Sugar and spice and all tastes Kenyan

Scentimental: A sip of Kenyan masala chai can revive a tired soul and a childhood memory. Photo: Justin Govender

Scentimental: A sip of Kenyan masala chai can revive a tired soul and a childhood memory. Photo: Justin Govender

The intense spicy aroma of cloves is the first to hit the nose. Next is a hint of nutty cardamom, earthy ginger and, finally, a subtle note of sweet cinnamon.

For many Kenyans, this is the scent of home. A waft of cinnamon and nutmeg passes and you know it’s almost Christmas.
A lick of a granadilla lolly and you’re back to sunny days on the beach. Some of our most precious memories become so vivid from the mere smell, taste or sight of a familiar food.

Jackline, an engineer living in Johannesburg, was born in Nairobi, but her family moved to South Africa when she was 13. A lot of things have changed since they left, but one essential element of Kenyan life has remained: tea. Every Saturday, Jackline’s house is filled with the aroma of spicy ginger and cloves. Her mother makes a big pot on the stove. First you boil the water and tea leaves and then add a masala mix, followed by milk and sugar. “Kenyans love sugar in their tea. The more rural you go, the sweeter the tea is,” says Jackline.

South Africa has countless brands of tea, but it’s nothing like the chai in Kenya. “The chai we have is more ginger and cloves,” says Jackline, “Kenyans always like really spicy tea.”

Just like Stone Town in Zanzibar, Mombasa was a hub of the spice trade. Consequently, Indian spices and cooking methods became hugely influential in Kenyan cooking. It’s not chili or heat that unites the two cuisines, but rather the deep, warm, aromatic spices such as ginger, cardamom and cloves. The two countries share a love for sweet chai, pilau rice, and chapatti flatbreads.

For Jackline, chapattis hold a strong sense of comfort and familiarity. “I really like making chapatis,” says Jackline, “I like the ritual of it. It’s the one thing I’ve been able to share and make for others and they’ve really enjoyed it. I can still share an authentic part of Kenyan food.”

Kenyan chapatti, which is larger and thicker than Indian chapatti, is a staple at any special occasion. “I once had a friend over when we were eating chapatti at home,” says Jackline, “and I was almost offended when they took the chapatti and they put everything in it and made a wrap. It’s not the same. It’s not a wrap! It’s different — you have the chapatti in one hand, and you scoop.”

Only experiencing Kenya as a child, many of Jackline’s memories have faded into a blissful haze of nostalgia. But sensory memory manages to illuminate even the deepest memories — such as the mere sight of a cassava root. “My tribe, the Luhya tribe, we have a lot of potatoes. Not like regular white potatoes, more like cassava and nduma [taro],” says Jackline, “if you’re really having a feast, you’ll have those for breakfast boiled with a little bit of salt; that’s it. It’s nice and soft.”

Jackline first saw cassava in Johannesburg when she visited the Carreira Centre in Randburg. “I saw it and took my mom there just to see this cassava,” says Jackline. “We bought some and cooked it and it was heaven.”

“When I was about eight years old, we lived in a house with a massive garden,” says Jackline. “We grew a lot of these things in our garden, like sweet potatoes. Even though you get them here, my mom still thinks the Kenyan ones are better. We grew potatoes in the back, we grew our own maize, we grew kale. Kale is something that’s blown up here [as if] it’s this superfood, when literally people have been eating it in Kenya for ages. It’s not cheap here, but in Kenya it’s the cheapest, it’s cheaper than spinach. We would eat kale with pap, it was really easy cooking.”

Even though kale is now available in shops, many Kenyan families grow their own vegetables to make the comfort foods they crave. “Every Kenyan person that I know in South Africa has these things in their garden. My mom too. We have a garden patch and they exchange seeds when they meet up,” says Jackline.

No stranger to travel, Jackline took a gap year in 2017 and spent nine months in Colombia. She taught English to high school pupils in a in the Huila region. “It was a small city,” says Jackline. “You literally could only find one type of cheese. You had to go to the big city to get cheddar.”

Despite many differences between Africa and South America, there was one glaring similarity: “Colombian food and African food are very similar in the sense that they’re very meat heavy, and all the meat. And they also love lots of rice,” says Jackline.

In South Africa, on a lazy Sunday people braai, but in Kenya, you enjoy nyama choma. “It’s like a braai, but just bigger and more meat — your plate has all the animals.”

For Jackline, cooking on an open flame revives memories of December holidays in Kenya. Her grandmother had a piece of land where she also grew her own vegetables. Six-year-old Jackline followed her grandmother everywhere. She watched intently, with clouds of smoke hitting her face, as her grandmother slowly fed the fire between three stones. “I liked to follow her, help her collect firewood and watch her cook,” says Jackline. “She cooked very differently on the three stones. Even now, it’s still fascinating, but as a kid you can imagine.”

Before the meal was served, a woman in the household would wash everyone’s hands with a bucket and warm water, and then dry them with a towel. When the food came, it would often be served with a big plate of pap.

“In Kenya, the pap is called ugali and it’s very firm, it’s like a cake,” says Jackline. “You might cut it with a knife, but then you take it with your hands like a piece of cake.”

It seems that all cultures have their own version of pap or maize meal. The Americans have grits, the Italians have polenta and, during her time in Colombia, Jackline discovered the South American version called arepa — a maize meal pancake. “I found it so weird at first. It’s pap, but it’s a pancake? But I really grew to love it. They basically make a pap mix and then add butter and cheese and they fry it,” says Jackline.

Whether it’s pap, chai or a simple flatbread, every culture has staple foods that nourish the body and the soul. The sensory memories hidden in simple foods can revive deep, joyous recollections.

Kenyan masala chai recipe

South Africa doesn’t have the same loose-leaf tea and masala mix that’s used in Kenya. This recipe uses tea bags and pantry spices to recreate the soul-warming flavours of a spicy Kenyan chai.

Ingredients (serves 4)

2 cups water

4 black tea bags

3cm fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

6 cloves

6 cardamom pods

6 whole black peppercorns

1 cinnamon stick

½ tsp ground ginger

⅛ tsp ground nutmeg

2-3 cups milk,

sugar, to taste


Using a medium-sized pot, bring the water to a boil.

Take the cloves, cardamom pods and black peppercorns, and gently crush them with the back of a wooden spoon.

Once the water is boiling, add the tea bags and spices. Turn the heat down and let simmer for three minutes.

Add the milk and sugar and simmer for another two minutes.

Pour through a fine-mesh sieve or tea strainer and serve hot.

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