Do You Still Ejoy Ugali?

I continue to marvel at this question, asked of every traveled-abroad, lived-elsewhere Kenyan upon returning home. It is, of course, a question designed to detect the least bit of pretension. After all, ugali is the most basic Kenyan food, a food designed to be eaten with hands.

The naïve returnee who dares to disavow this deliberately undelicate food announces his (I use the pronoun deliberately) deracination. He has failed the test and tongues may now wag about how “even as a child” and “his mother was right to be worried” and “these ones of today,” statements all the more absurd because they come from his peers.

Perhaps what I find most fascinating is the naïve belief that all ugali is the same, or even close.

  • My primary school cafeteria served something that approximated approximation. Depending on the day of the week, a deep cut into the rubbery mass yielded an even more rubbery inside or uncooked flour.
  • My high school cafeteria served ugali that was so terrible, I suffered psychic pain and had to go see doctors who told me, over the course of two years, that nothing was wrong with me. Still, I stayed awake all night writhing in pain.
  • My mother gave up cooking shortly after I was born. Having taken care of the ones who preceded me, she preferred to watch Dallas. I grew up on stories of the “time when mom used to cook great food!” Yes, I feel abandoned. Why do you think I read Freud?
  • My brother makes what, I have been told, is some of the best ugali around. I am too traumatized to try it.
  • And, finally, most of my experiences eating ugali elsewhere have often been disappointing.

In truth, my Kenyan food is NOT ugali. It is chapati.

How is it that a taste for ugali, one of the most capricious foods, capricious in its difficult simplicity, marks a kind of authentic return, or what I term a desire to be truly Kenyan?

To the heart of the matter: to ask the returnee whether he still likes ugali presumes that he liked ugali before he left. I did not and I do not.

As for my love for polenta, well, that’s a whole other issue.

13 thoughts on “Do You Still Ejoy Ugali?

  1. Above the door to the cellar, which is my office, is a frieze made of wooden cut out figures. Three bears carrying bowls. The story, as it’s told here, has porridge in the bowls, porridge generally thought of as oatmeal. But my little nieces and nephews didn’t eat oatmeal, instead grits, so we always told the story replacing porridge with grits.

    I discovered rather by accident a Ugandan friend’s antipathy for grits. He’s generally pretty accommodating about American food; “capricious in its difficult simplicity” indeed.

  2. You make me wonder if there are other regionally specific foods that are used to gauge a returned traveler’s authenticity. It might be fun to compile a list. Since you’re in Pittsburgh, I think immediately of Polish grandmothers and kielbasa or pierogi.

    Todd? Where are you? I have no doubt that Todd has answers to this, seeing as he is a fantastically good cook.

  3. I promise to give this more thought as time allows. What a beautiful question! I know there are plenty of books about the cultural/ritual significance of food, but I’m willing to bet there are none specifically about social reactions to liking/not liking certain foods. Except maybe some vanity exposé about American presidents and broccoli.

    Likely the only examples in American cuisine are apple pie and turkey (specifically at Thanksgiving). Woe be the Joe who turns down a slice of apple pie because he doesn’t like it.

    Kimchi, falafel, curry (in all its incarnations), pasta, baguettes, paella, baklava, etc. are similar to apple pie in that there’s a specific cultural connection with those foods.

    Turkey (at thanksgiving) is more a matter of ritual. You don’t have to like it, but you should at least have one slice. Even vegetarians are encouraged to have a faux turkey. Matzo, pan de muerto, faschnacht, munki — they’re not only tied to cultures, but to specific dates/events

    I’ve tried to think more regionally. I don’t know if denying Chicago deep dish, a Philly cheese steak, gumbo, San Francisco sourdough, etc. would lead to the same “you may be from here but you’re not one of us” ostracizing. I suspect that America is too regionally diluted for most people to really care whether you’re a fan of the local cuisine or not.

    Streamed blue crabs are the Chesapeake Bay-local delicacy, but no one’s going to give you a hard time if you don’t like them. What they do give you a hard time about is a comment like “more trouble than they’re worth.” Picking them is part of the ritual. It’s slow and your hands get messy, but so what? Everyone else is taking the same time and washing afterwards. This is probably more like your example with ugali than the example of apple pie, though I struggle with the words that capture the essence of why I think this one pair is more similar than the others.

    Going to Polish cuisine, kielbasa and pierogi are just incarnations of sausage and dumplings, but undeniably Polish (well, at least Slavic). It’s also a food outsiders know. As a foreigner in Poland, sure, you could ask where to get the best kielbasa and pierogi in town, but I suspect you’ll get a warmer and more enthusiastic response if you ask about the best czarnina or gołąbki instead.

  4. See, I knew you would know!

    Partly, I’m conflating class and region: after all, part of the problem of eating ugali, and the challenge, is that it’s supposed to be eaten by hand. So, even those who do return home and eat it with knife and fork seem to be claiming they are “too good” to eat it “properly.”

    I wonder if in the US context that would be similar to what politicians need to do–eat in local diners, eat carnival food, eat the greasiest and fattiest so-called local foods (deep fried snicker bars!) to prove they are “down” with the locals. So, maybe, as you point out re the crab, it’s more about “mess.” Though, I wonder if one could substitute one kind of messy food for another. Would eating, say, a messy taco substitute for not eating a messy crab?

