Wednesday, September 30, 2015


The earliest forms of art that has been preserved are probably cave drawings, including several articles I came across saying people have found a cave drawing in Kuwait that depicts humans hunting dinosaurs. I really don’t know about all that; it certainly seems kind of hoax-ish to me. But there are other cave drawings depicting life as hunters and normal things. The royal families throughout the centuries commonly kept Islamic paintings, ceramics, and jewel-encrusted objects. Today, many of those items have been preserved in the Kuwait National Museum. 

Throughout the Arab Peninsula, Kuwait was the first country to establish an arts movement in the modern arts. Kuwait also set itself apart again by being the first country in this region to grant scholarships to students who want to study the arts. In fact, the arts scene in Kuwait before the Gulf War in 1991 was booming, and Kuwait was in many ways one of the prominent arts capitals in the Gulf region. The war really took a hard toll on the arts scene in this country with artists and others fleeing and art works and venues being destroyed. However, in recent years it has grown and a growing interest has inspired professional artists and amateurs alike to appreciate their cultural arts. They are now home to over 20 art galleries. 

by Mojeb al-Dousari
One of the most well-known artist from Kuwait is Mojeb al-Dousari. He was one of the first artists who made a name for himself as a portrait artist and introduced this type of art to the country. Not only was he a gifted artist himself, but he also developed the first art gallery in Kuwait in 1943. 

by Khalifa al-Qattan
However, it wasn’t until Khalifa al-Qattan came along that there was an exhibition in 1953 solely devoted to the works of one artist. During the 1960s al-Qattan would later continue on to develop an artistic theory he called circulism. I found a doctoral thesis by Muayad H. Hussain posted online about al-Qattan and circulism. It was 306 pages, so I didn’t read the whole thing, even though I think it’d be interesting. Essentially from what I gathered by jumping forward to the section on circulism (besides the fact that his wife was the one who suggested the name; behind every successful man is a successful woman, right?), it took little bits of certain European arts movements like surrealism and social realism and combined it with curved brush strokes and symbolism in color and shape. But yet at the same time, there are elements of traditional and Eastern art forms as well. It’s kind of complex, but I think that’s it in a nutshell.  

by Thuraya al-Baqsami
As a slightly more progressive country than others in the region, Kuwait also had a number of female artists as well. Two of the more prominent names are Thuraya al-Baqsami (who has won numerous international awards for her work) and Suzan Bushnaq (who often represents women’s life and struggles in her work). 

Al Arabi magazine

The vast majority of Kuwaiti literature is written in Arabic. Like other arts movements, Kuwait was also the leader in literature in the Gulf area. After the Al Arabi magazine was first published in the late 1950s, it quickly spread to become one of the most-read magazines in the Arab world. Al Arabi was a monthly magazine that focused on the arts, sciences, politics, culture, and economics covering the Pan-Arabic world.

There really aren’t any surviving copies of any literature from Kuwait from its earliest days. But there is also some evidence leading historians to believe that Kuwaiti authors were aware and followed English-language and French-language literature. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century when Kuwaiti authors became known on the Arab world stage. 

A few notable writers include Fatimah Yousef al-Ali (journalist, short story writer; first woman in Kuwait to publish a novel), Ismail Fahd Ismail (novelist, short story writer; one of the first authors in Kuwait to make a name for himself in the Arab world), Najma Idrees (poet, columnist), Taleb al-Refai (journalist, writer; produced an art magazine called Jaridat al-Funun), Taibah al-Ibrahim (wrote the first science fiction novel in Kuwait), Laila al-Othman (novelist, short story writer), and A.H. Almaas (author, spiritual leader). 

Kuwaiti playwright, director, and producer Sulayman al-Bassam

Theatre has also played an important role in Kuwait. It is essentially the only country in this region that has a theatre arts culture, which started in the 1920s. There are several theatre troupes throughout the country, and many have won international awards and recognitions for their work. Likewise, Kuwait is also known for their soap operas shown on TV.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, September 27, 2015


I was in 5th grade when I first heard about Kuwait. It was 1991. I was at the age when I was just beginning to understand the world around me on a global scale. I watched Yugoslavia and Russia break up as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall two years earlier. I didn’t understand what was going on exactly, but I watched it and tried to piece it together in my 11-year-old head. This was the year the US entered Kuwait to fight against the Iraqi occupation and annexation of Kuwait. I can distinctively remember the night-vision videos of the scud missiles, green streaks across a blackened screen.

