For the vast majority of Kenyans, meals are plain and filling. Most people’s living standards don’t allow for frills, and there are no great national dishes. For culinary culture, it’s only on the coast, with its long association with Indian Ocean trade that a distinctive regional cuisine has developed, with rice and fish, flavoured with coconut, tamarind, and exotic spices, the major ingredients. For visitors, and more affluent Kenyans, the cities and tourist areas have no shortage of restaurants, with roast meat, seafood, and Italian restaurants the most common options among a range of cuisines that runs the gamut from Argentine to Thai.
The fruit is a major delight. Bananas, avocados, papayas (pawpaws), and pineapples are available in the markets all year, mangoes and citrus fruits more seasonally. Look out for passion fruit (the familiar shriveled brown variety, and the sweeter and less acidic smooth yellow ones), physalis (cape gooseberries), custard apples, and guavas – all highly distinctive and delicious. On the coast, roasted cashew nuts are widely available, but not cheap. Never buy any with dark marks on them. Coconuts, widely seen at roadside stalls in their freshly cut, green-husked condition, are filling and nutritious.
The national beverage is chai – tea. Universally drunk at breakfast and as a pick-me-up at any time, the traditional way of making it is a weird variant on the classic British brew: milk, water, lots of sugar, and tea leaves are brought to the boil in a kettle and served scalding hot (chai asli). It must eventually do diabolical dental damage, but it’s quite addictive and very reviving. The main tea-producing region is around Kericho in the west, but the best tea tends to be made on the coast. These days, tea is all too often a tea bag in a cup, with hot water or milk brought to your table in a thermos.