Kikuyu People: Traditional Foods

Updated 27th May 2012

A Nduma dish with potatoes and carrots for additional flavour. Steemed cabbage has been added to balance the diet.
A Nduma dish with potatoes and carrots for additional flavour. Steemed cabbage has been added to balance the diet. | Source

The Kikuyu were a mixed farming community. Their diet was mainly from agricultural produce. They kept cattle and goats, but mainly for ritual purposes and as a currency for the purchase of goods and the payment of dowry. They therefore ate meat during ceremonies that required the slaughter of a goat or cow, and not just because someone had not eaten meat for a long time. Like in the Maasai community, the Kikuyu were forbiden from eating wild animals. It was also taboo to eat birds like chicken and ducks. However these taboos did not apply to uncircumcised boys and families adopted from communities that had no qualms eating the forbidden animals. For example Ndorobo Kikuyus were known as 'athi', a term that translates as 'hunters' among other meanings. They therefore were free to eat the produce of their labour but no self respecting Kikuyu would have eaten an antelope, a hare, fish or even a chicken. Meat was therefore rare in the Kikuyu diet in early times. I have heard the elderly say that when a family ate meat, they used the animal's fat to smear their legs so every body who saw the shiny legs would know.

Things are very different today. They Kikuyu eat all kinds of meat including the previously despised fish and pork. Their mixed farming now includes poultry, rabbits and even fish farming. The only animal that is yet to be domesticated by a Kikuyu is the camel.

Below is a description of Kikuyu traditional foods.




A plate of Githeri: Maize and beans, first boiled then fried to taste
A plate of Githeri: Maize and beans, first boiled then fried to taste | Source

CEREALS

maize (Zea mays) mbembe

maize flour (Zea mays) Mũtu wa mbembe

LSB Leakey in his book on the Southern Kikuyu states that an old man told him his father would not eat maize because it was not a Kikuyu food. Maize was introduced to Africa by the Portuguese at the coast.

bullrush millet flour (Pennisetum americanum) Mũtu wa mwere

finger millet flour (Eleusine coracane) Mũtu wa ũgimbi

sorghum flour (Sorghum bicolor) Mũtu wa mũhĩa

Apart from the maize that was boiled, roasted or served in a mixture with beans (githeri) as a meal, the rest were used as flours for porridge. It is believed that a porridge is more nutritious when it is a mixture of as many cereals as possible, including a bit of maize flour. Flour mixed with water is allowed to sit for several days to ferment. It is believed that adding maize flour hastens the fermentation process. The product of this process is very tasty. When not fermented, lemons are added to give an alternative flavour. In the old days, sugar was not used in porridge. People had a choice between Bicarbonate of soda, salt or nothing. Interestingly, this soda was added to practically every boiling dish, apparently to hasten the cooking process.

Soda ash is the chemical Sodium Carbonate. It is an antacid that neutralises stomach acids. Sodium is essential for good health. It helps to maintain electrolytes in the body, helps nerve tissue to transmit impulses and helps muscles to expand and contract normally. (http://www.livestrong.com/article/261167-sodium-bicarbonate-facts/)

It should be noted that Sodium which is the main compound in common salt has health disadvantages when taken in large amount.

LEGUMES

cow pea, (Vigna spp.) thoroko

green mung bean, (Phaseolus aureus) ndengũ; thuu

kidney bean, (Phaseolus vulgaris) mboco

lima bean, (Phaseolus lunatus) noe

pigeon pea, (Cajanus cajan) njũgũ

bonavist bean (Lablab niger) njahĩ

Njahi are prized as a nutritious food for nursing mothers. People tell a nursing mother that ‘ninguka kuria njahi’ – I will come to eat Njahi, the real meaning being that I will soon come to see the new baby.

Archaelogical evidence shows that about 3500 years ago it was under cultivation in parts of India from where it found its way into Africa. It was taken from the congo to the Caribbean by the colonialists and is known as the ‘congo bean; gungo bean’ over there.

The Kikuyu use all the above legumes either;

1. in a mashed up of bananas maize and sometimes a green vegetable and served with a stew. Irish potatoes often replace the bananas.

2. Mixed with maize as an alternative to ‘Maize and beans’ – githeri


TUBERS

cassava (Manihot esculenta) mwanga(singular); mĩanga(plural)

green banana (Musa paradisiacal) irigũ(s); marigũ(p)

potato, sweet (Ipomoea batatas) ngwacĩ

yam (Dioscorea spp.) gĩkwa(s); ikwa(p)


Taro (Colocasia esculenta ) Ndũma

The Ndũma tuber was a delicacy among the Kikuyu.

this plant belongs to the Araceae (Arum) family.In west Africa it is called cocoyam though It is not a yam. Yams are vines while Ndũma is a lily. It is also called kolocasi, ocumo, arum lily and dasheen in the Caribbean region. This plant is known as Ndũma among many of Kenya’s Bantu speakers.

