There are many awesome things that come to mind at the mention of Mombasa; the heat, the nightlife, and the beach are just the tip of the iceberg. Coastal food is one of the most phenomenal things about Mombasa (and the coast in general) because cooking is somewhat an art that has been experimented upon and perfected, by generations of the many cultures that have passed through there. So what better way to experience the coastal culture than through tasting its variety of amazing food? Here is a list of the top ten foods you should definitely try while in Mombasa:
NOTE: It’s all well if you want to enjoy coastal cuisine at your five star hotel but to fully experience coastal food in its true essence, the streets are the way to go:
- Viazi Karai
In proper Swahili it should be “Viazi Karanga” (fried potatoes) but I think they used to be sold in basins (karai) so often that the name viazi karai (potatoes from the basin) stuck. In Nairobi, people make viazi karai with tomato sauce as the accompaniment, but this is bound to fail miserably if a seller applied it in Mombasa. See, most coastal people like to tickle their taste buds and Tomato Sauce speaks of mediocre effort; so sellers go steps further by offering more accompaniments. These usually come on form of three types of sauces:
- Ukwaju (tamarind sauce) usually comprises of water soaked tamarind, onions, garlic, salt and sometimes pepper. It tastes nicely sour and the thicker it is, the better.
P.S- If you get addicted to it (like some of us are) be careful to not take too much of it. It’s a laxative. Bowel movements and that sort of thing? I hope I didn’t ruin your appetite.
- Tomato gravy- this is a far cry from cheap tomato sauce and it comprises of actual tomatoes making the gravy- not some soupy thing with Royco added in it. However, most sellers don’t offer it on account of tomatoes being very costly most of the time.
- Chatini– is a thick sauce made from grated coconut and sometimes has sour additives. Make sure to taste it first before pouring it all over your viazi then deciding you don’t like it.
Among all the above, the most constant is ukwaju and believe me when I say customers have been known to return purchased potatoes if the seller happened to not have ukwaju. Some of my friends from Nairobi didn’t like it when we had some in Malindi but with Viazi karai being the most popular snack in Mombasa, some ukwaju in the mix is definitely worth a taste.
- Sea food
Top on my list is Pweza(octopus), Kambaa (prawns), and any saltwater fish especially Kiboma.
Sea food in hotels costs ridiculously expensive; especially considering that I come from a place where prawns, that cost thousands in hotels, are priced from 10- 100 shillings only. I have yet to taste readily cooked prawns from the streets of Mombasa but they are pretty easy to make, so read here for a recipe on preparing them.
Ready made Octopus meat sells from as little as 10 shillings a piece to about 50 shillings for a good sized chunk of octopus. I know you’re probably thinking of octopus arms flailing all over the place (woe unto you if you thought of Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean) However, I assure you; the deep fried version of octopus is nicely chewy, evenly salted and not slimy at all.
Kiboma is about the best fish I have ever tasted- EVER! And even if it’s not your thing, there is really no better place to taste saltwater fish than in Mombasa. Not only are they reasonably price, but in places like Likoni (Ferry) you get an option of choosing the raw fish you want, getting it cleaned up and nicely packed for your own preparation at home. An experience on any island is not complete without some sea food tasting, so do try out the different types of sea food. If you hate all of them at least you’ll have a story to tell about how pweza tastes like shit (P.S.-It doesn’t!)
Enter the sweet toothed taster. Labania- usually sold in Somali and Arab shops- is a beige-colored creamy and very sweet snack which costs about 50 shillings per piece. Don’t be fooled- it’s not a piece you’ll gobble down in one go. The milky sweetness in it has been known to make some people nauseous but if you take it bit by small bit, it’s like an awesome chocolate bar.
Kashata loosely translates to “kite shape” which is the shape of this snack. It’s made out of dry grated coconut, food coloring and sugar. Colors range from orange, pink and red and the price is just about 5- 20 shillings depending on the size you’re buying. In Mombasa town, they can be found literally anywhere because there are so many food stalls along many of the streets.
Mabuyu literally translates to “baobab seeds” which is what mabuyu actually is. Because baobab seeds are cream in color (boring!) and not very nice to taste, they are cooked with a nice smelling flavor, food color and sugar to give them the characteristic colorful look and sweet taste that is mabuyu.
They can be stored for months without going bad, so it’s not uncommon to find mabuyu that is unpleasantly hard to chew or suck upon.
To avoid mishaps, buy mabuyu that looks a little powdery and wet (not sticky as some sellers may add water to overstayed mabuyu) Marikiti market has a wide collection of mabuyu that sells at 50 shillings (the size of which is sold at about 300 bob in supermarkets)
- Mkate wa sinia
Translates to “bread of the platter”. It is a homemade snack usually sold by Swahili women, and is not too sugary as to become disgusting. This chic Fauzia explains how it is made here but worry not about not being some super skilled Swahili chef; the snack is readily found in the busier streets of Mombasa during evenings when people think of what they should get for tomorrows breakfast and trust me, it’s got to be one of the best breakfast snacks you’ll ever have.
After viazi karai and mabuyu, achari is the third most popular thing about Mombasa and the coast in general. Achari is basically dried mangoes which is at times colored and sweetened or salted. Some even add pepper to it and I have to say, that’s my favourite type of achari.
Colored achari is usually red in color but the uncolored ones stay yellow and they are super sweet.
The sourness of the mangoes adds a little something more to the taste and they are a nice snack to nibble upon- much like popcorn- only better. The best variety of achari is found at Marikiti market where sellers have you taste samples of their wares to assure you it’s the good stuff. (Don’t we all like the good stuff ;-)) Achari costs about 50 bob at Marikiti and much less in neighborhoods where people make it right on their verandahs.
Ah! Now there’s something I always look forward to each time I go to Mombasa. Mahamri can be termed as Mandazi with a difference. They not only smell real good and delicious, they also taste way better than Mandazi because of the spices used to make it. Fear not if you are not a spice kind of person- it’s usually just iliki (cardamoms) which I assure you, does not cause heart attack. Mahamri offer an awesome breakfast alternative to the cliché bread and when sold together with Mbaazi za nazi (pigeon peas in coconut extract) as they usually are, they make a filling and very healthy breakfast.
These are little balls of mandazi-like things which are really soft and coated with dried sugar syrup. Like mkate wa sinia, they are usually sold on the streets in the evenings though they can also be gotten in the mornings, where food tables are set out (especially around Mamangina Drive and Mwembe Tayari). You should taste them because they are sweet- period.
I have mixed feelings about this because I have tasted some haluwa and hated it while I liked others. Either way, it’s such a signature coastal delicacy that you just must taste it and make your own conclusions. No matter how it’s made, the first expectation you should have about haluwa is that it is going to taste sweet. That sweetness might appeal to one and disgust another; but then again, do taste it to decide for yourself.
That’s about it. Is there any other coastal food worth a mention? What have yo tasted so far and did you like it or totally hate it? Add it in a comment below!