Kenya

Foodways

Try your hand at some mouthwatering recipes served from Kenyan kitchens as we take you through cooking lessons presented during the Folklife Festival. To supplement the written instructions, each recipe comes with an audio recording filled with additional information on Kenyan culinary culture as well as verbal directions from expert Kenyan chefs as they cook with you. So get out your pots, pans, and fryers, and put your forks back in the drawer, because you are about to enter the world of Kenyan cuisine!

Flavors of kenya

Kenyan foodways cooks

Alice Awuir Oduor
Alice is co-founder of the health-wise catering company Lisa & Kaylie. She is from western Kenya and currently resides in Embakasi, a division of Nairobi. A story that she frequently shared throughout her cooking sessions was the origin of her and Emily's last names, because, no, they are not related. Last names in Kenya often indicate what time of day you were born, and Oduor means they were born at midnight.

Emily Oduor
Emily is co-founder of the Lisa & Kaylie catering company which promotes health-conscious, organic, traditional Kenyan cooking. The company's goal is to help regain interest in traditional Kenyan cooking since much of the local foodways are being forgotten due to outside influences. Emily is from western Kenya and lives in Kajiado County. She is proud that her daughter is learning to cook from her, as she sees this as an important legacy to pass on.

Amina Harith Swaleh
Amina lives on the island of Lamu and works at the National Museums of Kenya. Throughout the two weeks of the Folklife Festival, she and Fatma spoke of life on the island and its main economy coming from fishing and farming, making seafood, coconut, and rice local staples. Amina was born in Mombasa, along the eastern coast of Kenya. She identifies as a Swahili Arab; along with the other Muslim participants in the program, she observed the month-long fast period of Ramadan during the Folklife Festival.

Fatma Ali Busaidy
Fatma lives in Lamu and works at the National Museums of Kenya. She and Amina were frequently asked about gender roles in the kitchen; she replied that it is the woman's duty to cook for her family and guests. Fatma began cooking at the age of eight and mastered cooking on her own by the time she was fifteen. As a Swahili Arab who observed Ramadan during the Festival, Fatma maintained that the fast was not difficult for her and was strengthened by the three meanings of Ramadan. For more information on observing Ramadan while demonstrating Kenyan recipes, see our blog.

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FAQ on Kenyan Food Culture and Customs

1. Who generally does the cooking for the household?

Women are the only cooks in the kitchen. It is rare to see a man in the kitchen, and it is such a stigma that it could be cause for divorce. For men and boys, the kitchen is avoided, with the exception of grilling meats outdoors and shopping for meals.

2. At what age do girls begin cooking?

Young girls begin cooking around puberty, and the kitchen becomes a space of learning for them. It is where they are taught about life, it is where they sleep, and it is where they eat.

3. Are there foods for specific times of day or special occasions?

Certain foods have specific times, places, and occasions to be eaten. A Kenyan home always has extra food because guests are always welcome; one should never refuse a snack or meal. When families come together, such as for weddings, everyone cooks together.

4. How was food cooked traditionally in comparison to how it is cooked now?

Traditionally, kitchens used to be on the roofs of homes because cooking was done over a fire and families did not want the smoke in their homes. Now, gas stoves are more prevalent, and kitchens are inside the home. However, in rural homes and communities, outdoor fires are still used fairly frequently for cooking.

5. How do diet and food choices vary between western and coastal Kenya?

Along the coast, there is a great deal of influence from Indian cuisine, with an abundance of coconut, fish, and rice. In western Kenya, corn is used daily. And all across Kenya, beef is a popular food choice, and chai tea is a favorite beverage.

6. Where does the meat come from?

Meat is bought in markets. Families never slaughter their own animals since they provide various other foods that are beneficial to the family such as milk and eggs.

7. How is food eaten?

Kenyan foods are often eaten with hands and without utensils. Hand washing before and after meals is an important habit, and it is considered rude if you do not comply.