Every Kikuyu family had a Kianda – a flooded patch in a valley where Ndũma were grown. The water would be supplied by a slow moving stream. Sometimes a family walked for three hours or more to their Kianda at a patch allocated to them by relatives. To harvest the tuber, the soil around the base is loosened and entire plant is pulled out. The corme is cut off with a knife, leaving a small portion to hold the leaves together. This small left-over corme is returned into the soil and a fresh corme develops from it. Virgin corms are sharp pointed but secondary corms are flat at the bottom, giving the impression of a drum. Ndũma tubers are rich in amylase, a soluble starch, potassium and carotene.

Serving Ndũma

When my grandmother got word that I would be visiting from Nairobi, she went to the Kianda – a low lying flooded garden patch. There she would harvest five or more tubers. Back home, she placed about three of them in the hot ash of her cooking hearth and left them there to bake for an hour or so. When they were removed from the hot ash, they had developed a hard thick skin. This skin was scraped lightly with a knife to remove the ash, and burnt sections to leave a grayish white cover. This hard cover was removed to reveal a steaming hot baked flakey mass. Both the cover and the baked mass were very nice to eat with a cup of tea. It was the equivalent of cake but with no additives, not even salt. People in rural areas who use a three-stone-hearth still prepare Ndũma in this way.

The Kikuyu also boiled Ndũma and ate them as a snack or a meal. Stews were not a traditionally made and have been learned in the last century. The Ndũma was therefore eaten as a dry food.

The leaf is a vegetable that is used in a mashed dishes of bananas, potatoes with beans chicken peas or cow peas. In my grandmother’s days, the mashed meal would be made into balls which were served by using the Ndũma leaf as a plate.

Ndũma leaves arerich in vitamins A and C, protein and are said to have the same nutritional value as spinach.


Non traditional methods of preparing Ndũma

You can fry Ndũma mixed with bananas or irish potatoes. The Irish potato was introduced to the Kikuyu in colonial times. Sweet potatoes were boiled or roasted just like Ndũma. Today, however, it is common to see a meal of Ndũma and Ngwaci (sweet potato) mixed and fried together, then served with a meat or vegetable stew.

Note that since Kikuyu’s largely ate boiled food, any cooking with as much as teaspoonful cooking fat or oil is said to be fried. Gukaranga (frying) usually means that a little cooking oil or fat as been allowed to heat. Onion, tomatoes and the main dish are then added in that order. Since the oil may bee too little to sustain the frying, a little water is added at a later stage with continuous stirring to stop the food from stcking to the sides. Many people use carry powder for extra seasonin.

Today, manufacturers are making crisps, packing them in plastic bags and selling them in supermarkets.

Ndũma are available in all food markets in Kenya, and all supermarkets that stock fresh farm produce.

Known as taro, Ndũma was the staple of Hawaiians who make poi, a fermented or sometimes unfermented paste from the tuber. They lived almost exclusively on this food and early explorers found the people to be very healthy and robust.

This neglected food is grown in some countries in plantations. For Kikuyus, it was and still is more of a delicacy and is not grown with any seriousness.

This is very healthy food. If it is available in your locality, use it as an alternative to bread for breakfast. Use it also as an alternative to irish potatoes.

Beware of those grown in the outskirts of Nairobi. They may have been irrigated with raw sewage water.

Which other ways do you use Ndũma?


VEGETABLES

Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) terere

The amaranth was most likely introduced by the potuguese since it is a South American weed.


bonavist bean, leaves nyeni cia macahĩ

cowpea leaves, nyeni cia mathoroko

kidney bean leaves, nyeni cia maboco

leaves, pumpkin nyeni cia marenge

pumpkin irenge(s); marenge(p)

Sugar Cane

Every Kikuyu household had endevoured to have a sugar cane plantation. This was an important crop for making beer. There were many instances when a man had an obligation to make beer for ritual purposes. This included marriage negotiations. The canes were harvested and pounded into a pulp. This pulp was then squeezed to get the sugary pulp. The pulp was then used to make a valuable beer. Among the things that could be demanded by the brides family were several large gourds of cane beer. This was besides what would naturally be served to the negotiating teams.

Though there is no evidence to show that the Kikuyu could make sugar crystals, they had a saying that 'mũrĩo ũninaga magego' - too much 'sweet' will destroy your teeth. Perhaps they had learned this from chewing sugar cane, or eating too much honey.

More by this Author


Comments 10 comments

Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Thanks for visiting, coffeealera. I should post some pictures soon. That will make it all the more delightful to read. Let me know how your sumptuous dish turns out.


coffeealera profile image

coffeealera 4 years ago

Great recipe, I think I will give this a go next weekend.

Voted up and useful.

