East Africa’s culinary tradition has generally emphasized feeding the masses as efficiently as possible, with little room for flair or innovation. Most meals centre on ugali, a thick, dough-like mass made from maize and/or cassava flour. While traditional fare may be bland but filling, there are some treats to be found. Many memorable eating experiences in the region are likely to revolve around dining al fresco in a safari camp, surrounded by the sights and sounds of the African bush.
The street-food scene
Whether for the taste or simply the ambience, the street-food scene is one of the region’s highlights. Throughout East Africa, vendors hawk grilled maize, or deep-fried yams seasoned with a squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of chilli powder. Along the coast octopus kebabs sizzle over the coals, and women squat near large, piping-hot pots of sweet millet porridge. Other street-side favourites include samosas, mandazi (semi-sweet dough-nut products), Rolex (a puffy omelette rolled in chapati) and chips with the omelette. Nyama Choma (seasoned barbecued meat) is found throughout the region and is especially popular in Kenya and Uganda. Food trucks are starting to make appearances in Nairobi and Kampala, providing a more Western take on the street food experience.
Ugali and other staples
One of the most common staples in East Africa is ugali; it’s known as posho in Uganda. Around Lake Victoria, the staple is just as likely to be matoke (cooked plantains), while along the coast rice with coconut milk is the norm. Whatever the staple, it’s always accompanied by a sauce, usually with a piece of meat, often a rather tough piece of meat floating around in it.
While there isn’t much in East Africa that is specifically billed as ‘vegetarian’, you can find cooked rice and beans almost everywhere. The main challenges are keeping dietary variety and getting enough protein. In larger towns, Indian restaurants are wonderful for vegetarian meals. Elsewhere, Indian shop owners may have suggestions, while fresh yoghurt, peanuts and cashews, and fresh fruits and vegetables are all widely available. Most tour operators are willing to cater to special dietary requests, such as vegetarian, kosher or halal, with advance notice.
Water and Juice
Tap water is best avoided; also be wary of ice and fruit juices that may have been diluted with unpurified water. Bottled water is widely available, except in remote areas, where it’s necessary carrying a filter or purification tablets.
Soft drinks (sodas and factory packed juices) are found almost everywhere. Freshly squeezed juices, especially pineapple, passion fruit, sugar cane and orange, are a treat, although check whether they have been prepared safely. Also refreshing, and never a worry hygienically is the juice of the dafu (green) coconut. Western-style supermarkets sell imported fruit juices.
Coffee and Tea
Although East Africa exports high-quality coffee and tea, what’s usually available locally is far inferior, and instant coffee is the norm. The situation is changing in major cities and tourist areas, albeit slowly. Both tea and coffee are generally drunk with lots of sugar and milk. On the coast sip a smooth spiced tea (chai masala) or sample a coffee sold by vendors strolling the streets carrying a freshly brewed pot in one hand, cups and spoons in the other.
Beers and Wines
Among the most common beers are the locally brewed Tusker, Primus, Nile special, Bell Lager, Club Pilsner, and Kilimanjaro Lager, even South Africa’s Castle Lager, which is also brewed locally, and in some high-end places you can get imported canned beers. Although many locals prefer warm beers, especially in Kenya, you can order for a cold one.
Nairobi is starting to see a proliferation of craft or boutique breweries, a most welcome addition to the region’s drinking scene. Good-quality South African and local wines are readily available in major cities.
Locally produced homebrews (fermented mixtures made with bananas or millet and sugar) are widely available. However, avoid anything distilled; in addition to being illegal, it’s also often lethal.
Three meals a day is the norm, with the main being eaten at midday and breakfast frequently nothing more than tea or instant coffee and packed white or brown bread. Although in urban places like Kampala you can order a meal of your choice via an application on your phone and delivered to where you are around, in remote areas, many places are closed in the evening and often street food is the only option.
Hotelis and Night Markets
For dining local-style, find a local eatery, known as a hoteli in Swahili-speaking areas. The day’s menu is usually written on a chalkboard. Rivalling hotelis for local atmosphere are the bustling night markets, where vendors set up grills along the roadside and sell nyama choma (seasoned barbecue meat), Rolex (omellete rolled with chapati) and other street food.
For Western-style meals, cities and main towns will have an array of restaurants, most moderately priced compared to their counterparts. Every capital city has at least one Chinese restaurant. In many parts of East Africa, especially along the coast, around Lake Victoria and in Uganda, there’s also usually a selection of Indian cuisine, found in both at budget eateries serving Indian snacks, as well as in high-end restaurants.
Supermarkets in main towns sell imported products, such as canned meat, fish and cheese.