Word of Mouth: Ugali

Ugali [oo-gahl-ee] noun: In Kenya, ugali is the name for the most common mealtime starch: a thick, stiff porridge made from white cornmeal or red millet.

In Kenya, ugali is one of the most common dishes you can find. Served with meat or mashed vegetables, it's practically the national dish. It's found throughout Africa, in fact; in South Africa it may be called pap, and in Zimbabwe you can find it by the name of sadza. Regardless of what it's called, ugali forms the backbone of traditional Kenyan cuisine.

Traditionally, ugali was made with millet - a rich and nutritious grain. But when cornmeal, or maize, found its way to the African continent, it became even more popular as a grain staple. Kenyans usually eat white maize -- not the yellow corn we're used to here in the United States. You see roadside vendors everywhere in the highlands, offering ears of white maize for sale, roasted over charcoal fires until toasted and blackened. These are delicious; they taste a bit more like popcorn than grilled corn.

Ugali is a very simple dish of milled white maize, cooked with water until it's very stiff and pulls away from the side of the pan. It's served in big floppy slabs together with meat and vegetables. The traditional way to eat ugali is to gather it up in small, thumb-sized balls, pressing it together with the tips of your fingers. Then you make a small indentation on one side and use it to scoop up meat, vegetables, or stews. It's a substitute for any sort of cutlery at traditional Kenyan tables.

The sign of good ugali, we were told, is that it isn't sticky. It should hold together well, but it should not stick in wet clumps to your fingers. It should roll smoothly into little balls.

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We also tried the red millet ugali, which is much preferred by some Kenyans. It's dense and rich, with small bits of crunchy millet. It's also much richer in protein and nutrients.

And yes, as commenters noted on my post yesterday, there is indeed a drought and food shortage through some parts of Kenya right now. The price of maize has gone up considerably this year, while production has dropped. There's been a drought for over a year, and some of the people we visited were struggling to make ends meet. When there's no rain, there's no work in this predominantly agricultural society.

But I wanted to show you some of the good food of the region first, before turning to its troubles. Africa often gets painted one-dimensionally as a troubled region, but this does it a great disservice, I believe. Most of the Kenyan people we met on this trip were incredibly competent healthcare professionals doing a difficult job with few resources, and I was impressed beyond words.

So, more Kenyan food tomorrow, and some resources, too, on fighting hunger in Kenya and elsewhere.

• Recipe: Ugali

Related: Word of Mouth: Irio

(Images: Faith Durand)