Guest article by Catherine Kakenya.
Wondering what vegan travel is like in Kenya? Well, I’ve got good news. My home country is much more vegan-friendly than you might expect! In fact, it’s probably one of the best countries for traveling as a vegan in Africa.
So, in this Kenya vegan travel guide, I’ll share my local insider tips for finding the best vegan food Kenya has to offer.
In most Kenyan homes, day-to-day meals mainly consist of vegan ingredients. This is because vegetables and fruits are abundant in Kenya and are way cheaper than animal products in most areas.
Our culture is also deeply fused with Indian culture. The spices cooking methods used are similar to those in Indian cuisine, especially in Kenya’s coastal areas.
Here are just some of the plant-based foods that are very commonly found in Kenyan homes and restaurants:
Vegan Kenyan Dishes
Ugali is made from white maize flour that’s cooked into a thick porridge. It’s a staple food that’s eaten at least once a day in Kenyan homes. To prepare ugali, you simply mix the flour with boiling water and cook it until it’s done.
Paired with most vegetables, it’s very yummy. I can’t really explain the taste, since it’s something I’ve grown up eating and I’m very fond of, so I may be biased. But if you came to Kenya and didn’t try it, you’d be missing out big time.
Managu (African Nightshade)
These are the cheapest, most readily available, traditional vegetables found in Kenya. They sometimes grow like a weed in farms, which is quite a bonus!
The vegetable itself is a bit bitter. But if you steam or boil them, then cook them in fresh tomato sauce and a few spices, they become very delicious.
Another traditional way to prepare managu is by cooking it in milk. So, if ordering this in a restaurant, make sure to ask for the milk-free version. Managu is often served with ugali. Which is the perfect food to pair it with.
Sukuma Wiki (Collards)
This dish is very prominent throughout East Africa. The name of this dish roughly translates to (“push the week”). It’s a simple and cheap vegetable dish and is therefore seen as a meal that helps one easily move through the week.
Often, it’s referred to as just “sukuma”. The dish is made by chopping the collards and cooking them with tomatoes, onions, and various spices, depending on one’s preference. It’s usually paired with ugali, but you can serve it with any rice dish too.
Even though it’s originally an Indian dish, chapati is deeply ingrained in Kenyan homes. It’s mainly made of wheat flour and vegetable oil. Some people add milk to the dough when preparing chapati, but this is not traditional. To make sure your chapati is fully vegan, it’s best to inquire before ordering.
Chapatis can be paired with various types of stews featuring beans, lentils or peas. We traditionally eat food with our hands by using chapati to scoop it up. But at a restaurant, cutlery will be provided.
Githeri (Maize and Bean Stew)
Githeri is a traditional Kenyan dish that contains beans and maize. These are cooked together with onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, and the cook’s preferred spices. In some restaurants, you’ll find cabbage or potatoes in the githeri, which is a plus.
Githeri is a vegan Kenya specialty dish that you can never go wrong ordering anywhere. The meal is mostly served by itself or with a side of stir-fried cabbage. Some people use green peas in place of beans in this meal.
Mandazi/Mahamri (Fried Bread)
Mandazi is a type of fried bread that originated in coastal Kenya. It’s known to be a breakfast favorite. You can eat this bread with a stew of beans or dunked in tea. In the coastal areas of Kenya, the local community eats mandazi with a stew made from beans, lentils or cowpeas.
Some people cook this dish using milk instead of water. So it’s best to inquire about this when ordering.
Vegan Restaurants in Nairobi
As you can see, traditional Kenyan cuisine has plenty to offer vegans. But food from other cultures is also widely available in the capital and includes some great vegan options. Some of the ethnic cuisines on offer include Chinese, Indian, and, more recently, Japanese and Mexican.
Mercado offers a variety of Mexican delights and doesn’t forget about its vegan customers. Vegan dishes on their menu I can personally recommend are: the mushroom ajillo tostadas, the aubergine escabeche tostadas, the spinach and mushroom quesadillas, and the queso quesadillas.