The name Kuwait is stemmed from a diminutive form of the word kut or kout, which means “fortress on the water.” The country was named after the capital city of the same name. Kuwait’s strategic location on the Persian Gulf has been beneficial throughout its history. This small country is located at the head of the Persian Gulf, surrounded by Saudi Arabia and Iraq. It also includes nine islands, eight of which are uninhabited. During the summers in Kuwait, the temperatures are very hot (I just looked the other day, and it was 109ºF.), and they are often subject to dust storms during this season. Their winters are still moderately warm with the average daytime temperatures in the 50-60s and lows in the 20-30s.  

The ancient Mesopotamians first settled on the island of Failaka (the only inhabited island). The ancient Greeks eventually started moving into this area, and Alexander the Great took the area in the name of Greece. Then the Sassanid Empire moved in and took over, calling the place Meshan. By the 1500s, the Portuguese moved into this area and built a fortress settlement. A small fishing village called Kuwait was built on the bay during the 1600s. Although it changed hands many times, it quickly grew to be a major port city for the shipping industry. In fact, the city of Kuwait was one of the major stops for goods and spices from Southeast Asia to enter the Middle East and Europe. Likewise, it was also an important city for the boat-building industry as well. Because of all of this trade, the city was booming and built a reputation for being a very wealthy city. However, this all changed with WWI: Britain imposed a sanction on the country because of their support for the Ottoman Empire, which had a crippling effect on its economy. Their once-revered pearling industry also collapsed at the same time. During much of the 1920s-1930s, Saudi Arabia placed economic and military actions against Kuwait, eventually taking much of their land for themselves. Luckily for its impoverished citizens, oil was discovered. From the time after WWII to the early 1980s, Kuwait saw immense growth in the public and private sector, mostly driven by its investments in oil. The country developed in areas reflective of Western countries; they enjoyed a free press, a thriving theatre arts scene, Western style clothing, and a high quality of life. Although Kuwait supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein later claimed that Kuwait was a province of the country as a means to invade (although during his last days, Saddam claims that Kuwaiti officials insulted and threatened his family and that’s why he acted as he did. Who knows how much truth is in any of this?). After the U.S. got involved, the Iraqis did retreat but not before they lit hundreds of oil fields on fire as they were leaving. Today, Kuwait is still a freer country in comparison with some of its neighbors in the region and enjoys a comfortable quality of life for most people. 

Kuwait City is the capital city and largest city in Kuwait. The city has a little over 2 million people in its metro area, making it about the same size as Houston, Texas or Havana, Cuba. Lying on the Kuwait Bay, it serves as a major port in the Persian Gulf. Kuwait City is not only the center of the government, but it’s also the cultural, financial, and educational capital of the country as well. Roughly 98% of Kuwaitis live in the urban areas. When the Iraqis burned many of the oil fields in the early 1990s, it left large sections of land unusable due to soil contamination. However, Kuwait has taken many of its oil dollars and put it back into its country, its people, and its infrastructure. This city is very much a modern oasis in the desert. It’s known for its space-age-looking buildings, towers, and technology. 

Because of Kuwait’s oil being a driving factor in its economy, its currency, the Kuwaiti dinar, is the most valuable currency in the world. Nearly 94% of their exports are in petroleum-based products. Kuwait is also seeing a rise in young entrepreneurs. Real estate is prime and can be very expensive, and many of these young entrepreneurs are often technologically savvy when it comes to marketing, often utilizing Instagram to advertise their businesses. I think this is great. (I have two Instagram accounts: for this blog, I post to @kayosmada, and I have one called @indyinblackandwhite where I take photos of areas in and around Indianapolis in black and white.) Because Kuwait practically has no agriculture of its own other than some fishing, it must import almost all of its food from other countries. It is also the leader of the Arab-region countries in foreign investments. 

The vast majority of Kuwaitis are Muslim (mostly Sunni). There are also significant pockets of Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Bahá’í, and Christians.

The official language in Kuwait is Arabic, and more specifically Kuwaiti Arabic. They also have their own version of sign language. However, English is often understood by many people and is often used in business. 

Several years ago, Oprah did a special on “Women at 30,” highlighting how 30-year-old women live around the world. One of her guests was a woman from Kuwait. She made waves because her great-uncle was the Emir, and she chose to marry outside of royalty. But she also highlighted several things about Kuwait that surprised me: when Kuwaitis marry, the Emir gives them $12,000 to get started on their lives. They also get free education (including college), free medical care, and no one pays taxes (I believe they use the revenues from oil to fund projects we would normally pay for in tax dollars—how different than how it works in the US where the CEOs of the oil companies pocket the majority of these dollars and don’t spread it out. If trickle down economics worked like they say it does, then gas station employees should be making $22/hour or something). People live fairly comfortable lives here, and unemployment is around 3.5%. However, even as one of the most democratic countries in the Middle East, women still don’t have the right to vote here. But what they do have are some tasty recipes, many of which are inspired from all over the Arab world and Asia, and I can’t wait to try them out.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, September 20, 2015


Ten years ago today, I was in labor all day with my daughter, Marisa. I was a little nervous since I was only 34 weeks along, but it turns out that even though she spent a few days in the NICU, everything turned out fine. And now, she’s a super smart, caring, compassionate, sometimes-stubborn, sassy, and independent tween girl. (She actually doesn’t turn 10 until 1:00 am tomorrow morning.) I still can’t believe my tiny bundle of joy is now three inches shorter than I am (which isn’t saying much—I’m only 5’ 1/2”). And so, we celebrate today with the food from one of the most difficult countries I’ve had to research: Kiribati.

