I’ll preface this post with a summary of my meals today:

Breakfast: coffee with crackers and cheese (from Kenya! very good!)

Mid morning snack: chapatti and milk tea

Lunch: vegetarian samosas, deep fried

Afternoon snack: Amigo’s salted chips

Notice a trend here? Besides the intense Indian-British influence on the food ? I’ve been getting my fill of fried goods and quite a dearth of vegetables since we arrived in Kenya. Most of this is due to the strict verboten-ness of fresh vegetables and non-peeled fruits. So no salads, no fresh tomato garnish or slaw. No one here wants a repeat of Mali 2004 . And following my no fresh veggies/unpeeled fruit rules I have been healthy and hale since we got here. But I’m becoming more than a bit concerned that my coronaries won’t recover from the 5.5 week fried food binge I’m finishing up. But I digress, what I wanted to talk about was food in Kenya.

Satter’s hierarchy of food needs is a sociological look at human requirements for food in a stepwise manner.

At the bottom is “enough food”, nevermind if its fresh, good tasting, not rotten. You will see that “good tasting food”, or what one would usually expect to hear discussed in a blog post on food, doesn’t even come in until the fourth rung of the pyramid. In case you were wondering, “instrumental food” refers to “choosing food for instrumental reasons: to achieve a desired physical, cognitive, or spiritual outcome.” My desire to eat vegetables to protect my future cardiac health is an example of seeking out instrumental food.

You may be wondering what this has to do with Kenyan cuisine. I’ve been thinking of this food pyramid a lot since we’ve been here because for most Kenyans food ranks somewhere in the last three rungs of the pyramid. There is real food insecurity in this country due to poverty, drought, and rising food prices. Ray and I have seen the child malnutrition ward in the district hospital – it ain’t no joke.  But the national cuisine, or at least what I know of it, is essentially food that clocks in around rung three of Satter’s pyramid, the kind of food that fills you up and doesn’t let you down. It’s not particularly amazing tasting,  but it will certainly fulfill the basic needs of food.

So what kind of food are we talking about? The first and most ubiquitous staple of Kenyan food is ugali, a starch that accompanies almost every meal in Kenya. It’s made out of maize flour that is boiled into a porridge until it sets and then is served in large slabs. The consistency is fluffy play-do.  Kenyan’s say “a man hasn’t eaten until he’s had ugali” but  it’s certainly not going to win any culinary awards anytime soon. The most common vegetable served is chopped up and stewed kale or spinach called sukuma wiki. The word translates in Kiswahili to “stretch the week”, a nod to food insecurity even today.  When  Kenyan’s can afford meat they prefer it barbecued, referred to as nyama choma. It’s not exactly melt  in your mouth –  these animals are as free-range and lean as they come – but it’s one of the tastier sides of Kenyan food nonetheless.

This isn’t to say that all the food in Kenya is utilitarian.  Ray and I ate at Carnivore, a high end Nairobi homage to nyama choma specializing in strange game meats (we tried ostrich, alligator and camel).  The fish in Kisumu, even at the most bare bones corrugated tin roof “restaurant” by the lake, is excellent, fresh and tasty.  But generally higher end restaurants that cater to tourists and expats serve non-Kenyan food. They do it well but I’m not sure its a stretch for pizza to be pretty darn tasty.  Then there is the influx of Indian-British food influences. Chapattis, samosas, and curry are all staples of most restaurants here due to the large Southeast Asian population.  Heavy sometimes, but a large source of  vegetables cooked into acceptable antisepsis. Thankfully the British influence on food is minimal (no shepherds pie or creamy peas) but they left a long legacy of milky, sugary tea that is alive and well 40+ years post colonialism.

Most days we end up eating a mix of familiar/western food and Kenyan food. The clinic has a few  women  who come and cook food for the doctors and clients.  This is where the majority of our ugali and sukuma wiki intake happens. You can’t get a better deal than 40KSH (less than 50 cents) for a plate of goods there. We are also lucky to have the ability to cook at our flat and have produced, with our one gas burner, pasta, fried rice, stir fry and guacamole. In the end its been quite a learning experience to live in a place where food is a limited resource, both in quality and quantity. But there’s an element of voyeurism to it as we have the money and ability to opt out of the nutritional reality that exists for many Kenyans.


Published in: on May 19, 2011 at 9:47 pm  Comments (3)  

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  1. Great food essay Rachel. I did notice all the kids photos seem to show well fed youngsters. All looked very healthy. Is the diet heavy with starches?
    Could they use a Col’s Fried Chicken? How about a taco bell and wheredo beans come in or even peanuts. Write some more about foods. Are the fish dishes deep fried. How about mussels orother shedll fish. Do the fish have parasitres and are there leeches?

