No Green Thumb here.

I come from a culture that prides itself in farming; no matter the scale. (Hello there, Andū a Nyūmba).

Such a disappointment given the amount of space I have here at the moment.

It wasn’t always like this though. Some years ago, I had a thriving kitchen garden back home. I grew my own spring onion, dhania, rosemary, mint, celery, beetroot, spinach, carrots, even strawberries, and they all thrived. I have no idea what happened when we got here.

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Growing up, we had a garden and livestock. We grew maize, potatoes, avocados, kale, spinach, amaranth, passion fruits, avocado, luquats, tree tomato, pumpkins, beans etc. My Dad who has a green thumb alright, had planted some beautiful flowers all around the house too. It was a pretty place. You would think I’d get some of that green pixie dust… Well, maybe I did, it just didn’t last long.

H and I lived in Naivasha for a while and we tried to garden, it was successful, except for the monkeys that would come and have a field day uprooting the carrots and messing up the maize. We did enjoy the onions and anything else the monkeys could not consume.

When we moved back to Nairobi, I did the kitchen garden thing again and it was pretty neat except for the strawberries that would go missing just before harvest. I did figure out who the culprit was but that is a story for another day. Anyway, somewhere along the line, I got too busy with work and neglected the small space, we ended up planting grass there. Funny enough though, the celery, beetroot and lemongrass keep popping up.

Fast forward to Kampala. We found a couple of banana trees, some lemongrass, struggling mint and chives in a small corner of the compound. Hurray! I thought, I can do this. So we had the small patch fenced off the rest of the garden because of the dogs, and got planting. Guys, nothing grew! Absolutely nothing! Even the existing chives and mint just decided to exit stage left. The bananas did grow without our help and we have enjoyed them twice but that is all. Even the maize I got to plant next to the bananas just decided to leave this world.

This is Uganda, fertile land and all with rain almost every month of the year. We watered, got manure, even dug everything up and tried again, we did all we could but nope, nothing happened.

I have given up on gardening. And I have no shame in admitting it. H and the kids haven’t though. My son has a bean plant he planted in class and it is thriving, so far so good. They also planted pumpkin and mint that is also coming on well. Even they pineapples they planted have taken root. I have decided to watch it all from a distance though, I do not want to jinx their plants, seeing as I now have a black thumb.

My Mum has been sending me pictures of their amazing organically grown vegetables. Courgettes almost as big as my arm, plump beans, large leafy greens, maize and peas and I have nothing to show for all my talk of having a big space for a wonderful kitchen garden. NOTHING.

As much as I have never been an ardent gardener, I still feel like I have failed bigly. What sort of Kikuyu woman is this who cannot even grow simple dhania guys? Dhania, the easiest thing to grow. I have failed my people. Do you know how lousy of a gardener I have become that I could not even sustain an existing rosemary bush people, Rosemary!

Black thumb it is for me.

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House Matters.

Shelter is a basic need. We all need somewhere to go home to, a place to call our own, a haven from daily work struggles and a place to be safe from the elements.

Where I come from, a lot of people believe that one of the things a person should aspire to have is his or her own piece of land, where they can go ahead and construct their own home. For those who do not own property near the city, it is assumed that by the time your working life ends, you will have finished constructing a place in the village to retire to, complete with a cow and chicken coop and space to grow your own vegetables to boot.

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I grew up about 15 km from Nairobi, in a rural village juxtaposed with a college campus on one side, a farming area on another and a busy highway on another end that connects the capital to the Rift Valley. Folks made fun of it a lot, but it is home. We lived on our own land, so no rent, had our cows, chicken and eggs, and a land to farm on, which meant food was easily accessible. Back then a lot of people believed living in town (within the city and suburbs) was the best life. Well, not anymore. I keep reading and seeing more people opting to move to our area and beyond and farm life and waking up to the sound of birds singing has more appeal now.

Times have changed. We are no longer living within our tribal communities’ geographical boundaries. People are choosing to settle anywhere they feel comfortable. This could be in different towns, countries or even continents.

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With the pandemic, a lot of people have had to cut down on living costs. Housing is one of the things that takes up a large chunk of one’s income if you live in the city where rent is high. A lot of people are opting to move farther away to the country side or different counties altogether where life is more affordable, which is a good decision. Adapting to Covid 19 has taught us that it is possible for many to work from home, as long as you have a reliable internet connection, you can work from anywhere.

Land is very expensive too, not all of us may afford to get that land to build our dream house on. One can opt to get a mortgage and settle on an already built housing unit or just decide to rent for life. Which is fine.

