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from: Eastern Africa | cooking method: boiling-simmering


Eastern Africa's Ugali (similar to Southern Africa's Mealie-meal, Nshima, and Sadza) is usually made from maize (corn) which was brought from the Americas to Africa by Europeans; previously it was made from millet. These starchy Fufu-like "foundations" are the Eastern African versions of Western African staples like Fufu (which is generally made from yams, plantains, or cassava tubers) and Banku, Kenkey, or . -- They are all starchy accompaniments for the African soup or stew or sauce, or other dishes with sauce or gravy. They are generally made by boiling and vigorously stirring a starchy ingredient into a thick, smooth mush. Many Africans feel they haven't had a meal unless they have eaten Fufu or Ugali with a sauce or stew (see quotation from Richard F. Burton, below).

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Engurma, a thick porridge also made from maize, is another staple food in Eastern Africa.

More about Ugali in the Rare Recipes pages:

Richard Francis Burton

Such is ugali, or porridge, the staff of life in East Africa

In the late 1850's Richard Francis Burton traveled from Zanzibar to Lake Tanganyika and back, and then wrote The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1860; reprinted by Dover Publications, and by Scholarly Press). In the first paragraph Burton is saying that his African porters regard any meal without ugali as nothing more than a snack. By "kitoweyo" Burton probably means "kitoweo" which does not mean "kitchen", it means "condiment", "spice", "side-dish", or "seasoning"; which makes Burton's point: the Africans wanted ugali with their meat.

The African, however, looks upon meat not as "posho"--daily bread--but as "kitoweyo"--kitchen: two or three pounds of beef merely whet his teeth for the usual ugali or porridge of boiled flour.
(Chapter XVII -- The Down-march to the Coast)

The daily food of the poor is grain, generally holcus [millet?], maize, or bajri (panicum); wheat is confined to the Arabs, and rice grows locally... Upon journeys the African boils his holcus unhusked in an earthen basin, drinks the water and devours the grain, which in this state is called masango; at home he is more particular. The holcus is either rubbed upon a stone --the mill being wholly unknown-- or pounded with a little water in a huge wooden mortar; when reduced to a coarse powder, it is thrown into an earthen pot containing boiling water sufficient to be absorbed by the flour; a little salt, when procurable, is added; and after a few stirrings with a ladle, or rather a broad and flat-ended stick, till thoroughly saturated, the thick mass is transferred into a porous basket, which allows the extra moisture to leak out. Such is ugali, or porridge, the staff of life in East Africa.

(Chapter XVIII -- Village Life in East Africa)

Other African gastronomical excerpts

James George Frazer

Porridge is Made from the New Grain

James George Frazer was a professor of social anthropology at Liverpool who spent a good part of his life writing and adding to his major work, The Golden Bough (Abridged edition; New York: The Macmillan Co., 1922; first published 1890; various editions since then). He included this description of a millet harvest ceremony and an ugali-like porridge made from millet in the section titled "The Sacrament of First-Fruits". Frazer uses the word "corn" in its orginal sense to mean "grain"; every women who owns a grain-field goes out to it... The eleusine grain is probably a type of millet. Millet is widely cultivated in Sub-Saharan Africa, though it has been partially replaced by American corn (maize) in the last few hundred years.

Among the Nandi of British East Africa, when the eleusine grain is ripening in autumn, every woman who owns a corn-field goes out into it with her daughters, and they all pluck some of the ripe grain. Each of the women then fixes one grain in her necklace and chews another, which she rubs on her forehead, throat, and breast. No mark of joy escapes them; sorrowfully they cut a basketful of the new corn, and carrying it home place it in the loft to dry. As the ceiling is of wickerwork, a good deal of the grain drops through the crevices and falls into the fire, where it explodes with a crackling noise. The people make no attempt to prevent this waste; for they regard the crackling of the grain in the fire as a sign that the souls of the dead are partaking of it. A few days later porridge is made from the new grain and served up with milk at the evening meal. All the members of the family take some of the porridge and dab it on the walls and roofs of the huts; also they put a little in their mouths and spit it out towards the east and on the outside of the huts. Then, holding up some of the grain in his hand, the head of the family prays to God for health and strength, and likewise for milk, and everybody present repeats the words of the prayer after him.
(Chapter L. -- Eating the God, part 1. The Sacrament of First-Fruits)

Peter Matthiessen

Ugali that is subsistence in East Africa

Peter Matthiessen describes ugali in his descriptive essay of East African nature, people and travel, The Tree Where Man Was Born (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1972):

With his wood ladle he [Gimbe] stirs maize meal into boiling water to make the thick white paste called ugali that is subsistence in East Africa; ugali, eaten with the fingers, is rolled into a kind of concave ball used to mop up whatever is at hand in the way of meat, vegetables, and gravy. Soon he presents a bowl of water in which the right hand is to be dipped and rinsed prior to eating, because here in the cave our posho, or ration, is eaten from a common bowl. The Moslem washing of one hand comes up from the coast by way of the part-Arab Swahili, once the agents of the trade in slaves and ivory . . .

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African Proverbs

Kupyanja iti kulumanga. : To dip ugali in a little gravy is better than to be completely without gravy. Things could be worse.
  (from: African Proverbs, Sayings and Stories Website,

Omoonto umwi nkirunguuri, ababere nitoonge rebukima. (Kuria, Tanzania and Kenya) : One person is thin porridge or gruel; two or three people are a lump (handful) of ugali. Unity is strength. (ibid)

Other African proverbs

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