East Africa: Top 13 Food Picks 2018
13 of East Africa’s Favorite Dishes
East Africa is a delightfully fresh food haven. Unfortunately, African cuisine does not get enough exposure or glory but we are changing that narrative. Here is our first list of our favorite foods on the east side of Africa. This is a personalized selection of all the mouth watering delights that you should try on your next trip to East Africa. If it doesn’t make me drool at the thought of it, then it is not on my list.
Come fight me if you like but Ugali did not make my top 13 East Africa food list. It’s a staple food with historical significance and a common part of the East African diet due to the colonization rations from the Brits in the 1950’s. However, I consider Ugali as a vessel that I use to scoop up all those wonderful Swahili sauces and flavors that are oozing on the plate. Keep your eye on the blog I’ll be posting an article that makes the connection with Ugali and Black culture.
Now let’s get to real top VIP, my 13 favorite East African Dishes. If you like this collection, scroll to the bottom of the page. I have a free download with some of these recipes. You can save time and order all these ingredients and quickly have them delivered to your front door by using Amazon Fresh.
1 Chips Mayai – Fry Omelette
Chipsi Mayai translate to egg and fries. That’s what it is, an omelette with fries. There is not much to say about this besides shut up and eat it. It’s the most simplest and scrumptious street food. It’s more common in Tanzania but can be found throughout Kenya too, if you are lucky. I’ve walked down some streets of Dar es Salaam and counted over 10 chipsi mayai and mishkaki (kebab) vendors right beside each other. It’s life changing and you should go make some today. You only need 2 ingredients eggs and french fries.
2 Nyama Choma – Grilled Goat
The first thing I think about when I land in East Africa is goat. In Kiswahili it is called mbuzi and it is my absolute favorite type of nyama choma (grilled meat). Africans know how to grill meat. Which shouldn’t be a surprise since it is the birthplace of all humans. So that means they had to have invented fire too. I wish goat was as common in the U.S cause it is absolutely divine.
It is cooked to perfection so that it is soft, juicy and charred in all the right places. The meat is so succulent and fresh that it doesn’t need a mashup of ingredients to mask its flavor. It cooked with simple with salt and pepper. It’s always served with side of fresh kachumbari and the holy East African trinity of lime, habanero peppers and salt. This combination works like juju. It put a spell on me.
3 Mchicha – Sautéed Spinach
It is not hard being a vegetarian in East Africa. There are fruit and vegetable stands in just about every nook and corner. In Tanzania mchicha (spinach) or cassava leaves, and sometimes okra are the common guests on every plate. In Kenya sukumawiki (collard greens or kale) are the stars.
No matter what the green of choice, it is guaranteed to be cooked with onions, local spices, coconut milk and local love. Vegetarian dish options are very common at restaurants in East Africa because everything is naturally sourced and grown locally. Which means you will experience the ripest and peakest of flavor profiles. (Yes I created the word peakest). A typical East African plate will have a starch, beans, sautéed greens, and a stewed meat sauce.
4 Mtori – Plantain Soup
Mtori is plantain soup native to the Northwestern region of Tanzania in Wachagga land. These are people of Mount Kilimanjaro. I have the pleasure of having in-laws from 2 different corners of Tanzania. One of them is you guessed it a Wachagga from Moshi.
I’m not sure if plantain soup is the best description because technically the bananas used are not the sweet plantains. There are so many different varieties of bananas in East Africa. Some regions are bigger consumers of bananas than others. These are not sweet commercial bananas we are used to in America. They are large and starchy, some get a little sweet other types do not, but they are all used for cooked recipes only just like plantains. You do not eat these raw.
5 Senene – Fried Grasshoppers
Don’t turn your nose up just yet or you might miss your blessings. Senene are grasshoppers and a delicious part of the Bukoba culture. They arrive only seasonally and symbolize a blessing from God. Well at least the internet said that. I asked my father-in-law who was born in this region and he said he had never heard of this symbolism.
Regardless, they are like crack, once you taste them you will not be able to stop. They are fried crispy and shaken in the perfect ratio of salt and cayenne pepper so that kids can enjoy them too. They are so irresistible once you put one in your mouth. My 4 year old @KisuraBells is now hooked on them. I have to sneak and eat them otherwise her little paws will devour them. Check out the pics below if you don’t believe me.
6 Chapati – Fried flat bread
This is one of the most cherished East African staples. Everyone loves and eats Chapati and Tanzanian cooks are the Queens of chapati. If a flatbread, a croissant and a crepe got together for a ménage à trois and had a baby they’d name her “Chapati”. When it’s made right it looks like a crepe with croissant like layers.
If your chapati do not have those layers every Tanzanian woman will suck her teeth in disapproval. Influenced by the Indian chapati but they are totally different because East Africans use ghee (clarified butter) and Indian chapati do not use oil. East African chapati are heavy, ghee-y, and down right delicious but not nutritious. It can be served as meal for breakfast or alongside stews or beans.