Culture is dynamic, there is nothing cast in stone, we need to adapt to these changes and respect each others’ decisions on what is best for them. That does not mean however that these decisions are easy to arrive at.

Is there a need of having to build a house in the village that you will head to once or twice a year for a week tops, that will then stay empty till the day you retire to the village? On the other hand, it will be great to have a roof over your head with no pressure to pay rent in case your income lines dry up.

What about buying an already built property; if you do not have the ability to pay cash upfront, are you willing to be burdened with a mortgage for almost 3/4 or even all of your working life?

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Or you buy land somewhere, then extreme changes in weather, like what we have been experiencing worldwide, force you to move. Lake levels are rising here and old dried up waterways are filled with water now as well as wetlands we thought are dried up. These are places people settled in and lived for years until recently, now their homes are gone!

Some properties are also controversial in terms of location and land ownership. Imagine taking out a loan to buy a house that turns out to built on land later claimed by the government or somebody else, or buying a house that ends up not being structurally sound?

Once you hear all the horror stories some people go through, renting suddenly looks more appealing than ever.

No matter the decision, shelter is a basic right for all. We all need somewhere to live, rest and sleep in. Choosing where to live depends on our economic situation, affordability, access to infrastructure, quality of life and also access to quality education if you have kids. Security too. And not just burglary and the likes, there are certain areas that are prone to tribal clashes every few years.

There is a lot to consider when making the decision where to live, and there is no perfect place that one will pick and say “This is it.” It is all about weighing all that you consider important, the pros and cons, do your due diligence, and make the final place you decide on a home fit for you and your family.

My Pantry Essentials.

This post is a continuation of my “House Matters” series. My previous post in this category was on my kitchen essentials which you can find here.

A pantry could be a room or a cupboard where one stores all their essential food and household items. Not all homes have a room in the kitchen that qualifies as a pantry, also called the kitchen store in some places. In smaller houses or apartments, you have to be creative, so you could either have a pullout pantry or use your cupboards, counter tops, shelves or bins to store your food items.

A simple but elegant pantry space.
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Growing up, my parents used to prefer doing monthly shopping. They would have their list and buy supplies to last us a month or two. Having space to garden also helped save a lot on groceries. We had cows and chickens, so no buying milk and eggs. We grew our own onions, tomatoes, potatoes, maize, beans, leafy greens, some herbs and had banana, avocado, mango, passion fruit and loquat trees. There was minimal food waste as leftovers could be used to feed the pigs, vegetable scraps would make compost and food scraps for the chickens. I miss those days!

We may not garden as much and keep livestock at the moment, but we have kept up with some of the habits I learnt when younger. We have retained the monthly shopping habit over the years for one; I find things last longer that way, we get to save on discounts such as if you buy more than one set of an item, and take advantage of what’s on sale. I also don’t like frequent supermarket runs, so shopping at a go is great for me. Weekly grocery runs are to stock up on perishables such as milk, fruits and vegetables.

This is not a conclusive list, it is just how I do it. Being well stocked makes it easier to plan meals in advance, including kids snacks, lunches and main meals. And there is nothing wrong with being organised, right?

In no particular order, here we go:-

  1. Oils– I mainly cook with sunflower oil and coconut oil. I also keep a bottle of extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings and a small bottle of sesame oil for marinades or simple sautés.
Olive oil Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

2. Butters– I use unsalted butter as it is easier to use in a variety of dishes.

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

3. Ghee– I sometimes use ghee to make my chapatis, for making a rich curry, for rice or dessert.

4. Cheese – I’ve already done posts on the cheese we prefer here. Goat cheese has an intense flavour that works well in pizzas and salads. Cheddar is handy for scrambled eggs, in a savoury loaf, and mozzarella for pizza. But my personal favourites are the goat cheese varieties from Kyaninga dairy and gouda cheese. I however prefer stocking one type at a time.

5. Vinegars– I love balsamic vinegar and add it to roasted vegetables or make a tasty drizzle with it that goes well with many dishes. Apple cider vinegar is handy to have for a tonic and other uses around the home, not just the kitchen. White vinegar is used for baking, cleaning fruits, vegetables and other non food uses, and red wine vinegar is great on salads.

Various types of vinegar.

6. Flours– This includes all purpose flour and self raising flour for baking and pancakes or mandazi. I like using atta (whole wheat flour) in chapatis mixed with besan flour.

One of my favorite flours.

Chick pea (besan) flour is also great in savoury pancakes like I made here, and as batter for packed potatoes here, or crispy matoke wedges or a gluten free apple cake. Rice flour is also present in my pantry. It is great in porridge, pancakes and for battered vegetables too. Kenyan maize meal flour is a must for making ugali, and can make pancakes too, like in this recipe.

