We recently spent three weeks between Nairobi, parts of eastern Kenya, Rwanda and even one night in Uganda. There is no magic to being vegan in Kenya or Rwanda. It is easy. Many of the traditional foods are vegan and in every town there will be a market where to purchase grains, beans and seasonal fruit and vegetables.
Even small roadside stalls will sell excess produce from the family plot. Some foods and dishes are found in both Kenya and Rwanda (and much of East Africa), but they may have different names in because of language differences.
The places where we found the most relative difficulty in terms of getting good and varied vegan options were hotels in Rwanda that catered primarily to American guests. Despite speaking with hotel management/staff and being told that it would be no problem, we found that we had to unpick the menu to veganise it, instead of the kitchen relaying to the staff what they could actually make. Breakfast options in these places were limited to buffets where gluten-free bread was available, but nothing else was labelled with ingredients and the only safe bet was fruit and brown bread, which is fine, of course. It is funny that “gluten free” makes the cut, however. We did not have any such problems in Kenya or Bakiga Lodge where we stayed in Uganda. The coffee in Rwanda is invariably excellent, which is an unusual occurrence in our experience travelling in countries that produce and export coffee. In Kenya, however, it is not good; there, we much prefer our instant Starbucks dark roast that we bring with us.
This piece is not an exhaustive list of vegan foods available in East Africa (or elsewhere on the continent). Three weeks anywhere does not make anyone an expert in that food or culture. This is merely a starting point. We would have liked to have found a blog post like this when we were doing food research. We hope this is helpful to the next traveller and that if you have additions, you will let us know.
Big thanks to Hash for a list of traditionally vegan items for Kenya and to Clare for putting us in touch. His list was a great start and helped us with letting people understand that we liked and wanted traditional foods. This was often pleasantly surprising to nationals of both countries, who often assumed that as a Western/white person or mzungu we would prefer to eat other foods. While that is a perfectly acceptable choice and sometimes the only choice (pizza in Watamu on our first night, for example), we generally opt for the dizzying array of fresh and local produce whenever possible.
The staples in Kenya are ugali, corn, millet, sorghum and a variety of leafy greens. Fresh fruit such as mangoes, avocados, bananas (sweet and savoury), papayas, passion fruit and more are readily available. Below are some traditional vegan Kenyan dishes/vegetables in Kiswahili, which is one of the major languages spoken in Kenya:
- Chapatti Na Ndengu – who doesn’t love chapattis?!!! and with a side of lentils you can’t go wrong
- Fenesi – jackfruit
- Githeri – beans and corn or carrots in a tomato-based tomato-based thick sauce or soupy
- Matembele – sweet potato leaves
- Matoke – green banana stew
- Mchele na Maharagwe (or maharage) – rice and beans cooked in coconut milk and tomatoes
- Muchicha – amaranth, leaves and all
- Mchunga – hare lettuce
- Mukimo – a traditional kikuyu dish of potatoes, pumpkin leaves, green peas and fresh maize/corn
- Muboora – pumpkin leaves
- Stew bila nyama – any mixed vegetable without meat
- Ugali na Sukuma Wiki – ugali (nshima, fufu and many other names) is the ubiquitous thick, white cornmeal (polenta/grits) porridge and sukuma wiki collard greens (not kale as it sometimes is translated) and when sukuma wiki is not available, any other spinach or leafy green vegetable will be used
Our introduction to what became one of our go-to dishes of beans with leafy greens and chapattis was at the rooftop restaurant of the New Mahrus Hotel in Lamu Old Tow, on Lamu Island. The restaurant was very popular with locals and it was great to climb above the narrow streets of this evocative and ancient Swahili/Arabic town.
Sometimes these greens would be sukuma wiki, other times they were referred to as “spinach” despite not actually being spinach. The chapattis were heavenly wherever we went and we never said no to them. Ever. The thick, water-based smoothies of fresh mango or avocado (the latter, a first-time for us) were life-giving.
In Lamu Old Town, we were also introduced to one of the first of many “curries”. In both countries, there are many ways to make a curry. At the Tamarind Cafe, located on the waterfront, towards the end of town, the proprietress had no problem understanding that we wanted a dish with no animal products. She made us this off-menu potato curry, in an onion and tomato based sauce and paired it with a simple and delicious ugali of white maize. It was outstanding, as were the fresh tamarind and passion fruit juices.
Back on the mainland, we spent a few days in Watamu on the eastern coast of Kenya in an Air B&B and managed to cook a few meals for ourselves. The local produce stalls sold everything we could want from delicious small bananas, mangoes larger than our hands and enormous, creamy avocados to sweet potatoes, onions, chilis, tomatoes, a variety of aubergines/eggplants and seasonal greens.
