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The history of Kenya’s staple dish, Ugali dating back to the 19th century

Kenya's love for Ugali goes back to the pre-colonial era


Talk of ugali in Kenya and you will be considered a ‘son of the soil’ even if you are a visitor touring this magical East African country.

The love for ugali considered a staple dish in Kenya is way too deep and sensational. What many do not know is that this so treasured meal’s history dates back to the 19th century.

Ugali is a popular Kenyan name referring to maize flour meal prepared through mixing hot boiling water with the maize flour until it solidifies and forms a dough-like feel before it is served with vegetables and meat either fried, boiled or barbecued (nyama choma).

In the western part of Kenya, ugali is a staple food, however, locals in this part of the country (Luhyas) have their ugali prepared from sorghum or millet flour and is served with chicken and traditional vegetables.

Unknown to many is that ugali came to be in the 19th century after Portuguese traders introduced maize. Before this, sorghum and millet were the most common grains consumed by the people. A while later, British settlers in Kenya’s highlands started the large-scale farming of maize which they used to sustain their workers by paying them with a portion of maize which they would, in turn, cook and eat.

In 1920, the hammermill was introduced making maize-milling not only faster but cheaper. Years later, the industrial processing of maize started and with prolonged shelf life, it rose to become Kenya’s staple food.

Cultural beliefs have it that a true Kenyan eats ugali with his bare hands; no fork or spoon. You pinch a lump of your liking and roll it in your fingers to form a ball-like shape which you make a depression at the centre and scoop some stew usually nyama choma served with kachumbari (a fusion of finely chopped onions and tomatoes with some chilli) and or with spinach and cabbage.

If you have not had this meal, your next agenda in your bucket list on a visit to Kenya should be trying out this meal.

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