For porridge flours, I stock pumpkin flour and millet flour as they are readily available here. I am yet to get sweet potato flour here which I liked mixing in my chapati back home but when I do, I will add it to my list. I also have cassava flour which I have only used so far used to make ugali and roti. Cornstarch also features in this category, although I do not use it much, it is handy to have for thickening sauces or in other dishes.

7. Canned goods- Tomato paste, baked beans in tomato sauce, coconut cream and milk, canned tuna are must haves in my pantry.

8. Condiments– Ketchup, mustard, Mayonnaise. With kids ketchup runs out pretty fast. Akabanga is a hot chilli (really hot) sauce from Rwanda that is in this category too.

9. Flavourings– Vanilla and almond extracts are my usual “go tos” when baking. Soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce are in this category too.

10. Rice and Pasta– As I have mentioned here before, I am a fan of long grained basmati rice as a little goes a very long way. Do not compromise on good quality rice if you make it a lot. For pasta I mix long and short varieties. The short cut pasta is great for salads and pasta bakes. Spaghetti is a kids’ favourite here so I always have a couple of packs on hand. In this category a box of couscous and pearl barley also come in handy.

Different kinds of pasta.
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11. Spices – To avoid having too many spices losing flavour, these days I prefer buying whole spices then grind them up depending on the blend I want, whether for pilau, spicy tea, biriani or a curry.

My must have whole spices are cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, fennel seeds, black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, nutmeg, ginger and turmeric. I like doing this as I am able to experiment with the flavours and learn how the spices work well together. For store bought blends and ground spices, I buy paprika, Kenyan curry powder, garam masala, cayenne pepper and chilli flakes.

An array of various spices.
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Dried herbs– These come in handy when one cannot access fresh herbs, but be careful so the flavour doesn’t get too overpowering in your meal. In this category I stock dried fenugreek leaves, bay leaves, oregano, basil, sage, parsley and mint.

Beverages– Tea leaves, Kenyan of course, have to feature here. Drinking chocolate for the kids, cocoa for baking, coffee and chamomile tea are constants. Ugandan coffee is really good, I am not a heavy coffee drinker but really like it.

Spreads– Our main spreads are peanut butter, honey and jam which could be of any flavours. Nutella too as a treat.

Snacks– Potato crisps and plantain crisps feature here as well as popcorn. I like buying it raw and popping it the old fashioned way with the kids.

Sweeteners- Honey, sugar and icing sugar. I also keep blackstrap molasses for a tonic.

Salts- Just the usual table salt will do. I also like having some sea salt, Himalayan rock salt and black salt when available. The black salt lasts ages. I like it in roasted meats and vegetables.

Breakfast cereals- We love oats so they are always present in the cupboards. Stovetop or overnight, they are a weekday breakfast fixture here. I also keep Weetabix and Weetos for the kids.

Cereals/ legumes- I like having a variety of dried legumes, and keep changing them up. Chickpeas, brown lentils, kidney beans, pigeon peas, chana dal and butter beans are my mains in this category.

Different kinds of beans.
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Dried fruits, seeds and nuts– Chia seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, sultanas, desiccated coconut, groundnuts and cashew nuts feature here.

Powdered Foods : I use these as toppings for our breakfast cereals, smoothies or snacks. This include black seed powder, baobab powder and hibiscus powder. I recently bought some groundnut powder for matoke groundnut sauce. I am yet to try it on anything else though.

Miscellaneous– Baking soda, baking powder and yeast are in this category, as well as breadcrumbs, glucose, and custard powder. I also include coffee filters, vitamin and collagen supplements here as well as food colour and rose water which I use for biriani, baking and beauty purposes.

Packaging– This category features rubber bands, wax paper, greaseproof paper, Foil, cling film and ziplock bags, kitchen paper towels and serviettes.

Most of these items last us well over three months. The all purpose flours and cooking oil, snacks and breakfast cereals are what we usually stock up on monthly. For food items such as ginger, mint and turmeric, I stock up on both fresh and dried depending on use.

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Food pantry essentials depend on how often one cooks, how many people you cook for on average and also the kind of food you make. I make all our meals, including the children’s school lunches which determines how much of each item we need in a given period of time.

I also like cooking with different spices hence the long list of what I stock. It all depends on what you like, but my hope is to help somebody get organised on the basics.

What are your pantry essentials?

My Kitchen Essentials.

As a person who loves cooking and food in general, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. If I am not making dinner, cooking tea or preparing a snack for the family, I am probably rearranging the cupboards, noting what I need to add or reading my cookbooks. Being away from home has made me realise what I really need in the kitchen and the home as a whole. I apply a rule before buying any new kitchen tools; do I really need it, will I use it, and what function is it making easier?

