Iten, Kenya

Retrospectively, a quick take on cooking and eating in the Kenyan countryside amongst the world’s best marathon runners.

Meat comes sliced off a carcass to order from small corner shop-like butchers, who hang them in the window – quite appealing I think! No need to know what to ask for, just point. Beef is most readily available, however mutton and chevon also appear during the week. For £4 we bought a shoulder and most of the spine of a sheep and slow-cooked it in local Guinness (7%), local honey and toasted cumin seed. Less successful was slow-cooking beef on the bone, which took three days (!!!) of cooking to get somewhere close to tender… no doubt a result of the aged and active nature of the beast and of the altitude (Iten is 2400m above sea level).

You can’t run or travel through Kenya without getting to know ugali. Kenyan athletes swear by it, and eat it with every meal. Think of a cross between Deb instant mashed potato and polenta and you have it. It’s basic, very filling, high energy and it sucks the moisture from every corner of your mouth. We wrote an alternative cookbook for uga (the flour ugali is made from) called 101 things to do with uga including recipes for tortillas, cornbread and sweet breakfast porridge. None of the recipes included turning it into ugali.

Food is basic in Iten. There is no rich heritage of elaborate dishes; every day most people eat ugali, chapati and bean dishes. Meat is simply prepared by finely dicing and cooking in a simple stew or stir-fry. Hotels serve heavily sweetened milky tea and fried bread, similar to doughnuts. Local food markets are at their most vibrant and colourful when full of local fruits including a myriad of plums, mangoes, avocados and of course, bananas. Travelling down to the valley floor is to descend into a warmer, more tropical clime where the largest, plumpest and most aromatic of these fruits come from. Women offer their gardens’ fruits on platters by the road. For the first time in two years I bought a bag of proud mangoes wafting tropical scent, and tucked in, up to my elbows in flowing juices.

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