AJ..


kamau 4 years ago

side effects of arrow roots during pregnancy.


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

I have added some more information on Kikuyu traditional foods. I have left out the foods like cabbage and irish potatato which were introduced in colonial times. I have however included the staple maize, which was already in grown widely by the majority who had never seen a white man. It likely that it was brought inland by Kamba traders from the coast where it had been introduced by the portuguese.


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

This Nduma ya mwanake is a myth but I am saying this before asking around. When I find you are right I will apologize. I used to find the Kikuyu of my youth refering to any unusual variety of a known plant as a 'mwanake' (male)eg. mubabai wa mwanake - a male papaw tree. This male had its fruit hanging on strings. If I remember there was a 'male mango' variety as well. That is why that 'mwanake' state of plants needs to be probed. All the same, I am waiting for an opportune moment to ask a Kikuyu sage about the Nduma ya mwanake.


ngureco profile image

ngureco 5 years ago

What you may be having there is ‘nduma ya muriundu’ which may have originated in Ireland and introduced to Kikuyu people by the early British settlers in Kenya. This nduma might have been attractive to the local people as it matured fast, was somehow sugary, could be grown out of the river and you just needed under two hours to cook it.

The indigenous nduma of kikuyu people is called ‘nduma ya mwanake’ (Colocasia spp) which needed an average of 15-plus hours to cook. Look at how far we have come - what you will eat tomorrow for super will be put on fire today in the afternoon. If you can withstand the 15-plus hours cooking it, then, once ready it’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten. ‘Nduma ya mwanake’ has lots of iron and traditionally was used to cure gout, and its bark was used as balm to wounds.

People used to plant their ndumas of mwanake right in the middle of the river. This is why I thought if one can get rivers with remnants of the ‘kikuyu ndumas of mwanake’, then, one can get closer to tracing possible migration routes of the Kikuyu people?


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

You need to eat Ndumas from Muthithi, Maragwa, Sabasaba areas. You will not say 'tasteless' about them. They are not white. The skin is a reddish brown. The inside is a light purple with freckles. You can eat the entire corme if you roast it. When boiled, they have a salty/sugary taste and disintegrate easily. If you are seen adding salt to them you will be the talk of the village. When roasted, the soft inside flakes like desicated brown bread. Sweet is not the word because it has no sugar, but you can eat it dry and still yarn for more.

I will research about the poison antidote quality because after you raised, someone else has admitted to having heard about it.

One more thing - never chew a raw or semi cooked nduma. It will give you 'rwagatha' which is what you are calling an itchy throat. That effect is also given by raw leaves.

Thanks for the engaging discussion.


ngureco profile image

ngureco 5 years ago

The Arawaks people of West Indies are well known for using arrowroot starch/powder to draw out poison when applied to the site of arrow injury. Arrow roots have very high concentration of starch and traditional people may have known something about osmosis, whereby a fluid (containing arrow poison) will always tend to pass out through a semi-permeable membrane into an area of higher concentration.

The traditional kikuyu arrowroots are cream white and somehow tasteless. Perhaps you may still find some in Karatina and Kerugoya markets. They indeed takes a very long period to cook, and has to be boiled in a pot for all that long before you can think of roasting them. If you did not cook them long enough their corms would give you an itchy sensation in the throat after eating them. A species of the traditional kikuyu arrowroots may be what vendors in Nairobi are claiming to come from Kampala so that they can sell them at a higher price.


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Hi,

I don't know about treating but I doubt it. I think it is because the frist crop is always pointed. The leaves are however corrosive if chewed raw. Maybe something could be extracted from it.

About cooking for a long time, I think 24 hours is an exageration since they can't cook longer than beans. But, to show you may have a point, one time I visited my maternal grandmother and she asked mky cousins to make some tea. When the tea took too long to come, she asked 'kai cai uyu uhiire ta nduma' - literally is the tea taking as long as nduma to get ready?

One of My Paternal Grandmother's 'kianda' was about a kilometre away and another one was probably eight. I believe hers were the original type and they didn't really take longer to cook than they do today. They were sweet in a way and fluffy when roasted.

However I find the Nduma's sold in Nairobi to be big white, and tasteless. Sometimes the vendors claim they come from Kampala and I really long for the old varieties.


ngureco profile image

ngureco 5 years ago

Good article about Nduma as food for the Kikuyu people.

Is it true that this tuber got its name ‘arrow’ root since it was used by traditional people as a cure when one was shot by a poisoned arrow?

The traditional ‘Kikuyu arrow root’ was/is cream white and one needed to cook it for 12 – 24 hours to be ready.

To grow this tuber, one needed to plant it in a river or flooded area. If one can get places/rivers with remnants of the ‘kikuyu arrow roots’, then, one can get closer to tracing possible migration routes of the Kikuyu people?

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working