Image from Pixabay.

I will not list a lot of serve ware in this list, that is, plates, cups and glasses. Most of what we have were wedding gifts. Almost ten years later, I have not had to buy any crockery and glassware. I know it’s not fun opening boxes of glasses and plates after the wedding, but trust me, they have come in handy over the years and one can never have too many glasses or cutlery, right?

Below are some items I find essential in the kitchen, listed in no particular order:-

A few of my mwikos aka cooking sticks.
This silicone set is quite sturdy despite the look. They withstand high heat and do not absorb the smells of the food.
  1. Cooking sticks– These include what we call “mwikos”, that is, wooden cooking sticks. I have a couple of flat ones for ugali, and some for stews and for mixing when baking.
  2. Silicone spoon set -I had bought this in Nairobi some years ago. It has a slotted spoon, a pastry brush, turner, spatulas and ladle and some other serving spoons. It is a handy set that has served me well over time.
  3. Chopping boards – I believe every kitchen should have a minimum of four boards. One for meats (preferably wooden), one for vegetables, one for fruits and another extra one for any thing else. I had bought some silicon chopping mats from Carrefour some time ago that come in handy for extra chopping needs, such as fish, or herbs.
  4. Cooking tools– Other essential cooking tools I use are a potato masher, can opener, measuring cups and spoons, muffin tin, a whisk, baking pans both metal and glass, pyrex jug, tongs, slotted spoons, grater, funnel, different sizes strainers / Sieves; for tea and for flour, etc. Citrus presser, colander, stainless steel mixing bowls, plastic bowls, ice cream scoop, rolling pin, garlic press and a little handheld spiralizer and a vegetable peeler.
  5. Saucepans– This could be stainless steel, aluminium, or non stick. I have a nice non stick sauce pan set gifted by my sister that has come in handy here as I left most of my pans back home. I have no cast iron sets yet, but saving up for an awesome set. *Santa better note this down.*
  6. Pans– Everyone needs a couple of good quality frying pans. I have a nonstick Vinod pan as old as my son, and its great for most of my frying needs. But a small pan also comes in handy for those quick fried eggs. Add a flat chapati aka tawa pan and you’re set for awesome chapatis and naan. A double sided pan is also quite useful as it is great for a lot of dishes. You can grill your vegetables or meat in it, do a sauté, make potato wedges, fry sausages or a breakfast hash in it, stovetop baking (I have made pizza and plantain bread in mine), pancakes, among many others, and the best thing is you do not have to use a lot of oil when using it. I got mine in Nairobi from Armedeot Interiors. A lot of my kitchen items back home are from them.
  7. Linens – In terms of linens in the kitchen, aprons and napkins help a lot as well as cotton dishcloths. I divide this into three; for wiping dishes, for covering food and for my hands. A couple of them in each category are good enough to start with. And lots of smaller cloths for wiping the countertops. This will reduce your use of paper towels and serviettes. Oven mitts and pot holders fall under this category too.
  8. Serving dishes– Platters, hot pots (casserole dishes ), ceramics bowls, and salad bowls are also essential, as well as water jugs / pitchers.
  9. Knives are essential in the kitchen, and having a good quality set makes food prepping much easier. Basics are a paring knife that’s handy for peeling, a chef’s knife or two, a boning knife, a serrated bread knife, and a smaller knife for dicing. Kitchen shears are good to have too for preparing chicken and fish, and kitchen scissors also help in chopping up herbs quick or opening up packets of milk or broth.
  10. Appliances– I keep it basic here. A quality electric water kettle is top on my list, an old fashioned slice toaster, blender and grinder for spices, and an instant pot or pressure cooker. I love the instant pot because of its multiple functions; I mostly use it as a rice cooker or pressure cooker, but also learning continually what else I can cook in it. It is also much safer than the old fashioned pressure cookers.
  11. Mortars and pestles are a must in my kitchens. I know food processors make work much easier but I do not mind grinding up spices or herbs manually. Depending on your cooking needs, one or two may be enough. I, however have three. One for crushing my ginger and garlic, another specific one for grinding up my whole spices for masala tea and the other for less pungent pulsing, like nuts and herbs.
I am yet to try out all functions on my instant pot but I love how convenient it is. It is quite handy when boiling green maize or dry legumes and cereals and easy to use.

This list of essentials is by no means exhaustive. It is just a sample of what I have and use in the kitchen as a home cook. Over the years, I have found myself letting go of stuff I do not use.

