I first tasted ugali more than 50 years ago in Kenya where I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My women’s self help group had decided on a cooking exchange—I taught them banana fritters and they made ugali. Ugali is ubiquitous throughout East Africa; it is like polenta but made primarily with white maize meal.
The ugali was placed on the table. I broke off a chunk and popped it into my mouth. Now you need to understand that what I was eating was just water and cornmeal. No salt, no spices or herbs. No chicken stock base. Think library paste.
I chewed, and chewed, and then chewed some more. It wouldn’t go down.
Twelve pairs of eyes watched. I felt as if the honor of the Peace Corps—and my future with the women—rested on my ability to swallow. Bit by bit, I was able to break off little pieces with my teeth. I ate the whole mouthful. We smiled in relief.
Later, after friendships developed and we were invited to people’s homes, I experience ugali as it should be eaten—with a flavorful stew called sukuma wiki, composed of kale-like greens, tomatoes, onions, oil and salt, or a meat stew. I also learned the proper way to eat the ugali was by breaking off a small piece with my right hand, rolling it into a ball, making an impression in the middle with my thumb (of the same hand) and then scooping up the savory stew.
These days, I don’t have to go far to eat ugali. Less than a mile away lives Dorcas Kiptoo, a customer service representative at Fortunoff Fine Jewelry in Westbury, who, with her three daughters, came to the U.S. five years ago. She is from farming area in the Great Rift Valley. “In Kenya, I’ve eaten ugali all my life,” says Dorcas, “for lunch and for dinner.” Her favorite accompaniment is sour milk. Milk fresh from the cow is placed in a gourd and stirred with a charcoal stick from an acacia tree. It ferments for three days and then is shaken and poured. The thick mixture is similar to buttermilk, but Dorcas says she hasn’t found any here in the U.S. that is as good. A by-product of ugali that is favored by Dorcas and her daughters is morik—a paper-like skin that forms at the bottom of the pot.
Because Dorcas is a vegetarian, her ugali is accompanied with sukuma wiki, sometimes made with vegetables picked in my yard. I am very good at growing what some call weeds but what Dorcas recognizes as food.
Another Kenyan favorite that you’re bound to find on Dorcas’ table is black beans cooked with tomatoes, onions and spices. The beans are eaten with chapatis. In the cross current of food culture, Indians brought chapatis to Kenya when they were building the East African Railroad and now Kenyans claim the bread as their own.
4 cups water
2 cups white cornmeal
In a large saucepan, boil the water. Gradually add the cornmeal, stirring. Cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring constantly, until it is very thick and smooth. Arrange on platter and serve.
Sukuma wiki means “push the week” in Swahili and is eaten mostly when people couldn’t afford meat.
2 bunches kale or collard greens
3 vine-ripened tomatoes
1 large red onion, chopped
3 tablespoons cooking oil
2 teaspoons Royco (a blend of herbs from Kenya; can be ordered through Amazon)
½ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon black pepper
Cut the greens into thin slices. If the stalks are thick, discard as it makes chewing more work. Saute the onions until brown. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until the tomatoes are done. Add the greens and continue stirring. Cover for five minutes; add all the spices and continue stirring. Remove from fire and serve.
Note: always make the vegetables first before the ugali so that the ugali is served warm.