In Kenyan culture, there are many different indigenous people with a variety of ethnic traditions. Kenya has had a long-standing relationship with foreign settlers for decades. This makes the food quite exciting as we draw our cooking methods, flavors and presentations from different regions, most commonly Arabic and Indian influences.
While nearly all Kenyan tribes have their own staple foods, there are certain meals that continue to be present at every function, no matter the tribe. Growing up, it was not a gathering unless there was pilau, chapati and some kind of curry. These foods bring all tribal cultures together.
It was no different in our household. My siblings and I lived for those special occasions when we had guests, because we knew that we could have all three dishes as part of the same meal.
Perfecting the art of making these foods took me a long time. My sisters and I started out as helpers in the kitchen. As young girls, we were allowed to crush ginger and garlic using the pestle and mortar. (Today, I use a chopper, but the taste is definitely not the same. Mom always said the flavors are well drawn out when you crush ginger or garlic instead of chopping them.) Then, we learned to use knives safely and could peel potatoes and cube meat. By the time we were teenagers, we were able to cook the meal perfectly and let mom enjoy her guests without worries about what was going on in the kitchen.
Pilau is a rice dish that sometimes had beef in it. Whether we made it with or without meat, there were a couple of secrets mom and the neighborhood women taught us if we wanted the perfect Pilau rice that didn’t stick together. “If it sticks together, people will be able to tell an amateur cook made it,” Mom would say. The first secret was to make sure the rice was well coated with olive oil before adding the water. The second was to let most of the water absorb into the rice, and then introduce low heat both above and below the pot. Traditionally, that means using a Jiko and taking half of the hot coals to put on top of the cooking pot lid, which would then provide the heat from above. In modern day, we use convection baking or a rice cooker to allow uniform absorption of the liquid into the rice.
While my family always preferred chicken curry (mainly because the Pilau rice often had beef in it), variations include beef, lamb, fish, beans or eggplant. The key to curry is to let it simmer slowly so all the flavors are assimilated into the dish. You should not be able to taste the ginger, the garlic, or the spices distinctly. Rather, they should marry to create the curry flavor.
To this day, I make pilau, chicken curry and chapati when I have guests. If there are vegetarians in the group, I substitute the chicken for beans or eggplant, and it’s still delicious. These dishes will always be a major part of entertainment for me, thanks to my Kenyan heritage.