  2. How about canned foods?

  3. Hi thought you might find this of ionrterest and share with your colleagues, Papa

    Goodbye Food Pyramid, Hello Dinner Plate
    Published: May 27, 2011




    CloseLinkedinDiggMySpacePermalink Whatever you do, don’t call it a pie chart.

    Enlarge This Image

    Chris Graythen/Getty Images
    The first lady, Michelle Obama, has led the push for increased exercise and healthy eating.

    U.S. Introduces a Revised Food Pyramid (April 20, 2005)

    Enlarge This Image

    Officials said the current food pyramid, above, was confusing.
    Readers’ Comments
    Share your thoughts.
    Post a Comment »
    The Obama administration is about to ditch the food pyramid, that symbol of healthy eating for the last two decades. In its place officials are dishing up a simple, plate-shaped symbol, sliced into wedges for the basic food groups and half-filled with fruits and vegetables.

    The circular plate, which will be unveiled Thursday, is meant to give consumers a fast, easily grasped reminder of the basics of a healthy diet. It consists of four colored sections, for fruits, vegetables, grains and protein, according to several people who have been briefed on the change. Beside the plate is a smaller circle for dairy, suggesting a glass of low-fat milk or perhaps a yogurt cup.

    Few nutritionists will mourn the passing of the pyramid, which, while instantly recognized by millions of American school kids, parents and consumers, was derided by nutritionists as too confusing and deeply flawed because it did not distinguish clearly between healthy foods like whole grains and fish and less healthy choices like white bread and bacon. A version of the pyramid currently appearing on cereal boxes, frozen dinners and other foods has been so streamlined and stripped of information that many people have no idea what it represents.

    “It’s going to be hard not to do better than the current pyramid, which basically conveys no useful information,” said Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. Willett said he had not seen the new logo.

    The new symbol was designed to underscore a central mantra of the federal government’s healthy eating push: make half your plate fruits and vegetables. And it is expected to be a crucial element of the administration’s crusade against obesity, which is being led by the first lady, Michelle Obama.

    “We need to get consumers’ attention,” said Robert C. Post, deputy director of the Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. He would not discuss details of the icon in advance of the official unveiling. But he said it was meant to be a “visual cue” that would prompt “consumers to say, ‘I need to be a little more concerned about what I choose to build a healthy day’s diet.’ ”

    Some who have seen the logo compared it with a pie chart, though dessert is hardly the association that the administration would like to conjure up. Others likened it to a pizza cut into slices (equally unpalatable for officials). One person said it called to mind a painting by the artist Mark Rothko, who was known for canvases with blocks of color. Those who had seen it would speak only on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized by the administration to discuss it.

    Dr. David Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, who said he had heard descriptions of the new plate, suggested that if the symbol succeeded in getting people to eat significantly more fruits and vegetables, that alone would be an achievement.

    “The reality is that very few of us eat like what has been suggested” in government guidelines for healthy eating, Dr. Kessler said. “There’s a world of difference between what’s being served and what’s on that plate.”

    He called the plate a major improvement over the pyramid. “It conveys the message simply in a way that we all can understand,” he said.

    The plate symbol is meant to help educate consumers about the government’s latest dietary guidelines, which were released in January.

    Dr. Post said the U.S.D.A. had spent about $2 million to develop and promote the logo, including conducting research and focus groups and creating a Web site. Some of that money will also be used for the first year of a campaign to publicize the image. He said the agency would use the plate to get across several basic nutritional messages, including urging consumers to eat smaller portions, switch to low-fat or fat-free milk and drink water instead of sugary drinks.

    The food pyramid has a long and tangled history. Its original version showed a hierarchy of foods, with those that made up the largest portions of a recommended diet, like grains, fruit and vegetables, closest to the wide base. Foods that were to be eaten in smaller quantities, like dairy and meat, were closer to the pyramid’s tapering top.

    But the pyramid’s original release was held back over complaints from the meat and dairy industry that their products were being stigmatized. It was released with minor changes in 1992.

    A revised pyramid was released in 2005. Called MyPyramid, it turned the old hierarchy on its side, with vertical brightly colored strips standing in for the different food groups. It also showed a stick figure running up the side to emphasize the need for exercise.

    But the new pyramid was widely viewed as hard to understand. The Obama administration began talking about getting rid of it as early as last summer. At that time, a group of public health experts, nutritionists, food industry representatives and design professionals were invited to a meeting in Washington where they were asked to discuss possible alternative symbols. One option was a plate.

    When several participants at that meeting said it would be better to create an improved version of the already familiar pyramid, an administration official rejected that idea, telling the group, “We can’t go back,” according to one person who attended the meeting. The person, who requested anonymity because the deliberations were intended to be confidential, said it was clear that the “marching orders were obviously to come up with something new.”

    That “something new” will be plated up on Thursday.

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