep for a year or so.
Leafy vegetables. Many leafy vegetables are used as an accompaniment for starchy foods such as ugali. These vegetables are prepared in a variety of ways—in many cases as a mixture. Common traditional leafy vegetables include baobab, cowpea, amaranth, vine spinach (Basella alba ), Ethiopian kale (Brassica carinata ), spiderplant (Cleome gynandra ), jute (Corchorus olitorius ), crotalaria, sweet potato, water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica ), African nightshades (Solanum species), hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa ), Oxygonum sinuatum, African eggplants (Solanum species), pumpkin, cocoyam, bean, and cassava. Ethiopian kale (gommen ) is important during fast days in Ethiopia when meat is prohibited. It is used to make local sauces, alecha. A few nontraditional leafy vegetables like cabbage have gained importance in the last few decades. Kale (Sukuma wiki ), introduced in the twentieth century, is now the most highly consumed vegetable in urban parts of Kenya.
Fruit. A wide range of traditional and exotic fruits are consumed in East Africa, usually as snacks. Mango, citrus fruits, banana, jackfruit, papaya, melons, guava, passion fruit, custard apple, and avocado pear are all common market fruits. Many of the traditional fruits are picked in the wild, such as baobab (Adansonia digitata ), wild custard apple, saba, carissa, dialium, flacourtia (Indian plum), marula, vangueria, tamarind, vitex, and jujube.
The dry cream-colored pulp of baobab, which is sour-to-sweet in taste, is eaten raw or may be dissolved in water and stirred to a milky state, at which time the seeds are sieved off and the juice is used as a sauce or for sour porridge. The pulp-coated seeds (mabuyu ) are colored, sugar-coated, and sold as sweets in coastal towns (Swahili).
Beverages. In general, traditional East African cultures do not favor the use of juices. Juice made from ripe banana (umutobe ) is commonly served in Rwanda, and a hot drink and juice made from karkade (Hibiscus sabdariffa ) are common in Sudan, but these are exceptions. However, a great variety of alcoholic drinks are made in the region. Muratina is a common weak beer served in rural parts of Kenya. It is prepared from honey, sugar, or sugar cane and is named after the fermenting agent, the sausage tree fruit (Kigelia africana ). The Maasai use aloe root (osuguroi ) in place of sausage tree fruit for fermentation.
Busaa (Luhyia) or amarwa (Baganda) is an alcoholic drink as well as a food. It is made mainly from sorghum, maize, or millet flour. In Rwanda, a similar type of drink—ikigage— is consumed as a drink and as food. Among the neighboring Bakinga of southwest Uganda, a similar drink called omuramba is made from sorghum. However, a more popular drink in Rwanda is urwangwa, which is made from ripe banana. It is popular in ceremonies and among men when discussing important issues.
In Ethiopia, berize (Amharic, Oromic) is prepared with honey and the boiled stems of a tree called gesho (Rhamnus prinioides ). Berize is fermented to a weak, amber-colored wine called tej (t'ej ). It is served in special long-necked bottles after meals in ceremonies. Tella (talla ) is similar to Kenyan busaa but is prepared by fermenting roasted maize flour and barley.
Mnazi or pombe ya mnazi is palm wine. It is a popular drink in all coastal areas where coconut trees grow. Chang'aa is a popular but illegal spirit made by distilling fermented grain (such as maize) or banana. It has a variety of local names, such as kumi kumi in Nairobi and waraj in western Kenya and in Uganda. The Ethiopian version of it is katikala (in Amharic) or areq (Arabic) and is usually made from finger millet. Chang'aa has over the years been responsible for a number of deaths due to unscrupulous sellers who add illegal chemicals to the beverage to increase its potency.
Sorghum is used in Sudan to brew a large variety of opaque and clear beers using complex methods. Common examples are merissaan (opaque beer) and assaliya or um-bilbila (clear beer). Traditional wines include sherbot, nebit, and dakkai made from dates that are normally found in the northern dry parts of the country. In southern Sudan, duma (a type of wine) is made by fermenting diluted honey.