    This is fun!

    I do know that eating/not eating chitlins might earn you a dirty look, as well as other assorted southern foods. I long ago learned not to ask whether the collard greens had been made with ham hock. Just eat and smile!

  5. :) i have chekad! you like polenta and not so much ugali? – I have to agree kidogo coz polenta has abit more flavor (the one with sun dried tomatoes comes to mind)lakini still, just add some butter to your Ugali and you are good to go.

    The part i loathe about Ugali is cleaning the sufurias. That is enough reason for me not to cook it all. – i dont know how that fits into your construct (Haki Keguro you are deep)

  6. With regard to the collard greens, that’s a silly question. Of course it was made with ham hock. And bacon fat. Foreigners! :)

    At least in MD politics and food go hand in hand. When Senator Mikulski wants to emphasize that she’s a native Baltimorean she mentions that her first pizza was at Matthew’s. Politicians are common sights at crab feasts, which are usually in late summer with elections in September or November.

    I’m not sure that you’re mixing class and region so much as the issue was that way before you investigated it. I suspect all of the foods with associated social stigma for not eating them will be foods of necessity or convenience rather than luxury.

  7. I live in the South but I can’t stand grits, give me oatmeal instead. As for ugali, I was cooking it since I was 6; and 5 out of 7 days we would eat ugali. I come from one of those ugali as a staple ethnic group so it would always be fun when we would go to see our friends who had githeri as their staple and as a way to welcome us they would serve us their treat meal, which was….ugali!
    To be honest I have had ugali a few times since I came here but I am yet to go out of my way to find a mwiko and a good substitute for jogoo but much like you chapatis occupy number one on my list!

  8. I love Ugali! I love the taste of it and the texture and the permission to play with my food.
    I recently discovered the brown/purple ugali at Kosewe. I didn’t like the unfamiliar taste at first but now I love it. And appreciate the extra nutrients….

    But for me Ugali is more than just about taste and touch. Its about race and belonging.
    It seems to me that a meal of Ugali and Sukuma Wiki and Nyama is a meal that unites all Black people.
    Traveling in Southern Africa its been amazing to see the various incarnations of the same exact dish. From Nshima in Zambia, Pap/mealie in S.A, and Sadza ne muriwo in Zimbabwe. Then ofcourse there are grits and Collard greens for Black folks here.

    I’d love to travel to West Africa for comparisons…

  9. Obviously the easiest way to be “disowned” by “la famiglia” would be to offer bottled water and “dip” with chips.

    I will have to remember this . . .

    The few times I’ve tried to entertain Kenyans (very few!) they leave my house and head straight for anywhere that serves meat. Apparently, vegetarian fare can only ever be an appetizer.

  10. There are lots of regionally specific foods, and Pittsburgh with it’s ethnically diverse population has lots of examples. But I’m struck by the emotional attachment to very simple foods made from corn and water. My parents are both from New England. In the southern USA cornbread is a staple. My mother taught school and thought it funny the kids crumbled their cornbread in milk to eat it. Cornbread my mother made had a bit of sugar in it. My grandmother on my mother’s side knew cornbread like the southern style, even though she was a Yankee, and crumbling it into milk was the custom of old. In Western Pennsylvania cornmeal mush isn’t all that common, but very much so in Eastern Pennsylvania. Corn meal and the simple foods made from it seem to engage people emotionally, and I wonder why?

  11. I’m still struggling with the idea that you did not like ugali before, but I will move on from the obviously incomprehensible and move to the factual.

    Fact: Ugali is to be made with water and unga mahindi. For the pregnant and lactating, one is allowed to add some salt. No butter, no blue band- and no *gasp* purple nutrients. The water shall be heated to a boil and the flour added with the left hand in a semi-circular motion(listen to my podcast on this..)

    Fact: Ugali is a cultivated and NOT acquired taste. Many enjoy ugali but few appreciate it. One needs an educated palate and one’s palate can be desensitized and ruined by curries and polenta.

    Then, surely Keguro!!!! You gave your people shrubs for dinner!! A dinner that you had called them for!!!! Surely!!

    True story: My friend was dating this guy who invited us for dinner and we go to his house and guess what he serves us? Terere (weeds that grow near the gate) and ndengus (mung beans). My girl was mortified and she tried to save face by saying that it was his foreignness and not lack of money- or a desire to give insult that made him not serve meat to invited guests.

    Fact: We felt quite cheated to have spent 20 KSh in bus fare (each!!) to go to Westlands to eat mbogas and ati “yucca”…

    Moral of the story: He should have served ugali.

    And nyama choma- which is an entirely whole blogpost in of itself (i.e. the fact that Kenyans seem to be the only people who roast goat carcasses like God meant us to instead of those abominations called ‘goat steaks’)

  12. I am moving to your part of the country. And when I get there, I shall invite you for dinner in my small shack.

    I shall serve you a leaf of lettuce, in fact, the bitter radicchio; a grape tomato; a leaf of basil; and a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar.

    For drinks, you will have the option of tap water and carbonated water.

  13. Wow everyone, it is Thanksgiving Day! I’m happy with my extra day off, and I am planning to doing something fun that’ll probably involve a moto trip and seeing something new in Muskego I haven’t seen yet.
    You write something new at Thanksgiving?

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