Kenyan Spices

By Crystal Lee

Traditional Kenyan dishes use a variety of spices, mostly hot. Chilies, pepper, jalapenos and other spices create tasty meals with bit of bite such as chicken curry and matoke. Exotic spices like cardamom and cumin are also many of the main seasonings in Kenyan culinary fare. Traditional dishes include curry and ugali, a cornmeal porridge.

Cooking in Kenya uses lots of hot spices like chilies and garam masala.


Tamarind is believed to originate in East Africa. Known for taste as well as aroma, tamarind flavoring melds sweet, fruity and sour. The spice comes from a bean pod grown on a tamarind tree. To extract the spice you must open the pod and find the sticky pulp substance surrounding the seeds. In contrast to other traditional Kenyan spices, tamarind contains little to no heat. Add tamarind to pork, rice or chicken dishes including Kenyan chicken tikka and tamarind chutney.


Similar to ginger, cardamom seeds come from a large, leafy green plant. Characterized by a subtle warmth, this aromatic spice provides a pod which encloses three sets of two rows of about six seeds per row. The sticky seeds come in black, green or bleached white. Kenyans use this spice often in many dishes including biriani, a hearty dish originating on the West Coast of Kenya. Kenyan biriani calls for meat such as goat, chicken or beef as well as rice, potatoes and a rich blend of spices including four cardamom pods.


The seed of coriandrum sativum, a plant similar to parsley, produces coriander. A coriander seed, characterized by a brown, yellow or red color and approximately 1/5 inch, provides unique flavoring ground or as a seed. Coriander is used in the popular Kenyan Christmas dessert, yogurt chutney. Kenyans also use this spice in matoke, a dish of mashed plantains as well as yellow curry. The Kenyan chicken curry and yogurt chutney recipes can be found in the references section of this article.


A warmer spice, cumin comes from the seed of a small umbelliferous plant. The powerful bitter taste adds a spicy and sweet aroma and taste to stews and chicken. Store cumin in airtight packages and roast the seeds before using to maintain the sharpness. Consume either as a whole seed or ground. Kenyan's use this spice in dishes such as yellow curry, chicken curry and rice pilau, a dish similar to rice pilaf. Look for the rice pilau recipe under references at the end of this article.