Clearly the winner here. I'd go get more, but I ate way to many earlier.
I had the hardest time finding any kind of bread, cake, or pastry recipe online. I seemed to look everywhere, even on page 10 of a Google search, and no one ever goes that far into “barely what I actually searched for” land. You’d think for a country that was once controlled by the British there’d be something posted. But still, it was to no avail. So, I had to spread out my search a bit. The I-Kiribati people are ethnically related to the Micronesians, so I started there and came across this recipe for banana and peach doughnuts. I first drained a 15-oz can of peach slices. Then I peeled and smashed up three ripe bananas. I added in the peaches and kept smashing it all together until it was like thick baby food. Then I added in 1 tsp of baking powder and 1 c of flour to the fruit mix along with 5 tsp of sugar. I mixed this until everything was smooth.  Then I heated up some vegetable oil in my deep-sided skillet, and when it was hot, I dropped in spoonfuls of the mixture and fried it. Once it started to turn brown, I made sure to turn it so that it would brown on the other side as well. I took them out and let them drain on paper towels. This was seriously one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. I actually took a little bit of vanilla icing and thinned it down with some whole milk and poured it on top. Amazing! I can’t get over this. I suppose they’re more like fritters, but I think these would be good spread thin and made like pancakes. Totally worth the small oil splash burns. Totally worth it. 

OK, this had to be the biggest surprise of the day. I thought this was good.

The one recipe that kept popping up page after page as far as true Kiribati recipes go is one called te bua toro ni baukin.  I substituted several ready-made items to save time. The recipe calls for grated pumpkin, but I just used canned pumpkin instead, and poured the pumpkin in the bottom of my greased casserole dish. Instead of shredding a cabbage myself, I bought ready-made coleslaw mix (this one has grated carrots in it, I didn’t think it would matter; I usually buy angel hair coleslaw which is just the shredded cabbage). I added in the slaw mix to the pumpkin. Then I added flour, corned beef, powdered milk, and baking powder to the pumpkin and cabbage and mixed it all together. Next for the spices: a little salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Once everything was thoroughly mixed, then it went into a 350ºF oven for about 45 minutes. Although I really liked this, the kids weren’t so into it. I thought the flavor of the pumpkin was toned down after baking and it meshed well with the corned beef. The next time I make this, I would probably add another tin of corned beef, though. One tin’s worth kind of gets lost in the pumpkin. I’m not sure that I would serve this as a whole meal, but it would make a really good side dish nonetheless. 

I'm so glad I don't work in an office just so I can eat this for lunch tomorrow. If there's any left, that is.

I also found a recipe for seafood adobo. It calls for a mixture of seafood (I went with frozen salad shrimp, canned chopped clams, and canned oysters), minced garlic, ground ginger, vinegar (I used a mix of white wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar), and soy sauce. I just sautéed this mix together until it was cooked thoroughly, and I served this on top of white rice. The oysters pretty much dominated the whole dish, but that’s ok. It was still good. I might go a little lighter on the vinegar next time, though. 

Overall, I'd say that this was pretty good. I was fairly impressed and am pretty full.
Amazingly enough, this meal came together well. When I picked these recipes (mostly out of the fact it was all I could find), it seemed kind of a strange combination of dishes and ingredients. But in the end, it was pretty good. Even my husband—who HATES pumpkin with a passion like no other—thought the pumpkin dish was pretty good, but agreed that it needed more corned beef. I suppose it’s appropriate since fall is around the corner and pumpkin dishes are the in-thing now. I certainly learned a lot about this country, and perhaps maybe a few more people know where Kiribati is now. And as it gets colder, I can just close my eyes and pretend that I’m sitting on a beach on one of the islands sipping some drink and eating good food and just taking it all in. Until I open them again and realize I’m still in Indiana.

Up next: Kuwait

Saturday, September 19, 2015


Music in Kiribati has had some of the least Western influences in comparison to other countries around it. Therefore, folk music is still a pretty dominant form of musical entertainment for these islands. I-Kiribati utilizes both vocal and instrumental music in their folk music traditions.


