9 Iconic East African Dishes

When I think about East African countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania — I instantly imagine the breathtaking views, healthy wildlife, and rich culture associated with them. Many people, however, don’t realize that East Africa is also home to some of the most flavorful cuisines.

African Family Dinner

History and Culture of East Africa Food

Colonialism plays a crucial role in the cooking style of most East African countries. Hundreds of years ago, traders brought Arabic herbs and spices to the subregion. Afterward, the Portuguese brought sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava from Brazil. Not long after that, the British colonizers arrived and introduced the locals to Indian spices and a new range of food from Southeast Asia.

Many cultures have influenced East African dishes, which resulted in a unique melting pot of flavors, ingredients, and cooking methods. Typically, dishes in East Africa include grains, stews, and curries generously spiced with herbs, fruits, and seafood. Read on to learn more about the unique foods from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.

African Market

Ethiopia Food

Ethiopian food is arguably the best-known East African cuisine and usually contains vegetables and spicy meat dishes.

The highlight of any Ethiopian dish is the injera, a spongy, fermented, mildly sour flatbread used to scoop up food instead of using cutlery. It typically comes with wat, a thick meat stew. Injera contrasts remarkably with the sauces and spices like chili peppers, fenugreek, and garlic.

Find out more about the most popular Ethiopian dishes:

Tibs

Tibs is considered the go-to meat dish in Ethiopia and usually consists of beef or lamb strips sauteed in butter, garlic, onions, pepper, and rosemary. Tibs comes in different spiciness levels and may contain little to no vegetables. Typically served with injera, it often graces special events and holidays.

Ethiopian Tibs and injera

Shiro

Shiro is a popular Ethiopian fasting food. You will find many locals feasting on shiro during fasting days instead of the neighborhood butcher shops. It’s a tasty chickpea or bean puree with minced garlic, onions, tomatoes, and peppers. Don’t let the blob-like appearance fool you — it’s an unbelievably delicious dish.

Ethiopian Shiro

Beyaynetu

Considered to be Ethiopia’s most famous vegetarian dish, the word beyaynetu translates to “a bit of every type.” Beyaynetu consists of a platter of injera topped with different vegan curries and vegetables. This dish is more enticing on Wednesdays and Fridays for Ethiopians when they typically abstain from eating meat.

Ethiopian Beyaynetu

Kenyan Food

Unlike Ethiopian cuisine, there is no singular dish that represents Kenyan food as a whole. Kenya has many different communities, each with distinct food styles. You will usually discover fish dishes in coastal communities, grains in rural areas, and international cuisines in cities.

However, maize, millet, and sorghum are some of the staples throughout the country, usually eaten with different meats and vegetables. Additionally, Kenyan cooking usually uses coconut, cumin, and turmeric.

Here are some of the most popular foods from the communities in Kenya:

Ugali

A cornmeal porridge similar to polenta, ugali is a popular dish throughout Kenya. It has many names like gauli, ngima, and sadza. Some people take one look at it and decide it’s a tasteless filler, but it’s definitely not. It has a popcorn-like taste that salt and butter can enhance. We recommend eating it with meat stew, sour milk, or vegetables.

Kenyan Ugali

Nyama Choma

No Kenyan food list is complete without nyama choma, a delicious dish of roasted meat. Freshly-slaughtered goat and beef are the top choices for meat, but chicken and fish options are also suitable. The slow roasting process brings out the rich flavors of grass-fed goat and select spices.

Nyama Choma

Irio

Originally from Kikuyu, irio became a staple in many parts of Kenya. This popular mashed side dish typically combines potatoes, peas, and corn. Compared to the usual mashed potatoes, irio is thicker, heavier, and has a richer flavor profile. We recommend eating it with nyama choma.  

Kenyan Irio

Tanzania Food

Heavily influenced by Indian cuisine, Tanzanian food is entirely different from its Ethiopian counterparts. The food in this breathtaking country is all about rich flavors and hearty servings. Tanzanians often use fish, coconut milk, and spices for main courses and different banana varieties for dessert.

Don't miss the following dishes when you visit Tanzania:

Chipsi Mayai

The term chipsi mayai translates to “chips and eggs” in Swahili. You will find this simple dish of eggs, potatoes, and spices in most food stands, available with toothpicks and a side of ketchup. Many online recipes call chipsi mayai a French fries omelet, but there’s something more delicious about eating fresh, hand-peeled potatoes made in small batches.

chipsi mayai

Zanzibar Pizza

Despite the name, this popular dish holds little resemblance to Italian pizza. The Zanzibar pizza is a pancake-like food filled with meat, onions, pepper, eggs, and cheese. It turns into a handy sandwich, later deep-fried into crispy and chewy wraps.

Zanzibar Pizza

Mchuzi Wa Samaki

Originally from the island of Zanzibar, mchuzi wa samaki made its way into the heart of Tanzania. There are regional variations of this popular dish, but it typically consists of fish cooked in curry powder, spices, and lemon juice. Sea bass, cod, and red snapper are some of the fish you will usually find in mchuzi wa samaki.

Mchuzi Wa Samaki

Enjoy the East African Cuisine

You might go to East Africa for an unforgettable experience hiking along the Blue Nile Falls, Maasai National Reserve, or Mount Kilimanjaro — but don’t forget to enjoy the food in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and other East African nations. You’ll find yourself falling in love with the rich flavors and aromas of the East African cuisine.