Irio [eer-ee-o], noun: In the Kenyan tribal language of Kikuyu, irio just means food. But it usually refers to a simple, plain dish of mashed potatoes, maize, and peas or greens.
A couple years ago I spent a week in Kenya, in the highlands of the Rift Valley about an hour away from Nairobi. I really enjoyed the good food of this agricultural region. Here's a very typical dinner dish: bright green irio!
We ate plain Kenyan food all week, prepared by wonderful cooks. We were in a guest house of a hospital in the rural Kijabe village, situated on the side of a steep hill looking out over the Rift Valley. It's a very beautiful area, green and hilly, with bright sun during the day and strong winds at night. The area in the hills gets more rain than the dusty valley, which has been drought-stricken for the past year.
We were happy to eat the local food; we told the hosting housekeepers not to prepare Western food for us! The local food, however, turned out to be rather familiar. It is born of the basic local crops: maize, potatoes, a rough green like collards, peas, onions, and cabbage. It was plain, without too much spice or salt, and very, very fresh. No canned vegetables or pre-packaged foods here!
We ate irio on the second day, heaped on plates along with shredded cabbage, meat stew, small boiled potatoes, beans, and a thin tomato sauce. The fresh green color stood out; it was beautiful on the plate! I wasn't surprised to learn later that irio just means food in the local tribal language of Kikuyu. It represents all the major crops of the area: potatoes, maize, and greens.
It's simple, healthy Kenyan cooking at its best - a comforting dish of mashed potatoes with maize kernels for texture and fiber, and the sweet green flavor of peas or greens to give color and taste.
If you'd like to try it yourself, here's a basic recipe:
Here is a slightly more involved recipe:
• Irio with sour cream and chicken stock.
It actually rather reminded us of that kale and potato puree we made a few weeks ago! Stay tuned for more food from this Kenyan region.
Related: Coffee Terroir: Africa and Arabia
(Image: Faith Durand)