We made a simple stew with the onions, tomatoes, chilis, aubergine/eggplants, ginger, muchicha and avocados (no need for oil when you have an avocado!) and ate it with boiled sweet potatoes. No need for a recipe. Just chop things up and cook them together, keeping in mind to first put in the saucepan those vegetables that take longer to cook, like ginger, onions and aubergines and then add the greens.
Did you know that there are many varieties of bananas? Some are sweet and some are savoury. Bananas originated somewhere in Asia and have become a global staple. Bananas are even used to make beer (more on that in the Rwanda section). In East Africa, green bananas are stewed into a savoury dish called matoke. The first time we had matoke, was at Tishi’s Farm not far outside the ruins of Gede. The texture is more like potato than a sweet banana so it is perfect to mix with onions and peppers. The bean dish is called maharagwe and it is traditionally made with red beans, tomatoes and coconut milk. Put a side of rice, a chapatti or six… and sukuma wiki and you have a meal that is super filling, delicious and healthy.
We were very well looked after at Satao Camp in Tsavo East National Park. When we arrived, as usual, we had a quick word with whoever will listen about vegan requirements. Our waiter, Derick, listened and wasted no time in getting the chef to make sure everyone understood what we needed. The conversation lasted less than five minutes and it was all no problem. We ended up eating very good traditional Kenyan food, specially prepared for us, while the other guest ate the same old Western fare. We were extremely well looked after.
The mukimo was simple and delicious. A creamy mix of potatoes, peas, corn or maize with a side of muboora or pumpkin leaves, which sometimes are also referred to as “spinach” (basically, anything green and leafy >> spinach).
Another classic Kenyan dish is githeri. This is made with any variety of beans, corn or carrots (whatever you have on hand) cooked in a tomato-based sauce that is either on the thick side or is thinned out to be soupier. At Satao Camp, they prepared it with sukuma wiki and rice. While at the cafe on the side of the Danka petrol filling station on the road to, and about 20km from, Mombasa (yes, it’s that easy to be vegan in Kenya), they prepared it more soupy… plus they had chapattis.
Two important asides: 1) At this truck stop, our guide asked us why we were vegan. We replied with a question, “Do you care about the elephants, lions and giraffes we just saw?” Our guide replied that he did. We then asked him what the difference was – in themselves – between those animals in the bush and the animals on his plate. He replied that there was no difference and that they all want to live. To which we replied that that was precisely the reason we were vegan. His immediate response? “Yes, I buy that. It makes sense to me. There is no difference.” We are under no illusion that he has gone vegan. But, this conversation took no longer than a couple of minutes and, as we were his first ever vegans, this was good seed for thought. These types of conversations can happen anywhere and with anyone. We owe it to the animals and ourselves (for the planet, for the exploited, basically for all!) to have these conversations. 2) Baraka Safari Kenya, the company we used to arrange our Tsavo East safari and a boat trip in the mangroves of Watamu Marine Park, was terrific in ensuring they knew exactly what was vegan food. We sent them a definition, the Swahili page from Vegan Passport and a number of the dishes from the list above so they could have a practical idea. They then made sure we had plenty of delicious vegan food during our activities. A little planning and communication go a very long way.
Back to food… Breakfast could not be simpler or sweeter. There are many fruit available and the small bananas are particularly excellent. Also, sweet potatoes are great cold if you have any leftover from the night before and perfect mixed with mangoes and avocados.
Or for a more traditional/village life breakfast, we followed Derick’s advice. He told us that when he goes home to his village, his preferred breakfast is yams and sweet potatoes.
And for more banana goodness, check these out. They were unputdownable.
We did not explore desserts much because the fruit was so tasty and that sufficed. But there are fried, sweet dumplings called kaimati that can be made vegan and Satao Camp kindly made those for us.
The food in Rwanda is not radically dissimilar from that in Kenya. There are similar staples, such as ugali, rice, potatoes, corn, millet, sorghum, leafy greens, tomatoes, aubergine/eggplant, beans and bananas. Avocados, papayas, mangoes and pineapple are readily available all over the country. Also, there are some dishes in common with Kenya and generally with East Africa. However, because Swahili is only one of the languages spoken in Rwanda, the list at the beginning of this piece will only be partially helpful. Rwanda’s other languages are Kinyarwanda, English (fairly ubiquitous) and French (older generations in particular). One thing that is common to each of Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya is chapattis. Obviously, everyone loves them. We were pleased to learn this.
We heard from some that Rwandan food is dull and that ugali is unappetising. We disagree with that assessment. We found it to be tasty, satisfying and healthful. Ugali in all its forms is fantastic. We believe that a bit of a perspective helps when eating food that is unfamiliar. It is true that sometimes in Rwanda dishes were simply prepared. For example, boiled green bananas or potatoes were just that. There was no added salt or pepper or sauce (these are available on tables in cafes and restaurants). We accept that that seems dull, perhaps. Nevertheless, it is also a good way to learn to properly taste these foods, to really understand and register what it is that they taste like. It is a wonderful opportunity to learn that food does not need to be seasoned or sauced to be tasty and to begin to understand how another lives or how they might view our over-seasoned foods that are often drowning in sauce or oil.