Store bought vs Street Food
I’ve never met a chapati I didn’t like but once I moved to Tanzania in the land-o-chapati I definitely got all snooty and picky with my selections. A chapati is not a food you would typically go to the store to buy. Oh no that’s considered a sin but I cheat and sneak into Royal Bakery because theirs have some extra sweetness and are the hugest I’ve found on the planet.
If they are not homemade, then you are suppose to find that Auntie that is on the side of the road with no signage, no building, but just a chair, a few buckets (to hold the raw chapati dough), a rolling pin, a pan over a fire and the tiniest table ever. And she better have a head wrap and some kanga fabric wrapped around a big waist otherwise keep driving, she ain’t the one.
Chapati are a labor of love. Luck me I haven’t had to make any since I left the states. In East Africa women judge your cooking skills based upon if you can make a good chapati and ugali. I was taught by my sister in-law so hopefully I passed the test. It is very common to have your daily breakfast courtesy of the chapati Auntie from the corner. Our Sunday mornings before church would be incomplete without her and a cup of chai maziwa (spiced tea with milk).
7 Vitumbua – Rice Puff Puff with Cardamon
These are my favorite East African fried treat. It is dough made from rice or rice flour and cardamon seeds. Those floral notes of cardamon are the best part. This month has been Ramadan and every evening my neighborhood has been drowning in sweet clouds of these heavenly essences. To get this classic saucer-like-shape, the Vitumbua are fried in a special cast iron skillet called a tabakh, aebleskiver, or takoyaki depending on the country. They are designed almost like muffin pan but circular. To my knowledge this pan is only made for Vitumbua and other fried pancakes. With a little imagination you can make an endless amount of other cute recipes using it. They are not easily found in stores in the U.S but if you want your own pan click the picture below for a link to Amazon.
8 Supu ya Mbuzi – Goat Soup
Mbuzi supu is a magical elixir that can heal anything, according to me. Never mind the fact that I’m a Doctorate of nothing, I still know what I’m talking about. Eat some of this after a long night of questionable activities and you will feel born again. It is my favorite East African breakfast food. It is usually served with a chapati and eaten with a smile.
9 Sambusa – Samosa
Influenced by its Indian sister the samosa, essentially is a fried meat or veggie filled pastry. Every country around the globe has some version of a fried meat pie. In the states we have hot pockets, the Caribbean beef patties, Latin countries empanadas and wontons in Asia.
The name samosa and sambusa are used interchangeably. Call it what you want but it will be seasoned and fried perfectly in East Africa. At our office there is a sambusa man that walks around the entire neighborhood with a suit on, a chef hat and a glass box full of sambusa. They are freaking delicious.
The Sambusa Guy
Honestly, I don’t know how far he walks all day but the sambusa are always hot. I like the vegan ones better because they have a little kick of spiciness. Also I fool myself into thinking I’m being healthy by eating fried veggies.
My sambusa guy puts mostly cabbage, peas and tiny bit of pumpkin in his vegetarian version. This was totally different from what I expected. All the Indian vegetarian samosas I’ve had are usually loaded with heavy potatoes. I prefer the sambusa man from around the way. Even though I love those veggie samosas, don’t get it twisted a sister will smash beef pie in a second.
@Food_amentals has a beef samosa video that I drooled over several times. It helped me solve the tricky folding of the samosa problem. Of course I haven’t had to make any yet because I can get special delivery daily from my sambusa guy.
10 Waragi – Ugandan Gin
What kind of party or list would this be without the libations aka “adult juice”? That’s what my daughter calls it.
Waragi is the local brewed moonshine in Uganda but it has gotten so popular that it’s no longer just a local brew. Its bottled and mass produced to quench the thirst of guzzlers such as myself who reside beyond the country’s borders. I have never had the pleasure of sipping this adult beverage but I’ve been eyeballing the bottles that have collected dust in my father-in-laws collection. I intend to be right by his side once he cracks its open and a cup-ith will be-ith in my hand.
From what I hear from him (and the internet) it’s a tasty liquor that’s made from bananas. It not sweet and doesn’t taste like bananas. My father is from Bukoba, which is near Uganda and bananas are life both there and in Uganda. So it doesn’t surprise me that he is in love with a banana liquor as well.
11 Biriyani or Pilau – Zanzibari Rice
Pilau and Biriyani are unsung heroes in the rice world. I mean seriously I’m not exaggerating. I know Jollof rice gets a lot of praise as the best rice dish in Africa but I’m willing to bet the house against Zanzibar style Biriyani or even a goat Pilau any day. These are 2 separate types of rice dishes that also have Indian roots. Both biriyani and pilau can be vegetarian. Alternatively it can be flavored with any meat such as seafood and everything in between. They both deserve their own blog post to explain them. Until I find time to do that I’ll just leave you with some eye candy to salivate over.
12 Masala Chips – Spicy Fries
I would bet my dog that if you taste masala chips you will not be able to stop licking your fingers. You will want to lick the plate too. They are crispy french fries tossed in a homemade Indian style ketchup on steroids. The seasoning varies from chef to chef but just know that it tastes absolutely amazing. I think I’ve said this before but this dish was life changing. Thanks to East Africa I can never look at fries the same way again.
13 Beyainatu – Ethiopian Vegetable Platter