Kenyan Holiday Medley

Fridah Mubichi’s Kenyan grandmother began planning Christmas dinner in September. She canvassed her goats and chickens in search of the perfect cut of meat. Her selections made, she fattened them for slaughter on Dec. 24. As a tribute to the animals’ sacrifice, the meat was cooked by itself with only a sprinkling of garlic and onion. Nothing was wasted: tripe, the lining of the stomach, every scrap was served and savored.

Special occasions are a good excuse to indulge in a taste of home, says Mubichi, who moved here from Kenya in 2012 to pursue a Ph.D. in Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri. A holiday or birthday celebration may spur a visit to one of Columbia’s international markets for goat meat.

For Mubichi, Christmas in Kenya means spending the day in the kitchen with the other women and girls preparing the meal while the house fills with hungry extended family. The house stays this way throughout a month dotted with holidays, including Dec. 12, Jamhuri Day, the celebration of Kenya’s independence from Great Britain, New Year’s Eve, Boxing Day and others.

Tables are laden with savory dishes that illustrate Kenya’s medley of cultural influences. Indian-influenced pilau, or rice pilaf, is plated next to hearty British beef stew. Irio, a traditional mashed potato dish, accompanies goat meat. Dinner guests scoop up meat and stew with flakey layers of Chapati, a flatbread similar to naan. In Kenya, a cook’s deftness in making this traditional bread is a gage of womanhood, Mubichi says. A woman whose Chapati is done right is much sought after.

But “if you cannot cook squat, you get sent back to your mother’s kitchen to learn how to cook,” she says. The ingredients for Chapati — flour, sugar, and oil — are some of the most expensive to buy in Kenya. For holiday celebrations, Christmas especially, it is common to give these goods as gifts so that Chapatis can be served at the meal.

The diversity of food in Kenya is a product of colonization, geography and travel. “As people traveled away from Kenya, they brought a lot of ideas and ingredients back to the kitchen from the places they went,” Mubichi says.

Mubichi regards food and agricultural systems with the same reverence her grandmother showed the Christmas goats. Through her work with MU’s Soybean Innovation Lab, she strives to understand the complex hunger crisis and inner workings of rural sociology in sub-Saharan Africa.

Generations of women before her grew and prepared food to survive, to provide, and to celebrate. Even her family name, Mubichi, hints at this tradition. Given to her grandfather by British missionaries, it’s a mispronunciation of his name, Mpishi, which means “cook,” she says.