And yes, even the queso (“cheese”) quesadillas really do come in a vegan version! There are plenty of other marked vegan items on the menu as well, and gluten-free and spicy items are also marked.
For the most budget-friendly option, ask for any of the vegan bowls they offer. They’ll bring you a little bit of everything, at a good price.
The following dishes come in vegan versions: spicy kimchi ramen, mushroom ramen, green chilli roll, papaya cucumber roll, and panang curry. In addition to the delicious food, this cafe also has a really nice ambience.
Inti is a new restaurant in Nairobi that offers a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cuisines. The restaurant isn’t exclusively vegan, but it does offer some unusual vegan options that you won’t find anywhere else.
As a starter, the Lima veg ramen is a unique choice that you won’t regret. For mains, you can choose between the wok mushroom salad and the crispy tofu salad.
If you want an appetizer, order either the Inka tofu amaranth or the Inti yasai tempura. And if you’re an eggplant lover, try the Rocoto Ponzu eggplant or the Robata eggplant al wok rice. Vegetable tempura is another great option.
They have plenty of other vegan dishes on their menu, but these are the ones I found to be the most interesting. When ordering, make sure to specify that you want the fully vegan version.
Honey and Dough
Honey and Dough is a multi-cultural restaurant. They offer all types of meals and have gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian options available.
If you come here for breakfast, try one of their yummy smoothie bowls, all of which are one hundred percent vegan. My personal favourite is the Açaí You, which is full of fresh fruit (and açaí, of course). And there’s even a vegan full English breakfast with scrambled tofu and vegan sausages!
As for main dishes, the tofu bao-bun and the mezze mix are both good options. They also have a Buddha bowl called “The Mexican” that can be made vegan on request.
In addition to the ones I’ve mentioned, there are quite a few other options for vegans at Honey and Dough. Clear markings on the menu make it easy to see which items are vegan by default and which ones come with a vegan option.
Whenever someone asks me to recommend an Indian restaurant in Nairobi, Haandi is always the first one that comes to mind.
Their curries are perfect, and digging into one of them feels like taking a trip to India. Each bite is an explosion of Indian spices, including cardamom, cumin, cloves and tamarind.
As in most Indian restaurants around the world, vegetarian options abound. So, the only non-vegan ingredients you need to watch out for are dairy products.
Some dairy-free options include dal bukhara and Punjabi chana masala. They also have aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower) and malai mushrooms. There are many options to choose from. As always, it’s best to state clearly that you don’t want ghee or any other dairy products in your dish.
For exquisite vegan Ethiopian food, this is the place to be. Many Ethiopian dishes exclude meat due to the fasting traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. A good option is to order a vegetarian platter so that you can try lots of different dishes.
Everything will be served on top of injera bread, which serves as both the plate and the cutlery. The traditional injera made from teff flour is gluten free, but you need to specify when ordering if you want this option. Many of the dishes here have a little kick to them, so if you enjoy spicy food this is the place to come!
Vegan Street Food in Kenya
Visitors to Kenya will find plenty of vegan options at the restaurants listed above. But to enjoy the full Kenyan culinary experience, you need to taste the country’s street food.
As you walk around the streets of Nairobi or Mombasa, you’ll notice there are many food vendors. These establishments offer various options ranging from snacks to full meals, which are mostly found in vibandas (plural for kibanda).
A kibanda is an informal eatery that has a few chairs to sit on but is much smaller and more casual than a typical restaurant. They mostly do take-away meals due to limited space.
Owners of these eateries are known to serve the authentic, traditional food that’s eaten in every home in their particular culture. This is why they are loved.
You may find vibandas specializing in Indian food, Swahili food and traditional Kenyan food. Now you may be asking, what’s the difference between Swahili and Kenyan food?
In Kenya there are seven main tribes, and each one has its own unique food culture. However, there are some traditional foods that are common among all tribes.
Swahili people reside in the coastal areas of Kenya. In fact, the name “Swahili” comes from the Arabic word sawāḥilī, which means “of the coast”. Actually, the Swahili community is a combination of different tribes, but they do share common food choices and use the same spices.