As far as vocal music goes, vocal music and chanting especially is commonly used. Many of the lyrics revolve around love, weddings, religion, war, and patriotism as well as songs for children. Native instruments are made from materials that can be found on the island. Often they would use a various percussion instruments and even use themselves as percussion instruments in the form of body percussion (I wonder if it’s like beat boxing?). The British did introduce Western instruments while they were there, and today they do incorporate the guitar and other instruments into their music. Oftentimes, music and dance went hand in hand. 

Dancing is extremely important to I-Kiribati people. From what I’ve read, it seems that dancing may be the one cultural art that single-handedly represents the people, the lifestyles, and their history. They are famous for their stick dances. These stick dances are often danced to songs that are based on semi-historical topics and legends. Other dances are often danced on top of a hollow wooden box that’s often used as an additional percussion instrument. A lot of dancing involves a lot of hip movements, often reminiscent of visuals of Hawaiian dancing. 

Although there is quite a bit of information about traditional music available, there really isn’t that much out there about any contemporary musicians from Kiribati. For the first time since I started this blog, I don’t have any musicians to make a Spotify playlist for this country. I did manage to come across a few musicians who have some videos on YouTube. One musician I found is Bata Teinamati. He is thought by many to be an instrumental figure in shaping the music of Kiribati and promoting traditional music education. I listened to a couple of his songs, and the two I sampled seem to use synthesizers and have a general “island” feel to them but with elements that reminded me of old religious songs. 

I also found a rapper who calls himself Bwenaman. I listened to a couple of his songs; he sings in a mix of Gilbertese and English. His songs, to me, are more of a mix of reggae and R&B, although he does have rapping in some of his songs (to be honest, I’m not sure if it’s him or the other featured musicians on the track, but I have a feeling it’s the others). His song “Shake It Girl” is pretty catchy if you like dancehall style reggae.

I’m sure there are other bands and musicians from Kiribati because I’ve found mentions and cameos in Google searches and YouTube. But there just really isn’t any commercialized music from Kiribati available from what I could find. There’s actually a British band I came across called Kiribati. They’re not bad, but not what I was looking for.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Much of the culture in Kiribati is tied to the sea, their religion, and their closeness to family. Many of these are so intertwined that it’s hard to separate one from the other. Because of its geographical limits of being a group of islands spread far apart from one end to the other, it makes it hard for new ideas to spread and materials to be transported. Therefore, many of the arts and building practices in Kiribati are the same ones that have been going on for decades and centuries even. Many homes and buildings are simply built using materials found on the islands. Homes are decorated using woven mats and baskets. However, you will also find European-style buildings as well, such as churches and other buildings. Buildings are limited in height because the soil types tend to be sand and reef, which can’t sustain large buildings in many areas. 

As far as art goes, most of it falls under two categories: woven arts and handicrafts. Woven arts include mats, baskets, shoes/sandals, and other objects used for everyday use. Handicrafts include figurines (especially indigenous religious ones), bead and shell jewelry, and other carved trinkets, many of which are sold to what tourists may come. These woven arts and handicrafts actually make up a significant portion of Kiribati’s economy. 

Tattoos are common throughout the islands in this corner of the world. The designs vary from island to island, but there are often a variety of designs, many based on religious images or characters. Both men and women are tattooed, and full body tattoos on either sex are quite common. 

Like much of the cultures of other South Pacific islands, canoe making is also a centuries-old art form. For the people who must communicate and trade with people from neighboring islands, canoes were the main source of transportation. Canoes in Kiribati are different from what I'm accustomed to seeing, which are normally used on lakes and rivers. To combat the ocean currents and winds, these canoes are equipped with sails. 

After they received their independence from Britain, they continued on a path of blindly mimicking Eurocentric artistic styles solely for the tourists who visited (especially in the larger, more touristy cities). In fact, sometimes they would put aside their own traditional arts in lieu of attempting other styles of art.  However, the push to celebrate and promote their own artistic styles prevails. On the other hand, Kiribati is also a haven for foreigners to come and paint its beautiful landscape as well.

I came across the blog of Peter Dunn-Rankin, a retired educational psychology professor from Univ of Hawaii at Manoa. (I've taken two ed psych courses in my lifetime from two different universities, unfortunately not in Hawaii.) He is a very gifted artist and often paints fish and fishing scenes. Check out his other artwork at
Literature in Kiribati is either written in English or Gilbertese. Probably the most famous author from these islands is Teresia Teaiwa. Although she was born in Hawaii and raised in Fiji, her father was an I-Kiribati and her mother was African American. She has her doctorate and has taught history and politics in the past as well as currently being the co-editor of the International Feminist Journal of Politics. Francis Tekonnang is another educator who also published a list of short stories about daily life and culture in Kiribati.  

