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In Vigorous Defense of Bland Food – By Makena Onjerika

Meat on grill by Rodnae Media via Pexels

Over the years, I have seen way too many non-Kenyans screw up their faces at a first taste of ugali—that divine mound of maize meal pounded to submission in merciless, boiling water and left to suffer on the flame in its stainless steel sufuria until it exudes an aroma so clean, it triggers not only the salivary glands but also often laughed at*—childhood traumas involving beatings with the sole and sacred household mwiko (cooking stick…and why doesn’t everyone speak Swahili, by now?). Look, I have heard enough of ugali being called bland. World, are you okay? You who loudly call for the ugali accompaniment* to be rushed to the table because you can’t with the ugali, you need to stop being disrespectful of my ancestors*  It’s simple. There is something wrong with you, or at least your tastebuds. 

I have scientific evidence (manufactured by myself) that your perception of ugali as bland is the product of consistently attacking your tastebuds with an overload of spices and especially–and I am now exclusively addressing our Nigerians brethren–that maddening business you call pepe that is just torture on a plate. If yous treated your mouths with more respect, yous would be able to appreciate the subtle, natural flavor of Kenyan food.

Ugali tastes not sour, not sweet and much like uncovering a good secret. Pishori rice in the rice cooker sends out delicate wisps of petrichor. It tastes of the very black soil it grows in, those watery fields in Mwea that worship an ever-blue sky with their placid faces. You, Mr. Where-is-the-Flavour, have clearly never brought your hungry stomach to a plate of githeri, that frying but also stewing of boiled maize and beans with potatoes, tomatoes and perhaps a sprinkling of cilantro, into which is folded a dollop of Blue band margarine and slices of an avocado that has been eagerly investigated for ripeness every day for a week and whose texture is as buttery as sin. You have not experienced how the maize seeds pop in the mouth with a taste I can only call yellow. Forget the frying and stewing even—how glorious is the githeri just off its gurgling exertions of several hours on a relentless charcoal jiko at the back of the house. A plate full, a sprinkle of salt, and that particular throwing movement of the plate that winnows everything into a delightful mixture.

Salt. Yes. That’s it. The Kenyan spice. And not too much. Salt is the thing that sinks deep into the matter of our food and undertakes an osmosis of flavors gifted to us by our Gods. Because nyama choma  is exactly this, a calling forth of that grass/vegetable fed, juicy fatiness in (organic) beef, chicken, mutton, camel or pork on roaring, smoky charcoal flame. Nyama choma is a knowing of your Marker, a search for what is deep and pure. Sizzling and coming off the bone like a prayer, and dying, dying between teeth and tongue with a release of glory. Now sip your cold Tusker.

And Chapati? My god! Chapati is flour, water, oil and a confusion of salt and sugar. But it is also the kneading, no beating, of these ingredients into dough that stretches and lands as a ball on a flour-dusted surface with the abandon of a PAH! Now oil that dough, massage it, whisper holy things to it. Because, you have tasted nothing like chapati when engineered to tear into ribbons, releasing itself to the will of your hungry hands. And what is Chapati without those orange to dark brown freckles that signify valiant intercourse with a hot pan? Ghai!

Should I tell you about sukuma wiki? Ah yes, our innocent collard green grown in unmentionable places. (God help us all). Its sweetness is in how thinly we cut it. You want it no wider than 2 millimeters, then dropped into a bubbling puree of cooked tomato and onion. Mix the thing, cover, and wait for your sukuma wiki to shrink like a rained-on afro. Has it attained that deep green color and slightly lost its crunch? Bring it to your mouth. Amen! Everything is tomato, tomato is everything—the red, bleeding heart of Kenyan food, the provider of necessary acidity and thickness. 

I’ll admit one thing. Kenyans need to let Jesus take the wheel when it comes to stews. Some horrendous, shocking things are happening in that department, but this is an internal affair, to be discussed among Kenyans. A matter of sovereignty. Mambo ya nyumbani.

And if you really must have your spice, just go down to the coast and encounter Swahili pilau and biryani. Yes, I’ve heard, UNESCO has declared Senegalese jollof the prime jollof, but if these people had ever tasted pilau, there wouldn’t even have been a Jollof War. You are never the same after biting into those chunks of succulent meat in rice tinted brown-gray and gently dressed in cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, coriander, cumin, bay leaves and cloves. And to this, add a side of kachumbari, that marriage, in the presence of a squeeze of lemon, of diced tomato and near transparent slices of onion soaked in warm salty water. 

Aah, but I am sure you will still make that face and call pilau ‘okay’. OKAY?  If you only knew the painful damage you have done to the wonderful taste buds God gave you, you would know whereof I speak.  Nkt! (no dictionary will translate this sound for you, but I hope my disdain is still fully evident).


(*—because we Kenyans will laugh at anything)

(* be it chicken stew/mshikaki (use Google Translate, for pity’s sake), beef dry or wet fry and/or sukuma wiki/managu/murenda)

*(never mind, that maize came with the Portuguese from South America on a boat, just the other day. Small, small, irrelevant detail).

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