When ordering from vibandas, make sure to ask if the food is dairy-free. Foods and snacks found in a kibanda that are vegan include:
Mukimo is a meal made by mashing potatoes and mixing them with some traditional vegetables (which gives it a green color), maize, and beans. Sometimes the beans are replaced with snow peas. Some people do add meat to this dish or serve it with meat stew, so ask when ordering.
Beans and Chapati
In most vibandas, you’ll find the combination of beans served with chapati (flatbread). Even though it’s a simple dish, it’s filling enough to be a full meal.
Originally an Indian food, samosas are now ingrained in the Kenyan food culture. When ordering samosas, ask about the fillings. Some are filled with animal products, but you may also come across ones with lentils, potatoes and chickpeas.
This is a Swahili dish made by dipping potatoes in a mixture of gram (chickpea) flour and spices like turmeric, ginger, and garlic, and deep-frying them. They’re very yummy, and if you’re into fried foods, you might just get hooked.
There are various chips served in the streets, including potato chips, cassava chips, and arrowroot chips. These are a great snack that will keep you coming back for more. They are deep-fried as you wait, so you can watch them being prepared and then eat them while they’re still hot.
In the streets of Kenya, you’ll come across a range of fruit juices. The vendor lets you choose your fruits and squeezes or blends them as you watch. I would highly recommend that you taste sugarcane and ginger juice. The taste is exquisite.
Corn on the cob is heated on a charcoal stove and smeared with salt, lime, and cayenne pepper. While you may find corn on the cob on restaurant menus, the most addictive ones are sold on the streets.
Mbaazi is a dish that features cowpeas (black-eyed peas) mixed with coconut cream. It’s mostly eaten with rice, mandazi or chapati and is absolutely delicious.
Street food in Kenya is scrumptious, as long as you know the right place to look. In general, Mombasa offers the country’s best street food options.
Although if you want to try mukimo, you’re more likely to find it in Nairobi. Mombasa’s street food will have your mouth bursting with fresh food that is spicy and delicious.
Vegan Specialty Foods in Kenya
While traveling is all about exploring new flavors and tasting the local specialty dishes, sometimes you get hit with a sudden craving for one of your favorite snacks from home. Fear not!
Even in Kenya, you can treat yourself to vegan cookies, vegan marshmallows or pretty much any kind of vegan treat you can think of. VeganKenya.com is an online store that sells all kinds of imported specialty vegan foods, including many of your favourite brands from home.
They offer vegan Magnum ice cream bars, Violife vegan cheese and other goodies. These days, you really don’t have to give up any of your favourite foods when following a vegan diet. Even in Kenya!
Vegan Kenya Food Tours
If you would like to experience life in Nairobi through the eyes of a local vegan, sign up for one of the tours offered by The Veganary. You will be guided through the city by Rachel Kabue, who created the Kenyan Vegans Facebook page and is currently researching the adoption of a plant-based diet in public primary schools in Kenya.
Rachel leads three different vegan tours of Nairobi. The first tour features a traditional Kenya meal accompanied by dancing and music at the Bomas cultural centre. If you’re more into shopping, you can join the village market tour and let Rachel show you where to stock up on vegan supplies.
And finally, you can go on safari and see the incredible wild animals of Kenya without even leaving Nairobi! On the Nairobi National Park tour, you and your guide will go shopping for picnic supplies and then enjoy a vegan picnic overlooking the vast plains full of wildlife.
Communicating with Locals in Kenya
When it comes to communicating, many people in Kenya speak English. However, Swahili is more widely spoken as the country’s main lingua franca. The local people are very accommodating and kind, and if you can say a few phrases in Swahili you’re sure to impress them.
Try using words like samahani to mean please, habari to say hello, and asante to mean thank you. And if you want to have lots more useful words and phrases at your fingertips, the uTalk app is the ideal travel phrasebook for Swahili and more than 100 other languages from all over the world. Use this link to create an account and get 20% off any language!
I hope you enjoy the delicious Kenyan cuisine as well as the wildlife, landscapes and friendly local people when you visit this beautiful country.
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