June 27, 2022
Swahili encompasses people, language, and culture. What many refer to as the Swahili region starts from the Kenyan coast to the furthest part of Tanzania. The language and culture were brought about by years of the coastal people trading with Arab and European merchants. These traders were in search of ivory and other valuables. The system of trade was known as barter trade-where in exchange for the ivory and other gems, these merchants traded clothes, cutlery, and spices. This eventually influenced what came to be known as traditional Swahili food in Kenya and Tanzania.
Traditional Swahili food is very distinct in taste because of the spices used and its reliance on coconut. Dishes such as mbaazi ya nazi, viazi karai, chapati, and pilau, are most notable when one mentions Swahili food.
Americans and other western countries cherish eggs, bread, bacon, or cereal with a glass of coffee or tea for breakfast. On the Swahili coast, the equivalent of this is mbaazi ya nazi (pigeon pees made with coconut) served with mahamri/ mahamuri (sweet deep-fried dough that looks like a doughnut). This normally goes with tea or kahawa tungu/chungu (loosely translates to bitter coffee). On other occasions, mbaazi ya nazi is served with chapatti.
Chapati is unleavened flattened dough that is made by shallow-frying them on a flat pan with little oil. It is only seasoned with salt. In recent years, people have started adding different things like grated carrots, vegetables, potatoes, and cassava to the dough. Chapati is served with meat (chicken, beef, goat, etc.) stew or cereal (lentils, beans, etc.) stew. Chapati can be traced back to Egypt and the Middle East. The chapati made in Kenya and Tanzania was introduced there through the contact between India and the Swahili coast.
There is no easy translation for viazi karai. Viazi means potatoes and karai is a metallic basin that can serve different purposes. Some people use this metallic basin to shower while others, especially street food vendors use it to deep fry food. Viazi Karai is made by peeling potatoes, boiling them, and dipping them in a mixture of eggs (yellow), coriander, and wheat flour. The potatoes dipped in the mixture are deep-fried in the ‘karai’ and when it comes out it is called viazi karai which is served hot by dipping it in ukwaju (tamarind sauce).
No culture misses a dish of rice. Pilau is a traditional Swahili dish made from rice, meat (goat, beef, fish, etc.) with spices such as black pepper, cloves, and cinnamon for a nice aroma and taste. All the ingredients and cooked together in the same pot. Pilau is served with kachumbari sauce (a mixture of tomatoes, onions, pepper, avocado, etc.) Among the Swahili, Pilau is eaten without a spoon or fork. At weddings, pilau is served on a large plate (sinia) and a group of people wash their hands, sit together, and use their hands to eat.
Other notable traditional Swahili foods include mshikaki (African Kebabs), biryani (almost similar to the Indian biryani), bhajia, and so much more. Next time you are in Kenya or Tanzania be sure to try these foods for an authentic Swahili experience.
Jason is an Fulbright scholar and experienced Swahili instructor who formerly taught at Yale University. He completed an MA degree in the US, writing a thesis about Swahili commentaries on Hollywood films. He currently teaches English language and literature at a high school in Kenya while serving as the Africa Fulbright Network's Ambassador to Kenya.