Kenya is magic. The diverse nature with its rich wildlife which attracts loads of tourists every year, the charming local language Kiswahili and the hospitality of people you meet. I´m honestly in love with this country!
Growing up from the swamp during the time the British built the Uganda railway, the capital of Kenya – Nairobi – has grown in to a million city from the time it was founded in 1899. It is a city of contrasts. You have the business area in town with the high houses, the modern shopping mall and the fancy restaurants. When you cross Tom Mboya street eastwards in town you start seeing a real change – and the further east you move in the town center, the deeper into Africa you feel you´re moving. Westwards in town you will pass the villa areas with huge houses and wonderful parks – until you all of a sudden is in the second largest urban slum in Africa: Kibera. It´s estimated to house one or two million people, which live under extreme poor and unhealthy living conditions.
The food and the places to eat in Nairobi are as diverse as the contrasts among the people regarding price – you can choose from fancy restaurants to the simplest food stall. In general the traditional food of Kenya is simple but tasty. There is a lot of inspiration from the Indian kitchen, and you will find restaurants with a selection of world cuisines regularly visited by those who can afford it. The real charm of travelling though – in my eyes – is to follow the paths of the locals, and eat where they eat. You might be frightened by the simple standard of some places and worry about the hygiene – then it´s time to step out of your comfort zone and realize that wherever they serve piping hot food and a lot of locals go, they serve quality food! Just be careful with raw ingredients, and stick to bottled water – as your stomach is never as tolerant as the local´s.
Most of the traditional food of Kenya contains meat, and “the big thing” for Kenyans is nyama choma – the roasted meat. They can eat loads of it! However, if you´re eating don´t eat meat, like me, it is still possible to eat well the local way. The staple food in Kenya is ugali, a thick maize porridge which is served with almost any meal you get. The most common meal would probably be ugali and “sukuma wiki”, which means “to stretch the week”. This is greens like kale or spinach is cooked with onions, tomatoes and salt – and a lot of people eat this during the whole week because it is what they can afford. Beans are also readily available, and they have a tasty stew from mung beans called ndengu, often served with the not fermented flat bread chapatti. There is also githeri which consists of beans, maize and greens. Stews are made in several different ways, and may be made with vegetables, beans or most often with meat. For a snack you can have a mandazi, which is fried bread similar to donuts, served in triangles. They are delicious with a cup of chai. You will also find a wide selection of fruit, fruit juices and nuts. Make sure you try some of the ground nuts (karanga) – the fresh, roasted peanuts of Kenya. This is just a small introduction to the wide variety of local food!
You do not have to “live on the edge” to eat like a local in Nairobi – but you can if you dare!
The tourist trap: the restaurant outside Nakumatt Lifestyle mall in Monrovia Street. This is a very western style place with burgers, pizza and more where you find lots of tourist since it´s convenient and recognizable. Inside the mall you can find a place called One Africa Shop which is a much better choice – they serve African dishes.
On the safe side: have a picnic in the park with the Kenyan families! The Uhuru Park (the park of freedom) is situated just by the city center. You can go to the Nakumatt Lifestyle mall in Monrovia Street and buy everything you need for your picnic, or you can go more local and visit the Wakulima Market (Farmers Market) east of the train station, by the junction Haile Selassie Avenue and Wakulima Road. Here you will find a wide selection of fresh fruit, nuts and vegetables – and from the food stalls you can get some fresh chapati or mandazi. Bring a blanket and the food, and have a wonderful meal in the park – as the locals often do during weekends.
On the impossible-to-predict-the outcome-side: hang around town around lunch time. Pick a group of business dressed people on the street and follow them wherever they go to eat. Hopefully they will go someplace to eat where you can pick the local specialties! The thing I discovered about Nairobi is that several restaurants are in the upper floors on big buildings, so that you will never know they existed if you weren´t taken there by someone.
On the daring side: cross Tom Mboya Street, and find your way to Dubois Road, and across from Hotel Africana you will find the charming Skyrift Café. You can have a chai and a mandazi – or you can have a full meal of local food. In this area you will find several small restaurants worth trying, and the price is much cheaper than in the business area.
Living on the edge: make yourself comfortable on the narrow wooden benches or on a plastic container by the food stalls around the Nairobi Countrybus station (not far from the Wakulima market). They would usually serve a stew (but usually with meat) with ugali, or some chapati and chai. Off course you know that when you´re living on the edge in Nairobi, you leave your most flashy camera in the hotel.
Enjoy your meal!
When you travel – what is your favorite way of eating like a local?
I´m an Oslo based web publisher with passion for communication, travel and a green lifestyle. When I travel, I prefer to go slow, sustainable, and “live like a local”. Why slow? It is about challenging the cult of speed, and to enjoy the small things in life and to live in the present.