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Wanja Kavengi: Why the Ugali Sufuria rules the Kenyan kitchen

 Photo: Titus Oteba/Standard

In most of our kitchens, not just any sufuria is used to cook anything. Certain sufurias are reserved for certain dishes.

Well, unless you just started life on your own, moneyless, and you only have one multi-purpose sufuria for cooking everything, which also serves as a plate.

A large number of them are generally the same size, with little varying differences, like handles and material. These are used for broths, stews, curries, brewing tea, and other foods that don’t need cooking for long, although it is highly probable that a particular sufuria is used for tea every time.

Washing them is normally easy as they shine after an effortless scrub, and they nicely fit into each other to form a neat stack.

There is a sufuria that is exclusively used for cooking ugali. It is the strongest and most durable sufuria in the house as it has been there longer than most sufurias, and it’s also older than the last born of the family. When ugali is moulded in that sufuria, chemistry happens.

The flour and water particles bond and fuse together, developing from a fiercely boiling porridge, to a nice, soft paste, to a firm white cake that has a distinct, flavourful aroma, and a delicious crust that peels off the sufuria easily.

If, for unfathomable and abominable reasons, someone cooks ugali using another sufuria, like, say, the one used to boil rice or spaghetti, disgruntled members of the family will unanimously agree that the ugali made has a deficiency, that no other sufuria can cook ugali as expertly as that one sufuria that has been cooking ugali for years, and that the fool who committed the culinary horror has just ruined a good sufuria to make bad ugali that has lumps.

And the meal will likely be uncomfortably consumed amidst murmurs, loud, deliberate sighs, sarcastic, passive-aggressive statements, and accusing glances thrown towards the shameful culprit.

Because of all the pounding it gets every time ugali is on the menu, which is frequent, the sufuria loses its original shape and beauty, and becomes the ugliest sufuria in the house, and therefore very easy to spot. In fact, you will mostly find this sufuria in the sink, soaked in water, after everyone who washed the utensils 'forgot' to clean it, or 'did not see it', and it will be quickly cleaned a few minutes before cooking another mound of ugali. To clean this sufuria, you will first of all need to use a spoon to scrape away the stubborn crust.

For some reason, you will find yourself using unnecessary force, expending all your energy to making your entire neighbourhood hear the annoying sounds of metal grazing metal repeatedly. After causing damage to people's eardrums, you rinse off the pieces of crust in a torrent of water, before reaching for the steel wire to finish the job.

With the tap running, you audibly scrub the vessel, metal clanking against metal again, as you turn it this way and that in the sink.

Over time, it has collected a thick, permanent layer of soot at the bottom, which cannot be cleaned, and has been accepted as part and parcel of the precious pot. Also, due to the years of service, the bottom has now assumed a round shape that protrudes outwards like a small dome, making the sufuria lean sideways when placed on a flat surface.

There are small permanent soot stains at the base of the sufuria as well, which you don't bother to scrub. On several occasions, you have cooked ugali with a few stubborn traces of crusts still stuck in the sufuria.

Another sufuria present in the kitchen is the one used to boil things like sweet potatoes, arrow roots, githeri, yams and other foods that require boiling for a while in large amounts of water. It also cooks the stew during Christmas when there’s a small gathering of family and friends.

It is probably the largest sufuria in the kitchen, or among the big ones, and is rarely used. It is usually stored in the farthest cupboard, forgotten, and before using it, you have to clean out some cobwebs and take out a dead lizard or some cockroach wings. Commonly, instead of a kerosene stove or a gas cooker, a jiko is used with this sufuria because the boiling will ‘eat’ too much gas or ‘drink’ too much kerosene. It’s also used to heat water for bathing.

Mother will most probably be the one to clean it, skilfully, using just a small piece of steel wire and little soap. The sufuria on the ground, the woman bending over, scrubbing, slowly, carefully, while belting out a number from her church’s choir, until it becomes a mirror.

Or, if it’s Christmas, a plump, mouthy aunt who has an infectious laughter and a sweater that scratches your skin when it brushes against it will do it. The one who will crush you against her bosom, then vigorously shake your hand and won’t let it go.

She will be awed and impressed at how big you’ve become, while still holding your hand and shaking it a little. Then she will ask your mother if this is actually you.

Your mother will laugh a little and confirm that it is actually you. The aunt will laugh and wonder some more, and talk about how beautiful or handsome you’ve become. She is still holding your hand in a firm grip. She will remind your mother of the last time she saw you, aeons ago.

Your mother will tell that you’re the one who’s never willing to attend these (big) family events. Your aunt, who’s still holding your hand, will furrow her brows, lean closer towards you, and in a low, concerned tone, ask you why.

But before you can think of a lie, she will spot her husband in a group of men who are going to slaughter a goat, and she will urgently call out to him to come see you. He will come and look at you, confused.

Your aunt will release your hand, move to stand beside you, and put her arm over your shoulders. Then she will excitedly ask her husband, “Do you know who this is?”

Her husband will look at you again then narrow his eyes in concentration and slightly tilt his head sideways. He will place his forefinger on his chin and look at the horizon thoughtfully.

Then he will look at you again while gently tapping his chin with that forefinger, thinking, remembering. He will then ask, with uncertainty, “Is this not *insert your second name* child of *insert your father’s name*?” And after congratulating him for figuring out that difficult puzzle, and asking you if you’ve had some soda, your aunt will go on to keep confusing you for your cousin.

Also, there is, at least, one sufuria that has a hole and therefore cannot be used to cook anything. But we do not throw away those sufurias, though. We use them to cover other sufurias when cooking.


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