There are also a few books and papers written by foreigners about the culture of Kiribati. Edward Carlyon Eliot describes his experiences in the Gilbert & Ellice Islands from 1913–1920 in his book Broken Atoms. Sir Arthur Grimble also wrote about his time in service working in the Gilbert Islands from 1914–1932 in A Pattern of Islands and Return to the Islands. J. Maarten Troost, a current Dutch travel writer, also published a novel about his experiences on the Tarawa Atoll entitled The Sex Lives of Cannibals. The title alone makes me want to find this book. (Luckily, my library has this book. Apparently, he also has a book called Getting Stoned With Savages about his experiences in Fiji and Vanuatu. Thank the gods for public libraries.)

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, September 13, 2015



There are just some countries that are more known than others. This one gained its independence the year I was born. However, we’re both about as equally known. (Ok, maybe Kiribati has a slight leg up on me.) Regardless, many people—and especially Americans—have barely heard of this country, much less even know what side of the world it is in. Heck, even I had to look up the correct way to pronounce it (it’s “KEER-uh-bahss” if you were wondering). And because of this, it’s one of the few countries that have given me trouble in finding information about its culture and recipes. It’s the second country I have had trouble finding a bread recipe for (Bhutan was the other). On the other hand, essentially everything I learned about this country was new information. 

The name Kiribati is their local pronunciation of the word Gilberts, which is what the British named these islands when they controlled the island group. (The “ti” sounds like “s” in the local language.) Kiribati is located in the South Pacific (or sometimes called Oceanea). It consists of 33 atolls (ring-shaped islands usually made of reef or coral) and reef islands and one raised coral island (the island of Banaba is the only true island in this country). The islands of Western Samoa, American Samoa, Fiji, Tonga are to the south; Tuvalu and Vanuatu are to the southwest; Nauru is to the west; Federated States of Micronesia and Marshall Islands are to the northwest. And the Line Islands (the eastern end of Kiribati) are a little over 1300 miles due south of the Hawaiian Islands. The equator and the International Date Line runs through Kiribati, even though they petitioned to have the date line moved so that the Line Islands can be on the same date as the rest of the country (the Phoenix Islands and the Gilbert Islands ). They enjoy a tropical climate with a rainy season between November and March and a dry season between April and October. Because of the soil makeup, there are limitations on the numbers and kinds of plants and animals that live here. 

Originally, the people living on these islands were Micronesians who had explored eastward and settled here. Other islands in this area (Fiji, Tonga, etc.) also moved (rather, invaded) this area as well. Eventually, they stopped fighting each other and had makeup intermarriage, and after centuries of this, the ethnicity of all of these island groups began to merge. Europeans had major explorations throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and several of these ships happened to sail past these islands by chance and just stayed. The British eventually took control of these islands and named them the Gilbert Islands after the British captain, Thomas Gilbert. They in turn added in more islands to their holdings, and it became the Gilbert & Ellice Islands as it advanced to crown colony level. (The Ellice Islands became Tuvalu a year before Kiribati gained its independence.) Early during WWII, the Japanese occupied the Tarawa Atoll until the US Marines arrived and told them to get out (more or less, with the only way they knew how to). During the 1950s and 1960s, the US and UK used Christmas Island (also spelled Kiritimati—remember “ti” says “s” in the Gilbertese language) as a testing grounds for nuclear weapons. In July 1979 (a few months before I was born), the Gilbert Islands gained their independence and became known as the Republic of Kiribati to the rest of the world. The people became known as the I-Kiribati. About ten years into their independence, they began to address problems of overcrowding by making people move to other lesser-populated islands. In recent years, the government of Kiribati has been quite vocal about the effects of climate change, especially since two islands were lost in 1999 due to rising sea levels. In fact, they have even started asking other nearby countries to accept their people as refugees due to climate change. Some climate scientists predict that the island nation could be swallowed by the sea within the next 60 years. Other people aren’t so sure on the timeline. It’s certainly a cause for debate. But if you doubt climate change, talk to some of the people who are directly impacted by its effects here. 

The capital is located on the Tarawa Atoll, most widely known for the Battle of Tarawa during WWII, which left over 6000 Japanese and Americans dead at the end of the day. Essentially, the island is divided between South Tarawa and North Tarawa. Causeways have been built to get between the islets. The actual governmental buildings are located on South Tarawa, along with other vital business, financial, and the few higher educational institutions they do have. 

Kiribati’s soil makeup along with the fact that the country is made of reef islands means there are very few natural resources and is thus one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s also one of the least developed. There is an important fishing industry that keeps Kiribati’s economy alive along with some tourism dollars added in there. They also depend of some minor agricultural production as well, mostly in copra, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, taro, and various vegetables. However, the country has to depend quite a bit on developmental assistance from other countries and organizations.