Liralira is a local spirit of the Acholi and Lango in Uganda. It is made from finger millet and cassava flour. The neighboring Sudanic communities of Lugbara and Madi have their own brew made from cassava, known locally as ngoli, while the Iteso of Kenya and Uganda have a version called ajono that is made from finger millet. Many other alcoholic drinks are found in East Africa and go by such names as mbege and karubu.
Coffee. Although Eastern Africa is one of the largest producers of coffee, the beverage is not very popular except in its original home—Ethiopia. Among the Muslim communities of the coastal region, very strong coffee (kahawa chungu ) is served in small cups along the streets in the evenings and early in the morning.
In Ethiopia, raw coffee (bun ) is roasted on a pan until it turns brown. It is then spiced and ground into flour on a stone. The coffee is served in an earthenware kettle (jebena ). Coffee-drinking is an important occasion in many communities in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia. Among the Somali, coffee is served in small cups with date fruits or xalwa.
Tea. Tea has replaced porridge as the morning drink in many homes in East Africa. In many rural restaurants it is customary to serve tea as soon as one sits down. The common way of preparing tea in homes and in most restaurants is by boiling water and adding tea leaves and milk, all mixed together (chai ya maziwa ). Tea without milk is popularly known as strungi (from "strong tea") and as shaah biiges in Somali. The Maragoli and Taita of Kenya value tea highly.
Stimulants. Khat (also known as Abyssinia tea or miraa ) is a popular stimulant in East Africa. The bark from fresh young shoots is peeled off and chewed. Khat is an important plant during wedding ceremonies among the Somali and Boran of Kenya and Ethiopia.
Spices/flavorings. Probably the most widespread item used for flavor is salt. In many traditional societies, salt is a filtrate of ashes from dry bean leaves, banana peels, water reeds, sorghum head, and normal ash. Most communities used samli or ghee to flavor food. In Tanzania and most coastal parts of the region, coconut milk is also used to flavor food. Grated coconut and water are squeezed in a woven bag to produce concentrated milk.
Tea and a few other beverages are flavored with a number of things, the common being ginger (tangawizi ) and masala (a mixture of spices but usually containing coriander). Tea can also be flavored with lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus ), lemon (Citrus limon ), and mjafari (Zanthoxylum chalybeum ). The art of flavoring is most established in Ethiopia and among the Asian community in the region. The sauces are therefore extremely hot. In Ethiopia, the powdered spice berbere (also berberi or awaze ) has hot pepper as the main ingredient but may contain a dozen other spices. Curry powder (bizari ), another mixture of spices (usually cardamom, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and chilies) is more popular in the rest of the region. Spicing, however, seems to be more of a culture in Ethiopia and coastal regions where there has been long Islamic and Asian influence. A variety of spices are used, the more common ones being black pepper, piper nigrum (pilipili manga ); cardamom, Elettaria cardamomum (iliki ); chili pepper, Capsicum annuum (pilipili kali ); cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum and C. aromaticum (mdalasini ); cloves, Syzygium aromaticum (karafuu ); coriander, Coriandrum sativum (giligilani ); cumin, Cuminum cyminum (bizari or nyembamba ); curry powder (bizari ), a mixture of different spices; garlic, Allium sativum (kitunguu sumu or kitunguu saumu ); ginger, Zingiber officinale (tangawizi ); nutmeg (kungumanga ) and mace, Myristica fragrans (kungu ); sweet pepper, Capsicum annuum (pilipili hoho, pilipili mboga ); tamarind, Tamarindus indica (ukwaju ); and turmeric, Curcuma longa (manjano ). Many of these are grown locally and for some, like cloves in Zanzibar Island, production is of world significance.
See also Banana and Plantain ; Cassava ; Fermentation ; Nuts ; Stimulants .
Dirar, H. A., D. B. Harper, and M. A. Collins. "Biochemical and Microbiological Studies on Kawal, a Meat Substitute Derived by Fermentation of Cassia obtusifolia Leaves." Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 36 (1985): 881–892.
Maundu et al. Traditional Food Plants of Kenya. Nairobi: Kenrik, 1999.
Pendaeli-Sarakikya, Eva. Tanzania Cook Book. Dar Es Salam: Tanzania Publishing House, 1996.
Patrick M. Maundu Maryam Imbumi
"East Africa." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/food/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/east-africa
"East Africa." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . Retrieved January 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/food/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/east-africa
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