Below are some traditional vegan dishes/vegetables in Kinyarwanda:
- Agatogo/Akatogo – this dish is similar to githeri in Kenya and it is made with tomatoes, onions, peas and plantains, but sometimes it can be cooked with meat, so be sure to ask
- Chapatti – delicious flat bread
- Dodo – amaranth greens. Some people refer to dodo as sukuma wiki and sometimes as spinach, so the same “spinach” classification for all leafy greens applies in Rwanda as it did in Kenya
- Ibiharage – fried beans (a dish from Burundi)
- Ibihaza – beans and pumpkin
- Isombe/Sombe – pounded cassava/manioc leaves (sometimes mixed with aubergine/eggplant, tomatoes and spinach/other leafy green)
- Igishyimbo/Ibishimbo – beans
- Ikijumba – sweet potato
- Ikinyiga – soybean or peanut/ground nut soup
- Matoke – like in Kenya, Rwandans also make a stew with green bananas
- Mizuzu – fried plantains
- Sositomati – tomato sauce
- Ubugali – this is ugali (aka fufu, nshima and many other names). It can be made of only maize, like in Kenya, and then it will be white. Or it will be a brownish colour. In that case, it is made of a combination of maize, cassava and millet flours and has a much gummier consistency reminiscent of Japanese mochi
- Ubunyobwa/Isosi yubunyobwa irimo intoryi – a creamy peanut/ground nut sauce
- Umutsima – cassava and corn
- Urwagwa – banana “beer” (but much higher in alcohol content and less fizzy)
The most delicious dish was isombe or sombe, which is pounded cassava leaves, whether mixed with aubergines and tomatoes or the “plain” version made only of the leaves. Another best part was discovering brown ugali which is a combination of maize, millet and cassava flours (although sometimes only maize and one of the two flours). Unlike its white counterpart that is a bit crumbly and grainier in texture, brown ugali must be cut with a knife, is gummy, chewy and dense. It is almost like mochi in consistency and has a nutty flavour. It pairs exceptionally well with tomato-based sauces because it picks up all the flavour nuances adding its nutty note.
Unsurprisingly because it is a concentrated puree of leaves, the plain or cassava leaves only sombe has a strong, but pleasant and earthy flavour.
Vegetable curry was another go-to dish for us in Rwanda, like it was in Kenya. Curries are made in many ways with whatever vegetables are available, plus spices and coconut milk.Generally, you may expect a side of rice or ugali (white) and some potatoes. Rwandans love their potatoes. They are the second most important crop in the country after bananas. They were introduced by the German colonisers and they are referred to as Irish potatoes (because the plants were originally from Ireland).
Simple and straightforward meals are the standard in villages. For example, outside Nyungwe Forest, there is a good cafe called Keza Nyungwe, serving a vegetable soup (tomato) with ibiharage (fried beans), a mix of leafy green vegetables, onions and carrots, rice and boiled green banana. This is one of those meals that would appear to some to be “dull”, but it’s not. It was delicious, filling and we felt great afterwards.
This poorly lit photo contains a good selection of some of the classic Rwandan dishes listed above. Starting from the top and moving clockwise, akatogo, rice, ugali, ubunyobwa (creamy peanut sauce), sombe, sukuma wiki/dodo, roast potatoes and mizuzu (fried plantains).
One of the condiments that we saw on every table in Rwanda was Akabanga chili oil. It is made in Rwanda and comes in a bottle with an eye dropper top, but under no circumstances should anyone mix this up in their medicine cabinet. This is seriously spicy oil made from a secret blend of fiery chilis. One or two drops are more than enough to set your face on fire and obliterate the word “bland” from your mind.
A final thought must go to banana beer, urwagwa, as it is called in Rwanda, but can be found all over East Africa. It is brewed by fermenting mashed bananas and adding sorghum, millet or maize as the yeast component. It is thick, not very fizzy and has 14% alcohol content. This, I suppose, makes it stronger than any old beer. It has a very unusual taste, somewhat sweet, but not like banana. It’s a cross between almonds, walnuts and liquorice. Some people like it and some people don’t.
Kenya and Rwanda are wonderful places to visit. If you are visiting them to experience the wildlife and you are not vegan, think about whether there are any morally relevant differences between the wild animals that you want to see alive and thriving and the animals we condemn to death so we can exploit their bodies and reproductive secretions. They all want to live and our tastebuds, vanity and convenience are not a good reason to kill or exploit any animal. We can be vegan anywhere.
And if you are heading to Zambia, then click here for Vegan in Zambia