Because Kiribati was controlled by the British for so long, the dominant religion is Roman Catholicism, although the Kiribati Uniting Church maintains a fairly substantial number of practitioners. You’ll also find a number of Protestant faiths as well as Bahá’í and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

English is listed as an official language along with the local dialect called Gilbertese (which is written in Roman letters). English is pretty much only used on the largest island of Tarawa and often used as part of code mixing (mixing the two languages) on the other islands. Gilbertese is interesting to me because it is a verb-object-subject language (in comparison, English and Romance languages are subject-verb-object languages.) There are only a few other languages who fall in this category, namely Malagasy (spoken on Madagascar and Comoros), a few languages in Indonesia, Fijian, and Mayan languages. There are actually Gilbertese speakers not only in Kiribati but also on Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu. 

I have a feeling this country is going to be a challenge just because there is limited information on some of the things larger countries have readily available. Like, by now I usually have found at least one or two albums to put in my Spotify playlist. But not so for Kiribati. I have nothing there. Usually, I have been able to find at least one recipe for a bread or cake or pastry or even a mention of this. But not so for Kiribati. (I had to expand out to Micronesia since many I-Kiribati are ethnically Micronesian. And I’m still surprised that for a country that was controlled by the British for so long that there are no bread, cake, or pastry recipes posted online anywhere? I’m still looking, but still… Sheesh.) So, it will certainly be a research challenge, but I’m up for it but have my backups ready.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, September 6, 2015


So, it’s Labor Day weekend. What’s weird about Labor Day is that most countries celebrate Labor Day on May 1 based on an incident that happened in the US (the Haymarket Affair). However, the US (and Canada, I think) celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday in September after a labor march held in Canada around this time. And this year we’re cooking food from Kenya on our long weekend. 

My son, Jabari, waiting for the coconut mandazi to cool. Pretty sure he's just waiting for me to turn my back.
I started today’s cooking adventure with making coconut mandazi (sometimes called mahamri). Mandazi are like doughnuts, typically not made with coconut milk, but this is a variation recipe that calls for it. First I added 3 c of flour into my bowl, then a packet of yeast, 7 Tbsp of sugar, and 1 tsp of ground cardamom. I poured about ¾ c of coconut milk into the flour mixture a little at a time until it was soft. I found I had to add about another ½ c or so to get it to the right consistency. I kneaded it for 10-15 minutes, which doesn’t seem like a long time if I’m reading a good book, but feels like it’s at least three days if I’m kneading dough. Once it’s been kneaded enough, I divided it into two balls and let rise. It didn’t specifically say, but I let it sit for about a half hour.  When it was ready, I divided each ball in half again, rolled them into a ball and flattened them out to disks that were about a quarter inch thick. After this, I divided each disk into four sections and laid them on a floured surface to rest for another hour. After the second rest time, I heated up my oil and put in the pieces to fry. It’s important to turn them once they start to puff up and start to look brown; it doesn’t take very long. I have to tell you that these were fabulous! I think this will definitely be made again. The flavor was sweet but not too powerful. It was light and airy and taste great by themselves. But try them with a little chocolate syrup drizzled on top and they are out of this world! I might even try to fill these with chocolate pudding next. 

Surprisingly good, especially for spinach fans. This is Popeye approved. 
The second dish I made was a side dish called irio. I boiled some potatoes that I had peeled and cut into smaller pieces along with a can of corn, lima beans, spinach, and peas. When it was done, I mashed them altogether and added salt and pepper. The recipe called to mix in some fried onions as well, but I decided to just sprinkle those on top. I really liked this. The spinach was the predominant flavor, so if you don’t like spinach, then you might either want to keep it out or substitute another green. I liked it, and I think everyone else liked it, too.

Ugali is a staple in Kenya and probably several other countries in this area. It’s essentially yellow cornmeal mixed with boiling water and a little salt until it becomes the consistency of grits. However, may this be a lesson to me: I really thought I had cornmeal in the cabinet, and I didn’t check because I was so sure about it, but it turns out that I had everything BUT cornmeal. I had corn starch, corn flour, grits, barley, white flour, wheat flour, white rice, red rice, and oatmeal, but no cornmeal. So, needless to say, I had to skip this recipe at the last minute. Lesson learned.  

It was pretty good, even though "two more minutes" can make a huge difference.

