What Is Ugali?

There are so many culinary secrets and delicacies in African cuisine still awaiting general discovery. Indeed, African cuisine could be said to be the last frontier in world cuisine.

One such open culinary secret is Ugali.

There is honestly, seriously, no other word for it. If you say maize meal bread or millet bread, it does not quite describe this dish.

It is probably the most widespread dish in Africa. There are variations of it right across Africa.

In West Africa, a variation of this dish is called foo-foo. Foo-foo is made of cooked yam, cocoyam or cassava, pounded into a mash and served with various sauces like fish, meat or vegetables.

In Kenya, Ugali is made with maize flour. Maize flour is added to boiling water and mingled until smooth, to various degrees of stiffness. Ugali is served with vegetables, fish, meat, fermented milk or pulses, and eaten with the fingers. Ugali is also referred to as sima along the coast of Kenya.

In Uganda, Ugali is made of maize (then it is called posho), millet or sorghum flour (then it is called kuon kal or kalo) or of cassava flour.

In southern Africa, it is referred to as pap.

Many men, even if given the choice of rice, cooking banana or wheat breads, prefer Ugali because they say it leaves them feeling satisfied for a longer period of time.

Consequently, many eating houses in Africa serve chapati (a flat fried wheat flour bread), rice or mashed cooking banana along with Ugali.

Ugali – or variations of it – is always eaten with the fingers. There is a complex etiquette and art to this, which must be learnt from childhood. The fingers are not used to shove food into the mouth, but to delicately carry food – even a thin sauce – into the mouth without leaving traces.

In Uganda for example, only the upper portions of the fingers should be involved in eating, and there should be no evidence of the meal afterwards. One should be able to walk away after the meal without anyone noticing anything.

A common and special ritual as part of hospitality in many parts of Africa is to bring the guests warm water to the table before and after the meal to wash their hands. Even where guests have the possibility of washing their hands at the sink, this ritual persists, probably because there is something very giving, very generous about serving a guest in this way.

Making good Ugali, or a variation thereof, has always been a litmus test for women all over Africa. Well-made Ugali takes skill and long practice to make. Well-made Ugali must be smooth and lump-free, without burning. Various levels of stiffness are desirable in various communities.

The Kalenjin of western Kenya, for example, prefer a softer Ugali to eat with their Murzik, while the Luo of western Kenya prefer a stiffer Ugali to eat with fish or vegetables.

Among the people of northern Uganda, the test for well-made kuon kal – Ugali made from millet flour – is that if a lump of it is thrown against the walls of a hut it will not stick, much the same way the Italians say al dente spaghetti does not stick to the wall!

Africans have been known to complain against their Ugali, especially when they cannot afford anything else, such as chapati or cooked banana. Ugali is, after all, a cheap and filling dish. In Uganda, for example, it is a staple in boarding schools and correctional institutions.

The same Africans, however, have been known to clamour for Ugali even when they can afford something better!

Ugali. The great silent common cultural denominator across Africa.