I also don’t have many electrical appliances as much of my cooking does not require them. I rarely use the hand mixer or juicer. I used to long for a Kitchen aid mixer, a bread maker, a soup maker, a Vitamix Blender, on and on the list went, but if I’m being honest with myself, I would not use them that much and they would end up filling up space in the kitchen. Over time, I have come to learn how to pick what works for me in the kitchen.

Another essential appliance is a blender. Before you go out to buy one, decide on what you need. Most come with three essential attachments but recent models are fancier and pricier with more attachments which you may not need or use.

I did not see the need to include cookers and microwave in this list as these are quite subjective. However, I always urge people to first list down what your needs and cooking habits are, then read reviews online and even ask around before you decide on the brand and model to buy. It is easy to buy what is popular, but it may not be easy to use, easy to clean and may consume a lot of power.

Next post in this category, I will post my pantry/ Cupboard essentials. Keep it here, subscribe to the blog and don’t forget to share the posts as well as feedback.

What are your kitchen essentials?

Quick Grocery Shopping Tips.

Has the way you shop changed in recent times? While some have moved to ordering online or via phone for groceries and having them delivered. For many others, you still have to go out to shop. So, how do we plan around it? How do we keep safe?

Have you noticed your food budget going up? We are all home right now, so we are eating more; you just can’t skip lunch with the kids home. We have to be keen on our shopping lists too to save more as we do not know what the future holds.

Most supermarkets here have sanitizers at the entrance and you cannot get in the store without a mask, which is commendable in reducing the spread of Coronavirus, and the shelves are still well stocked despite slowdown in supply delivery. So what more can we do to keep safe as we shop?

Obviously, make your list in advance. You want to spend as less time as possible in the store. It works even better if you meal plan ahead so you know exactly what to get for the next two weeks or so. Have your budget and try as much as you can to stick to it. Remember we have to save at this time too.

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For fresh produce, plan your meals and shop for what is in season in terms of fruits and vegetables. It is cheaper and you get great value too. Also check for what is on offer and discounts offered. If those ‘buy 3 for 1’ cereals are on offer, buy but check the expiry date too. Only pick what you are sure you will be done with before it gets spoilt in your cupboards.

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If you have to go out, shop in a familiar supermarket. Why? You already know the layout so you will be able to pick things faster. Remember the less time you spend there the better. Also shop in less busier times, either early morning or mid afternoon, there will be less people in the store; so easier to maintain social distance and physical interaction. Remember to keep 6 feet away when queuing too and do not remove your mask at any one time when in there. Also avoid touching what you’re not picking. Except the eggs. My motto when buying eggs is always ‘lift and check’ not just for spoilt or cracked ones, but in case you come across such unpleasant surprises:-

Yes, these are egg trays in one of the supermarkets here with some missing eggs. Lift and check people, lift and check!

Before you stock up on the snacks, check on what you can make at home. There is no point in buying popcorn when you can make it yourself. Crisps, bake them instead for the kids. It wouldn’t hurt to practice heathier snacking habits at this time. So kids craving something sweet, apple slices spread with peanut butter will sort that. Salty craving, sweet potato crisps and plantain chips and homemade popcorn will sort that. Let’s get creative guys!

I know some have tried gardening during this time, which is pretty cool if you have the space. You not only save some money but you are sure of your food source; not worrying bout pesticides and handling. Try planting spring onions, herbs, tomatoes, greens that don’t need a lot of space. So maybe those ‘blossom’ and ‘5 minute gardening hacks’ videos on how to grow from your vegetable waste are onto something after all. It doesn’t hurt to try.

Bulk shopping if you can is the way to go. No, I do not mean picking all the toilet paper rolls, yeast and bleach in the supermarket. Just don’t. Please. Don’t. Pick what you need.

You can stock up on tomato paste, canned tuna, baked beans, long life milk, you know, dry foods that will help you rustle up something in a flash. And of course soap and the usual stuff we buy. Also ask yourself what you really need, canned soups or broths are not hard to make when you have the time, and you can control the salt you put in. Healthy choices people, healthy choices.

By stocking up, you limit going out a lot. Remember limited contact and movement is key in defeating the spread of this deadly virus. If possible have only one person go out instead of going out with the kids to the store.

If you have nobody to leave the kids with, or can’t have deliveries brought to you. You can liaise with your groceries guy to have your stuff ready and all you can do is pick from him or her. You do not have to leave the car. Much safer then entering the store with your little one, right?

Let us do our best to keep ourselves and others safe. Wear a mask properly when out, limit going out, maintain social distance, wash hands, sanitise, keep safe. All this virus needs is one person to be the spark and it spreads like a bushfire.

How have your grocery shopping habits changed in this pandemic?