And finally, the main course: nyama choma. I used stew beef so that it’s already cut into pieces. Although it doesn’t have to be marinated, some people choose to do it that way, which is what I did. After I thawed out my meat, I mixed it with a little bit of minced onions, ground ginger, minced garlic, salt and pepper, and some Worcestershire sauce (in lieu of lemon juice). After letting it sit for about an hour, we fired up the grill, put it on skewers, and grilled it until it was done. Ok, maybe it was a little too done, but it was still good nonetheless. 

Overall, this was really good. My husband and I are still coming up with variations on the mandazi. I'm thinking of filling it with chocolate ice cream now. 
I thought this meal turned out pretty good. Simple, yet flavorful. I’ve noticed that some areas of Africa use a lot of spices (like northern Africa), and other areas tend to stick with just salt and pepper. It seemed like most of the meals I looked through only used a handful of ingredients, which is great because food is getting more and more expensive. The price of eggs has almost tripled in the past decade, and the price of meat has almost doubled. Cereal and nuts are outrageous. It’s ridiculous. But I also thought of how resourceful Kenyans must be to be able to make tasty dishes out of the few ingredients they may have on hand. I have learned so much about Kenya over the past couple of weeks. I’m proud to have a president who is half-Kenyan. It’s a shame he’s vilified by some for his heritage because that’s not what we’re about. Unless you’re Native American, everyone here came from somewhere else. So, let’s be proud and celebrate where we came from. It’s what makes us interesting. It’s what makes us strong.

Up next: Kiribati


The music scene in Kenya spans many different genres, including various styles from across other areas of Africa as well as influences from the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, India, and the Americas. 

Taarab music from Zanzibar is quite popular in Kenya. This is a style of music that is influenced by various styles from northern and eastern Africa, the Middle East, and India. However, the city of Mombasa has produced a few famous taarab musicians. Kenya also listens to a lot of the music coming out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, especially styles like soukous and zouk. Guitars were brought into the country early on, and playing styles have been adapted to incorporate the local and native rhythms. They even developed their own ways of playing the guitar in order to create different effects and sounds. As Congolese, American, Caribbean, and British music began to infiltrate their sounds, their playing styles incorporated all of these elements. 

Starting in the 1970s-1990s, various types of pop began to emerge. Many of these pop musicians infused traditional and other pan-African styles into their American/British-style pop music.  

Kenya also has a keen love for reggae music. Influenced by other African reggae styles as well as Caribbean reggae, there have been many DJs breaking into the music industry here promoting reggae music on the radio. Many radio stations often have specific programs just for reggae music. Kenya has also produced a number of hip-hop artists and rock bands, many which have seen some success in Europe and the Americas. They also have a few successful DJs specializing in house music, drum and bass, and other similar genres. 

Because Kenya has a large number of ethnic groups living here, there are a variety of dances that are particular to a specific group of people. The Maasai are known for a type of circle dance that involves jumping up high in the air while dressed with a ton of beads. The Isukuti are known for dancing at every ceremony and special occasion. The Agikuyu are known for their dance, the mwomboko, which is characterized by slow, decisive steps similar to a waltz. The Chakasha is danced in the coastal regions and often to taarab music. The Akamba usually dance to drums and flutes while stamping their feet and shaking their shoulders. 

While Spotify didn’t have several of the bands and musicians I tried looking for, they did have quite a few. The first group I listened to, which was filed under the genre called “hotel pop” is called Them Mushrooms. The name alone cracks me up. Their music, however, is a kind of a cross between reggae and 80s elevator music. Some songs are better than others. I think it has to be an atmosphere thing: if I were in an outdoor bar in Mombasa or Nairobi drinking with friends, enjoying the cooler evening breezes, and this was playing, it would make the evening authentic. Sitting in my car in Indianapolis in the parking lot of a stripmall, not so much. They do have a song (and an album of the same name) called “At the Carnivore.” Please, for the love of all that’s sacred, tell me what this song is about. It just sounds way too happy with a name like that. (To be fair, there was a Japanese song I once knew that had a great melody line but was about cutting off your arms or something.) 

I also listened to hip-hop group G.rongi’s album Position Ya Power. His flow is pretty good, and the style reflects American style hip-hop, but there are also songs that take in elements of reggae as well. He often raps in both English and from what I can tell, Sheng (the creole language of mixing English-Swahili). Although the notes on the video above says that the song "Mokorino" is the first hip-hop song in Kikuyu. He’s also made some notoriety by collaborating with American rapper Nas. Another rapper I listened to was Nonini (the album The Godfather of Genge). Generally, there were several similarities between Nonini and G.rongi as far as style goes. However, Nonini is one of the artists primarily recognized with genge music. Genge is a style of hip-hop centered around Nairobi and is often sung in Sheng. 

