Updated on November 10, 2016
Eating locally and healthy in Tanzania and Kenya
The local food in East Africa is really not bad. Yes, they do eat quite some carbs and unhealthy oil (see my post about that), but the food is tasty, quite diverse with different flavors, and there are many types of vegetables that come with standard and local meals. I therefore enjoy eating local food and hardly ever have a graving for ‘western’ or ‘luxury’ food in the more expensive restaurants. (Contrary to when I was traveling in South America and often ate at non-local restaurants for more choices and more veggies.)
Healthy local vegetables
In Kenya, and to a lesser extent in Tanzania, very common, cheap and healthy staple vegetable (side) dishes are ‘sukuma wiki’, a type of vegetable related to kale, and ‘mchicha’, spinach. These dishes are not very exciting taste-wise, because they are quite plain, but when eaten with other food, they are tasty enough. (I would definitely stir-fry them with garlic and some soy sauce or other veggies like tomatoes if I had the chance!) Stir-fried cabbage mixed with some carrots is also very common. And even though other vegetables, like broccoli, zucchini, eggplant and paprika are available, they are not used as often. Tomatoes and onions are used as the base for stews and curries and also in salads. Carrots and peas are popular in curries.
Healthy local food options for vegetarians
Thanks to plenty of vegetable dishes, this region is friendly to vegetarians. Most of the menus, even at very local restaurants, have vegetable or vegetarian sections. Consuming enough protein is often a challenge for vegetarians, but thanks to staple foods such as rice, beans, lentils and eggs, it is not too difficult to eat healthy and balanced meals. In Kenya there is a dish called ‘githeri’, which consists of maize and beans boiled together. Together with vegetables this is a very healthy meal for vegetarians. The variety of healthy food for vegetarians is not as huge as in western countries, and protein-rich seeds for example are very difficult to get. (I only found seeds and quinoa at a health store in Nairobi and they were more expensive than at home.) As a vegetarian you will end up eating quite a lot of carbohydrates for food diversity and energy.
Most local dishes are accompanied by (or consist of) carbohydrates, such as rice, pilau, chapati, potatoes or ‘ugali’. Rice is a good option if you need/want to eat gluten free and for some proteins. Unfortunately restaurants always serve white rice, and brown rice is only for sale in the larger supermarkets. Pilau is rice stir-fried with something, either spices or veggies (in Tanzania) or fish (on the Kenyan coast) or meat (in Kenya). Chapati is flat bread, freshly made of flour, vegetable oil, water and salt, and generally a much better alternative than the local bread. (I hardly eat bread here; it tastes funny and doesn’t mold for weeks, which says enough about the – not so healthy – ingredients.) Potatoes usually come as fries, but are sometimes baked or mashed (in the less local restaurants). ‘Ugali’ is a very popular staple food and resembles corn porridge. Except it’s not very liquid, but served in chunks. I tasted it twice (in different restaurants) and will probably go hungry before I order that. (It doesn’t really taste like anything and is very dry.) But overall, there is plenty of diversity in carbohydrates and you don’t end up eating the same thing with every meal.
Local and healthy restaurants
We try to eat locally as much as possible, because it provides a more authentic travel experience, because it is cheap and because it is tasty with enough variety, especially if you vary the type of restaurants.
Swahili (East African) food was heavily influenced by the Arabs and Indians, creating a huge variety in spices and flavors. In some parts of Tanzania and Kenya there are also authentic Indian restaurants (set up by the Indians that moved there during English rule). These restaurants are completely vegetarian and serve a variety of Indian food, including paneer and tikka masala.
One of our favorite restaurants was Lukmaan restaurant in Stonetown, Zanzibar. It was basically a very local and healthy fast food restaurant. All the dishes were already prepared and you could just pick any dish you wanted. There were vegetable, meat and fish dishes, different curries, and anything from samosa to chapati and rice. It all tasted good, the guy serving it could explain it to you in English and it was cheap. And even though it was popular among tourists, it was also popular with locals.
Healthy local soups
Soups are not available at all local restaurants, but if they are, they are generally healthy and delicious. For as far as I can tell (and I am sensitive to the taste) they don’t use artificial ingredients in their soups, like MSG, but make their own broth or spice the soup themselves with natural ingredients. In Kenya, it is however common that they add milk or cream to (vegetable) soups. If you don’t like or want that, always check before you order.
Chicken soup is different in every country. In my experience, chicken soup is a rich soup with tasty broth, some veggies and tender pieces of chicken filet. But not so in many countries. Once, when I was really craving some tasty, hot chicken soup in Ecuador I got the chicken broth with a chicken head and a chicken foot in it. As hungry as I was, I couldn’t eat it… In Tanzania, while waiting for our bus to leave and not being able to find a decent breakfast, I decided to order chicken soup. (Soup can be really nice for breakfast; the spices will wake you up!) There was a bit of language barrier, but I saw some people eating a broth soup that looked good, so I though it was ok. But when I got the broth soup, it came with separate chunks of chicken and cooked plantain. The chicken was not tender at all and since I didn’t have a knife, I couldn’t really cut it into nice pieces to put it into the soup. So I ended up eating the broth (which was very nice), chewing a bit of the chicken and leaving the rest, with the plantain (I really don’t like that). So much for chicken soup in Tanzania…;)