By NJOKI KARUOYA
Women from the coast region are generally regarded as the best cooks in the country, particularly when it comes to making pilau. And indeed, at a recent cultural food festival held in Likoni featuring different Kenyan communities, Digo women came out tops, showing that they could do a lot more than make pilau.
The unique exhibition was organised by the Humanist Movement.
There was no doubt that the Kikuyu's presentation of their mukimo (made from cowpeas, maize and potatoes), irio (made from maize, potatoes and pumpkin leaves), roasted bananas, roasted and boiled sweet potatoes, arrowroots, white porridge (made from maize flour and served in traditional calabash and gourds), tea, boiled pumpkins, roasted and boiled maize did great justice to the community's way of cooking.
The Luo and the Luhya, for their part, presented both fresh and fermented finger millet porridge, different types of stewed and deep-fried fish served with ugali and different types of vegetables, including mrenda, and dek and as well as ground peanut stew.
But the Digo women, who came together under the umbrella of Tiwi Women's Development Programme (a women's initiative whose myriad efforts through its various women's groups are geared towards providing sustainable incomes to support their families), went out of their way to show that ugali need not necessarily be prepared from maize, nor should different types of food always be cooked separately, as many communities are wont to do.
Coconut, which is highly prized by the coastal communities, plays a special part in their cooking. Everything, from the copra to the flesh and the liquid, has some use.
"The liquid has different uses," explained Bi Arusi Salima Machiko, a member of the Mukoyo Women's Group. "When the coconut is still young and the shell can easily be sliced with a knife, the liquid, known as madafu, is drank to quench thirst as well as to clean the digestive system. The liquid can also be fermented to make an alcoholic drink known as mnazi.
The liquid from the mature coconuts - known as coconut milk - is very important for cooking, while the white flesh can be cut into pieces and eaten raw or roasted, or it can be grated and added to food.
"It makes the food sweeter than plain fare," said Bi Machiko.
The shell can be used as a container or a cut into shapes and polished to make ornaments and decorations.
Bi Machiko had prepared tangalizi, a green, ugali-like mixture of green grams (or pojo as it is popularly known at the coast), kunde, cassava, salt and coconut. "I first mixed the green grams and kunde before adding the cassava and grated coconut, then mixing them all with water and coconut milk. After that, I pounded the mixture for a few minutes until it was ready," she explained.
Mukoyo women's group presented baada, another ugali-like mixture prepared by Bi Tumu Omari. "Baada is prepared purely from cassava," she explained. "The cassava is sun dried until it turns black. It is then pounded and sieved then cooked like your regular ugali with water."
Both baada and tangalizi go very well with the taffi fish prepared with coconut and served with a side soup made from heavily spiced onions.
Rats are a delicacy among some coastal communities and they can be roasted, boiled or fried just like meat. Sometimes, to indicate to the uninitiated that this is no ordinary meat, the rat is served with its long tail still intact to distinguish it from the others.
For their part, We and You Women's group presented mukanyato, a stew made from green bananas, offal and coconut. "First, the green bananas and offal are boiled separately. They are then added to a fried mixture of onions and tomatoes. Coconut milk is added to the stew, followed by grated coconut," explained Bi Mesaidi Omar.
There was also mseto, yet another ugali-like traditional dish prepared from green grams, flour and coconut. It turned out to be Mwanaisha Omar's speciality. "I first boiled the green grams, then mixed them with grated coconut and the flour and moulded the mixture like you would ugali. It goes very well with dried fried fish and kachumbari," she said.
Ugali undoubtedly remains the main staple food for many Kenyan communities. But while most of these communities believe in ugali made from maize-meal only, the Digo women demonstrated that the ugali can take different forms, most of them not only delicious, but highly nutritious.
The Nganzi Kaya Women's group was not to be outdone. Presenting her special dish of mshombos Mwanaisha Kassim Mwanyawa explained how she had prepared it from simsim (sesame seeds) and cassava, and another from green grams and rice. "I washed and sun-dried the simsim then winnowed it and dry fried it. In the meantime, I was boiling the cassava. When the cassava was done, I mixed it with the simsim and pounded them together," she said.
"For the green gram/rice mshombo, I boiled the green grams until they were nearly ready, then mixed them with the rice and the grated coconut and pounded the mixture. It goes very well with fish and kachumbari."
Another version of ugali presented by the Digo women was mfuuru, made from pounded cassava and grated coconut. It is traditionally served on banana leaves and eaten with cowpeas or dried taffi fish.
Then there was a version made from bananas, maize meal, sugar and cardammon. Prepared by Mbokweni Women's Group, the mixture was wrapped up in a banana leaf and placed inside a saucepan with boiling water and covered. The banana leaf was removed and opened when the water had evaporated considerably.
Then there was tambi, which is made from pawpaw. The fruit is first cut, and cooked with grated coconut, milk, sugar and cardammon.
And matoobosha is prepared from white wheat flour, sugar and cardammon "The wheat flour is kneaded in the same way you would for making chapatis and then cut into pieces, folded in vegetable oil then put in the sun for about an hour," explained Halima Rama. "In the meantime, the coconut milk is boiled and mixed with sugar, cardammon and grated coconut. This is used to brush the cooked matoobosha.
For breakfast, rice porridge is the preferred dish. "The rice is washed then sun dried," explained Bi Omar. "As soon as it is dry, it is pounded until it is smooth, then mixed with hot water in the same way that you would cook your regular porridge. "When it is ready, we add coconut milk, sugar and white cardammon to give it a sweet smell."
But, like the Nganzi Kaya women said, you cannot start off your day without a cup of tea. "And our type of herbal tea is best," boasted Mialie Rashid. Pointing to a green herb, she added: "This herb was passed on to us by our forefathers and it has special ingredients. It is not only tasty, but also heals, cleans the digestive system and rejuvenates us, giving us the strength to work the whole day."