Mighty King Kong is one of the most well-known reggae bands in Kenya. Their rhythms and instrumentation are stylistically African. They do tend to sing in English more than any other language. However, from what I listened to, their style of reggae seemed more like early 1990s reggae. I also listened to Ras Naya & Free Island. I liked this one a little more. It did have more of a Caribbean feel to it. (Perhaps I have an unconscious bias toward Caribbean reggae? I try not to.) 

Kenya also has an alternative/indie rock band called Murfy’s fLaw (yes, that’s spelled right). I really like this band; I listened to the album Hello Light. And another reason why I love them so much is because the lead singer is a female. And I’m so excited that iTunes sells this album for $9.90. I’m definitely going to have to buy this album. I’m not even sure I can live without it. This is some great stuff. Strangely enough, there is also a band called The Beathogs who hail from Nairobi and play a sort of mix of funk, soul, Ramones-esque early punk, and rockabilly. I kind of like it though, but it makes me feel like I should be going on a road trip through the Midwest in the dead heat of summer with the windows down and the wind in my hair, sipping on an “ice cold co-cola.” 

I also listened to a band called Sauti Sol. To me, it was hard to place this band in a category. (“Afro-Pop” might be the term.) There were some slight elements of indie rock with the use of acoustic guitar, but the rhythms and percussion instrumentation was definitely stemmed from pan-African beats. They rely heavily on vocal harmonization, which really adds to the acoustic effect of the music. However, I found this video that was produced this year, and it's completely different from what I listened to. This song is pretty catchy. 

The band aptly called Just A Band kept me entertained. I suppose I would put this in the house music category but with elements of drum and bass. They sometimes sample lines from other famous songs, which is cool, but sometimes I think it needs to be mixed a little better in places. It seems like the vocals were too loud in one of the songs I heard. But overall, I can get behind this. My husband really liked some of the songs off of this album. I really liked the songs "Life of the Party" and "Doot Doot," but I couldn't find the videos to them.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


Craftwork is quite popular around Kenya, and it’s important to note that every group of people have their own skills and artistic styles. Much of their art work may be tied to their region, their ancestry, and their religion. Although there are many areas hit hard by poverty, there is a sense of pride in their craft work. While originally, many of these crafts were designed as home wares, and certainly some of these objects still decorate Kenyan homes, but today many of the handicrafts and sculptures are made with the tourists in mind. Wood carvings are popular, and many of the most common items are of animals or people (especially the iconic African figures, such as a woman carrying a basket on her head).  Besides wood carvings, there are also soap stone carvings. Soap stone is a material that is often mined in the western regions of Kenya and has to be wet sanded and polished and dyed. 


Other handicraft objects include jewelry, especially brightly colored beadwork. They also use a lot of cowry shells, which has a special meaning in many of the Kenyan cultures. Maasai spears and shields are also popular items tourists buy, although a little more difficult to take home.

One art lies in the tradition of making drums. Drumming and percussion instruments are an important part of Kenyan society, and with this there are many different types of drums that are often decorated with geometric designs on the outside or with tassels and rattles. 

Basket weaving and gourd carving are not only beautiful, but it’s also functional. Baskets are various sizes and shapes are used to store food while gourds are mostly used for storing liquids. 

Kenyan literature is primarily written in either English or Swahili, the two official languages of the country, although you may also find books written in other local languages. Swahili was actually written in the Arabic script during its early days. The language was spread along the coastal areas by fishermen, and as trade with Oman and other Arabian countries ventured into the area, Swahili adopted many Arabic words into its own language. The Story of Tambuka (Utendi wa Tambuka) is one of the earliest examples of poetry from this area, written in 1728, and is an example of Swahili written with the Arabic script. As the Europeans arrived later, the language script was changed over to Roman letters as it is today. 

Swahili literature generally fell into three styles: poetry, novels, and drama. Because of the ties between Swahili and Arabic, there are a few similarities between the two styles of poetry, but they are essentially as different as the languages are. What started out as oral narratives soon became the early forms of novels, but these were generally in the form of histories and other nonfiction works. However, written fiction in Swahili didn’t really make its entrance until the 1940s. 

There are many Kenyan writers who have emerged in the literary field. When Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote his novel Weep Not, Child, it was the first English-language novel published by an East African writer. Although he writes in English, he also writes in his native language of Kikuyu. Thiong’o is also known for his novels The River Between (which is required reading for schools) and A Grain of Wheat

Perhaps because of its exoticness or its picturesque view of what non-Africans view as being “African,” Kenya has long been the setting of many other books by authors from abroad. Quite possibly, the most well known of these would be Out of Africa by the Danish author Isak Dinesen (writing under the nom de plume Karen Blixen). If you want to read other books set in Kenya, you might also want to check out Coming to Birth by Margorie Oludhe Macgoye, The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley, and West With the Night by Beryl Markham.

Up next:  music and dance