By Funmi Oyatogun
Kenya is East Africa’s giant and Nairobi compares to other major African cities like Accra, Lagos and Johannesburg. The Kenyan capital receives hundreds of thousands of tourists every month who are eager to explore the safaris and national parks the country has to offer. What’s often underrated is the food scene, especially the covert restaurants that are perhaps Nairobians’ best-kept secrets. We headed out to look for affordable and authentic Kenyan restaurants so you don’t have to go through the trouble of doing so.
Now, let’s get to it. Here are 10 authentic Kenyan meals to try in Nairobi and where to find them. Incidentally, they are 10 of my favourite dishes from Kenya too.
Like many other African countries, Kenya is made up of a diversity of native cultures, and food reflects the story of each one. The Kikuyu people make up the largest portion of the over 40 tribes and Githieri is one of their delicacies. The mix of beans and maize is cooked in a flavorful broth and often served with a coleslaw side. Vegetarians and meat lovers alike can enjoy this one. Head over to New Jamia Plate on Muindi Mbingu (opposite City Market and around the corner from Jamia Mosque) for a complete menu of Ethiopian, Somali and Kenyan dishes, with main courses available for less than 200 kshs. This is one of the cheapest restaurants of its kind in the area.
2. Nyama Choma (with Kachumbari)
What’s a list of Kenyan meals without the king of all Kenyan street eats – Nyama Choma? Served along with Ugali (cornmeal) and Kachumbari (onions, tomatoes and coriander), Nyama Choma is beef roasted over an open grill and served in small bite-sized chunks. Several corner bars and neighbourhood joints serve Nyama Choma throughout the day. Olotai Fresh Meat Butchery, located along the expressway in Nairobi’s outskirts – Rongai, roasts meat freshly butchered on the premises. For only 610 kshs, 1kg of Choma with Ugali and Kachumbari can fill up two people.
Everyone loves a good slice of bread, whether flat or leavened. Chapatti has earned its right as a Kenyan delicacy since Indian railway workers migrated to the East African nation beginning in the late 1890s. The stretchy flatbread is wholesome, filling and very easy to find for around 50 kshs. Chapatti is a delicious accompaniment for sauces and stews and is often sometimes enjoyed with a side of salad.
Ever heard of cooking bananas? They are not your regular bananas and they are not plantains. The green and stout banana variety is starchier than the typical fruit and is often boiled with simple spices into a meal known as Matoke. Matoke is delicious on its own or can be eaten with heavier sauces like matumbo. Virtually every restaurant worth its salt serves this simple but delightful meal and the price ranges from 200 – 500 kshs in CBD restaurants. Don’t leave Nairobi without a taste of Matoke.
Around the world, many people eat tripe and it is fascinating to see how each community prepares it differently. In Nairobi, tripe is eaten in a soupy sauce called Matumbo. You can enjoy it alone as a soup or combine it with Ugali, rice or Matoke for a heavier meal. Swahili Plate and Highlands Premier Restaurant in the CBD both offer Matumbo for less than 250 kshs.
6. Stewed Tilapia
After a few meals in Kenya, one quickly realizes that Kenyan food is quite averse to pepper. This does not make the food any less flavorful or interesting. Take this stewed tilapia for instance, every scale and every bit of its soft flesh is soaked in a stew-y flavour and can be enjoyed with Ugali. With lots of fishing going on around the coast, it is no wonder that fish dishes are increasingly filtering to Nairobi’s restaurants. At Highlands Premier Restaurant in Nairobi’s Central Business District, a vast menu offers Kenyan dishes including stewed tilapia. The meal costs an affordable 420 ksh and can be served with Ugali, Matoke or Rice.
7. Beef Biriani
One of the many meals influenced by a substantial Indian presence in Kenya, Beef Biriani is a delicious tomato-based stew with beef chunks, served over steamed rice. Biriani can be made with fish, lamb and pretty much any other type of meat, so it is available to a wide variety of tastes. I highly recommend Swahili Plate for this dish and rest assured even though this plate is priced at 500 kshs, the portion is large enough to fill a hungry stomach.
Another one of Swahili Plate’s delicacies, Pilau is also reminiscent of Kenya’s Indian influence. West Africans might recognize the color as similar to Jollof rice but the taste is different, due to the use of different spices. Pilau is a yummy dish of rice cooked in a stew and served with a side of salad. At Swahili Plate, a large portion costs 500 ksh and is meat free, so everyone can enjoy it.
This list will be incomplete without one or two snacks. Mandazi is a hollow snack made by deep frying bread. It is so simple and delicious and can be enjoyed with a cup of Kenyan tea or cold orange juice. Mandazi can cost as little as 30 kshs at New Jamia Plate or as high as 100 kshs in other restaurants.
Even though they give a nod to India, Samosas have become an authentically Kenyan snack. The meat of vegetable filled pastry is a filling snack and can be eaten alone as a light meal. There is a good chance that you’ll find samosas in every menu – whether international or local and Swahili Plate is a favorite for people working in the CBD area. Try out the delightful snack for around 50 kshs per samosas.
With such a list of delightful meals, Kenya continues to draw visitors from around the world and for good reason. If you ever visit Nairobi, take a break from international chains and dive into the heart of Kenyan cuisine. You’ll be amazed at how much more enjoyable your experience will be.
Funmi Oyatogun is the adventurous food traveller behind the blog, The Village Pot http://thevillagepot.com/. The Village Pot chronicles first-hand and creative food experiences, recipes and world adventures. Follow The Village Pot on Twitter @thevillagepot, Instagram @thevillagepot and Facebook @thevillagepotpage.