Are you craving a culinary adventure in East Africa, and curious about the delicious delights you may have been missing out on? Whether you prefer using a spoon or your trusty hands (as we all do in Africa), be prepared to indulge your cravings as I take you on a savory journey to discover the 10 most popular East African street foods that should make it to your stomach at some point in your life.
1. Kachumbari: The Fresh Tomato and Onion Salad
Calling all salad lovers, I’ve got something special for you—an East African twist on the classic tomato and onion salad. Beyond the basic tomatoes and onions, Kachumbari arrests your attention with the addition of creamy avocado, cucumber, a hint of chili pepper (for a kick of course), a zesty dash of lime juice, and a finishing touch of cilantro dressing. This simple yet sweet dish is bursting with flavors. It is a sensation not only in Kenya, but also in Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. The best part? It’s a breeze to whip up in your own kitchen, making it the perfect healthy side dish to accompany your meat, rice, or bean meals.
2. Mandazi/Mahamri: Triangles of Fun
Picture triangular-shaped, soft, golden brown doughnuts that fill the air with a divine aroma and melt in your mouth with a unique blend of flavors (I think I’m making myself hungry). Mahamri or Mandazi is made from all-purpose flour, enriched with coconut milk and butter, and seasoned with fragrant cardamom. In East Africa, it can serve as breakfast and can be bought on the street as one dashes off to work. Enjoy a plate of warm mahamri alongside a steaming cup of chai, or savor them as a delightful snack between meals.
3. Chapati: The All-purpose Flatbread
Chapati is a flatbread that’s a staple in East African street food and popular for its versatility. Chapati is thin, unleavened bread made from a simple mixture of flour, water, and a pinch of salt. The dough is mixed, stretched, and cooked on a hot griddle until it puffs up and turns golden brown.
Chapati is influenced by East African-Indian relations and it’s truly all-purpose. It can be enjoyed on its own, as a wrap for various fillings, or as a side dish to complement curries and stews. Its soft texture and mild flavor make it worthy of notice, and it’s a must-try when navigating the lively streets of East Africa or inside the comfort of your home.
4. Nyama Choma: The Grilled Meat Extravaganza
Hope you’ve got the teeth to sink into this carnivorous feast known as Nyama Choma, which is Swahili for “burnt meat”, “roasted meat,” or “grilled meat.” Nyama Choma is a meat dish, loved by locals and visitors. No offense to vegetarians, but this dish is really delicious and a must-try street food, if you ever find yourself in the East African region.
It features succulent cuts of beef or goat, marinated with a blend of spices, grilled over an open flame, and served with a side of tangy dipping sauce. It’s the perfect street food for meat lovers and a staple at social gatherings and festivals. This is East Africa’s answer to grilled meat with cultural significance, and is popular in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya.
5. Ugali: The Staple Starch
Ugali, the staple starch of East Africa, is a must-try for any food enthusiast. This hearty dish is made by mixing maize flour into boiling water and cooking it into a dense, dough-like consistency. Ugali is unseasoned (some may add a pinch of salt), so it’s served alongside flavorful stews, sauces, or grilled meats. It has a bland taste, and thus provides the perfect canvas for soaking up all those delicious juices and flavors (like fufu). Tip: Use a non-stick pot to prepare.
6. Fermented Uji: The Warm Porridge
When you’re in need of a comforting and nourishing start to your day, East Africa offers you Uji as a breakfast meal. This traditional, gluten-free, fermented porridge is made from millet, sorghum, or maize flour. It is often sweetened with a touch of sugar or honey, and flavored with aromatic spices like cinnamon and cardamom.
It is guaranteed to fill you up and the warmth will envelop you from the inside out. You can top it with your favorite dairy milk as well as a sprinkle of fruits, nuts, and honey. And what’s more, the preparation of Uji is very straightforward.
7. Roasted Maize or Corn: The Char-Grilled Corn Delight
Walking the bustling streets of East Africa, you’ll frequently encounter the tempting aroma of roasted maize, which is a popular street food snack. You can try these char-grilled maize cobs with a blend of spicy chili sauce and salt. They strike the perfect balance between smoky, spicy, and salty.
You can make your own roasted corn at home, provided you have an oven or a grill to set over your stove. If you have never had grilled corn before, be warned: it is a jaw workout.
8. Rolex: The Savory Chapati Wrap
Get ready to roll with the Ugandan Rolex (who comes up with these names?), a creative twist to the classic chapati. This street food sensation features a flavorful filling, often consisting of eggs, vegetables, and a generous drizzle of spicy sauce, sandwiched between a thin chapati (it reminds me of shawarma).
Rolex is a portable delight that’s perfect for breakfast on the go. Check out this Ugandan Street Food Tour that features Rolex and some other local flavors.
9. Mshikaki: The Skewered Delicacy
Mshikaki, this skewered delicacy of East Africa, promises a mouthwatering blend of flavors. Tender pieces of chicken, beef, goat meat, or fish are marinated with ginger, garlic, red chili powder, salt, and any other preferred spices. Then they are stacked onto skewers, grilled to perfection, and served with a side of tangy dipping sauce, a cold drink, or as a side dish.
You can follow this mshikaki recipe and enjoy an explosive taste you won’t forget in a hurry. As a plus, you can start a mock sword fight with the skewers to help with digestion after your meal.
10. Sugarcane Juice: Natural Sweet Elixir
Our culinary experience through East Africa concludes with a refreshing sip of sugarcane juice— nature’s sweet elixir. Locals love this natural thirst-quencher, extracted from fresh sugarcane stalks right before your eyes. It’s the perfect way to cool down and rehydrate as you explore the vibrant streets of East Africa.
If you can afford a sugarcane juicer in your home, and you can buy sugarcane from the market or grocery store close to you, then you should give this a try and have a blast.
There you have it—10 popular street foods that capture the essence of East African flavors. So, the next time you find yourself in this remarkable part of the world, be sure to savor these delectable street foods. If you can prepare them on your own then do so and share the flavors with your loved ones.
From savory to sweet, East Africa’s street food scene has something for every palate, making it an unforgettable experience. Bon appétit!