Foodie Firsts: Ugali (Is it really magical running food?)

wooden spoons-001Foodie Firsts is a Move Eat Create weekly feature focusing on my adventures in the world of food.  Over the course of a few short years, I have transformed from a picky, fearful eater to a curious and open-minded foodie.  In a commitment to continue to expand my culinary experiences, I have started Foodie Firsts.  Each week I will commit to trying something new and sharing that experience with you.  My endeavors may include experimenting with cooking techniques I’ve never tried before, testing a single new ingredient, or drawing upon my creativity to combine foods in ways I never imagined.  Whatever it is, I will eat (or maybe drink) it and share it all with you.  You can decide for yourself whether you, too, would like to try.  Let’s be bold and eat good food!

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If you’re a runner, you may have heard of ugali.  If you’re not a runner, that’s okay, too, because I’m going to tell you about it.

plated - edited

Kenyan runners have been dominating competitions for several years now.  The question of what makes them so good, so fast, and so strong has been asked over and over again, but the answer has yet to be fully articulated.  In fact, one man, Adharanand Finn, wrote an entire book in a quest to answer this question.  In Running With the Kenyans, Finn travels to Africa to live amongst, train with, and learn from some incredible athletes.  I found this to be a highly valuable book, not just from the standpoint of a runner, but as someone who appreciates getting glimpses into cultures different from my own and learning about people in general.  It is an engaging and insightful read and I do recommend it.

But back to the food.  One of the many aspects of Kenyan life examined in the book is the diet of a typical Kenyan runner.  What do they eat?  Do they have a secret food or ingredient that gives them some sort of edge?  The answer (sorry to spoil it for you) is: not really.  A Kenyan athlete’s diet tends to be relatively high in carbohydrates, based in whole, real food found naturally in their environment, and eating quantities which provide nutrition, satisfaction, and fuel for their high training levels, but not to points of excess.

cornmeal - edited

Taken in those terms, it sounds pretty similar to what I eat and how many other runners (and non-runners) eat.  One food that did get a lot of mention, though (besides bananas – which we all know are GREAT runner food), was ugali.  Ugali is a simple dish, really, not to say that it doesn’t serve extraordinary purpose.  It’s made from only 2-3 ingredients (maize, water, and optional salt) and is a staple in many parts of Africa.  If I were to offer a comparison to something that most Westerners may be more familiar with, I would harken it to polenta.  I wasn’t sure what I would think about ugali, but as a runner and a foodie, I absolutely knew I had to give this dish a try.

Ugali is made by combining maize (or cornmeal) with boiling water.  I had read that taking the time to let the cornmeal sift slowly through your fingers into the water was important, so that’s how I chose to do it.  It is then cooked over medium-low heat until the water is absorbed by the cornmeal, creating the thick, mushy pot of ugali.  Ugali is traditionally eaten with one’s hands, so the thickness serves an important purpose.  Once served, you can roll the ugali into a ball, press your thumb into the ball to create a well, and use it to scoop up soups, stews, and other fare.  I gave this a try, but I’ll admit that I eventually put my ugali right into my bowl of stew and ate it together with a fork.  It was totally enjoyable both ways.

I ate my ugali with a version of kitheri (African kidney bean and corn stew).  I was totally unsure of what I would think of this meal going in and I am happy to say that I was blown away with how much I loved it.  The ugali was hearty, dense and provided a perfect base for the chunky stew of beans, corn, zucchini, potatoes, and onions.  It was simple food that tasted wonderful due to quality, fresh ingredients, and not too much fussing to muck anything up.  Perfect.  Plus, I couldn’t get enough of this as leftovers.  I took it to work the next two days, layering some ugali on the bottom of the stew to warm up for lunch.  It was incredible.  The textures and flavors held up remarkably well.

As I said, simple as this dish may be, it is quite impressive in other ways.  To say that ugali is a staple seems to belittle its prominence in African cuisine.  From what I have learned, it is a dish that nearly every family knows how to make and nearly every restaurant serves next to your main dish.  Plus it serves double-duty as a utensil for a variety of stews and provides a warm dose of comfort, familiarity, and reassurance to many Africans with each meal (sounds a bit like white, starchy bread here in the States, doesn’t it?).

There are many moments in Running with the Kenyans, where the presence of ugali is shown to be fundamental to their lives.  Runners needs carbohydrates – lots of them – and ugali provides that in spades, but it was also clear that this dish is more than just nutritional necessity.  It is a food so deeply embedded into culture, family, and life in that community that to attempt to replace it with some other starchy food would be impossible.  The carbohydrates can be made up in other ways, sure, but the connection to the tradition and meaning of that food most certainly cannot.

Notes & Final Thoughts: ugali cooking - edited

Serving Suggestions:

Follow this simple recipe found here at Runner’s World for making the ugali.  Serve with a hearty stew like I did.  I used this recipe for kitheri, though I did modify some quantities to suit my available and desired vegetables.  Delicious.  Eat the night before a long run to fill up those glycogen stores!

Lessons Learned:

I’m not going to run like a Kenyan (surprise!), but I can eat like one.  I can also learn from them.  This may sound a tad bit cheesy, but having read this book and admired what I learned about the culture, I felt a bit more connected to the elite runners when I prepared and ate this meal.  I realized that maybe some of the magic of ugali for them isn’t a special ingredient or a magic carbohydrate ratio, but rather it just may be the feelings and comfort that this food evokes that fuels the runners most of all.