The Art of Cooking Ugali

My Dad taught me how to cook Ugali.

Let me explain: By the time I finished high school, my mother had taught me how to cook a wide variety of food:   fried rice, steamed rice, fish fillet, fish fry, chicken (broiler and free range yaani, kienyeji), meat stew, githeri, vegetables, tea, porridge, cakes, buns and pastries- but not ugali. (By the way, anytime we ate anything other than ugali more than once, my Dad would ask, “Leo hakuna chakula?” (“Is there no food today?”)).

So, as far as he was concerned, I needed to learn how to cook food.

So one fine evening, after I had subjected my folks to half cooked ugali for a few weeks, my Dad decided it was time for an intervention! He’d had enough!! I had to learn how to cook cooked ugali (no, that’s correct!). So, he sat in his favourite armchair and called the class to order – the lesson started (by the way, he was a teacher at some point before i left heaven). He instructed me to place the sufuria (pot) of water on the stove  (yaani, gas cooker) and bring it to boil.  Of course I complied, with the full expectation that once  the water started boiling, my Dad would come to the kitchen and cook the Ugali. Yeah, i know…. i was being rediculoius!!!! My Dad, a Kisii man, father of an adult daughter, in the kitchen, cooking, ugali…….not happening.

Anyway, the lesson continued –  i was to add a small amount of maize/corn flour (approximately half of what was needed) and let it boil some more, yaani, itokote kama uji (how is that said in English?). So, I did. And then, just as I was about to pick up the mwiko (cooking stick) to start fighting with the ugali (as I had always done), he said almost on cue, “do not start mixing until I tell you!”. So, I froze.  After tabout 5 minutes, my Dad said, “anza kukoroga sasa ukiongeza unga hadi ishikane. Then wait for my signal.”. I complied – turning the cooking stick all the while huffing and puffing like i was climbing ngong hills.  A century and aching arms later, the ugali did pfffff!! (my sisters and brothers from that side of Kenya know what that means..).

Just as i was planning to put an end to the unplanned session of arm wrestling, he  said , “Imenukia sasa. Toa kwa moto”. (“It has now smelt, take it off the stove”. Remember I said that some phrases are best said in Kiswahili? This one cannot be said in any other way, no, I can’t translate it. You just know it means the ugali has smelt, yes?).  That ugali was ammmmaaaaazing…. Ladies and gentlemen, it was perfect!!! The texture, the taste, the aroma….wow!! (If  you’ve eaten ugali in a kibanda cooked over a jiko by a person well experienced in the art then you know what I mean. Watu wa 5-star and buffet, please, one side.) There was no looking back after that. I was now a certified “food” cook!

Lesson learnt: Ugali is not hard to prepare; you just need to know the right time to add flour, how long to let it boil before fighting with the mwiko, and how to “smell” it.  And by the way, it must do pfffff!!! Otherwise, you’ve done nothing!! Had my Dad not given me a step by step guide that evening, the ugali would have tasted like under boiled porridge.


In Malachi 3, God describes himself as a refiner and purifier. He sits and works on us until we are rid of all dross. In Jeremiah, God is described as a potter working at the wheel while Job falls short of calling him a butcher (well, the butcher is the one who slays. Ama? ). In all these, I see a God given to detail, especially in the process of forming and shaping you and I. He knows that one bad move, one additional piece of fire wood, one additional turn on the wheel will ruin the master piece. So he remains focused on the process!!!  In fact, I read somewhere that as a silversmith works on a piece of silver, s/he must watch the silver at all times while it is under the flame to ensure the silver is not ruined by the process.

Paul described it beautifully in Ephesians 2:10- he says that we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. Imagine that! I’m a master piece. My personality and idiosyncrasies, my likes and dislikes, personal preferences and aversions: all of it. A. MASTERPIECE. He sat down and deliberately and masterfully shaped me with my destiny and purpose in mind; nothing was added by mistake, everything was just right-  he was intentional. He then tested and tried me (and still does) under the right temperature, conditions and environment to verify readiness for use. I now know that every experience has served to add the texture, value and depth required for my assignment. And when I am ready, He will say, “Amenukia sasa, mtoe kwa moto!” (She’s ready. Get her off the flames.)

And you know what, He’s doing the exact same thing with you!!  For some of you reading this, the process has just began and the flames are hot!! But worry not. He’s on the job;He’s watching the process and best of all, He’s in there with you. And very soon, you will be ready. Flames –  out!

I promise.