As we’ve continued to explore the multitude of the world’s cuisines here, it’s been fascinating to observe how truly pervasive the overall “cultural intermingling” has been.
Even though it’s been chic of late to talk about how globalized our world has become, in truth different cultures, empires and societies have been rubbing elbows with one another since pretty much time eternal.
And nowhere is there a more indicative example of this as in Kenya, and its food serves as a useful proxy for measurement here.
You need to look no further than foods like mahamri, chapati and samosas to see how influential the external world has been on local eating and daily life.
Mahamri, the Kenya-Uganda Railway & Indian Laborers
While this particular story commences in the fairly recent 19th century, we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least highlight Kenya’s rich history and its role as part of the East African Swahili Coast (which we discussed over a serving of Tanzanian kashata).
From as early as the 1st century AD, the Kenya coast – and particularly towns like Mombasa – have been pivotal cultural and economic hubs for the entire Swahili coast.
Alas, the power of these coastal cities is also the reason why they were so prized by outsiders… many of whom went to great lengths to control it for themselves. Especially in the past few centuries, this play for the regional power has come to mean different forms of colonialism from outside Empires.
For Kenya as a whole, however, no ruling power made as cosmic changes to its trajectory as the British did.
A Revolving Door of Influences
The 19th century proved to be a fairly tumultuous time for the lands that would come to be modern day Kenya.
To this point, much of the coastal regions had already been controlled by what seems like a revolving door of outsiders. First it was the Portuguese in the 16th century, who were then ousted by the Omani Arabs shortly thereafter.
The Omanis, however, struggled mightily to extend from the Swahili coastal areas into the interior lands inhabited by local tribes like the Maasai and the Kikuyu. It was only through an intensified slave trade that the Omanis made some more headway inward and en route to a more consolidated stronghold of the region.
Yet this consolidated power proved to be fairly short-lived. For most of the 19th century, the Europeans had already been exploring and mapping – through informal expeditions and missionary work – much of interior African lands across the entire continent. Still, the Europeans controlled no more than 10% of Africa as recently as the late 1870s.
This “informal imperialism” did transition, however, into a more concerted and formalized effort to develop a stronger European colonial presence. Hoping to develop more favorable trade and economic conditions for themselves, a coalition between the Germans, British, French and others led to what is now called the “Scramble for Africa” between 1881 and 1914. In the case of Kenya, this scramble led to the Germans and British in 1885 seizing all Omani coastal ports and almost entirely squeezing the Arabs out of the region.
And after the Scramble came the Partition. In a rare show of true diplomacy, the Germans and the British (and to a much lesser extent, the French) agreed in 1886 to divide up their newly conquered lands along an arbitrary line drawn down the 1° S latitude line, a line which remains as the border between Kenya and Uganda today.
Following their successful “squeeze-out,” the British Empire actually had little intention of fully colonizing their new prize lands. Rather, the Empire assigned a commercial company, the Imperial British East Africa Company, to take active responsibility in developing the lands and trade industries for what had become lucrative and high-demand African goods.
Here we’re going to fast forward through several years of “Imperial squabbles” between the French, Germans and the British in Uganda. Just know that by 1894, the British had essentially wrested away sovereignty of Uganda from the Germans.
By the time of the Ugandan arrival, it was also becoming increasingly clear to the Empire that the Company was struggling to fulfill its obligations. With a pretty forced hand, the British Empire thus formally annexed the lands under Imperial control and named it the East African Protectorate.
Kenya would remain under British control – first in this Protectorate then as a crown colony after 1920 – until its own independence in 1963.
The Kenya-Uganda Railway
With their newly annexed Ugandan lands, the British Empire embarked upon a massive project to create a connecting railroad traversing Kenya and Uganda. The underlying hopes for the Empire here were that a steam-powered railroad could help transport both people (the British had abolished the practice of slavery), heavy equipment and soldiers into their new lands, thereby solidifying their domination of the greater East African region.
The British commissioned the building of this 660 mile behemoth of a railroad – intending to connect the coastal Kenyan city of Mombasa all the way to an endpoint of Uganda’s Kisumu near Lake Victoria – in 1895. It would take 6 years and nearly 5 millions pounds (~150 million in today’s money) to complete.
For such an ambitious undertaking, the British needed a massive influx of manual labor, for which they turned to another of their crown colonies, British India. All told, there were more than 32,000 British Indians brought in to work on the project. More impressively, however, was that many of the Indians voluntarily settled in Kenya following the completion of the project, a move that gave rise to major cultural influences for today’s Kenya (and for mahamri).
Indian Culinary Influence
Almost overnight, there was a huge (and in some cases, more influential) Indian sub-community living alongside the British and the indigenous Kenyan peoples. Many Indians set up “dukawallas” and became the artisans, traders, administrators, clerks and held many more commercially-oriented positions.
As an integral part of the commercial backbone of Kenya, there grew an eventual but very significant Indian influence on the local Kenyan cuisine. Ingredients like fresh chilis and spices like curry, cumin and especially coriander added a much needed diversity to what had previously been a “sustenance-driven” cuisine predicated on bland, starchy ingredients and hearty stews.
And, of course, we shan’t forget the Indian-influenced winning combination of mahamri with a nice cup of hot chai.
About the Recipe
Before diving into the recipe itself, we should point out what might otherwise be a small point of confusion. While we refer to this recipe here as mahamri, it also has another name in mandazi. Mahamri is the term more commonly used in urban areas, whereas mandazi is the term used in rural communities.
Regardless of whether it’s mahamri or mandazi to you, they both translate roughly into the same meaning in English: donut without a hole.
Here we might disagree a little with the literal definition of the word. It might be a little more of a formality, but we consider mahamri to be eerily similar to some delicious beignets you might find in New Orleans, for example.
However you want to typecast it, making these mahamri is indeed very easy. The first step to making these Kenyan beignets/donuts is to start with your dough.
Staying true to its strong Indian influence, into the dough you’ll add touches of ground cardamom and cinnamon (the latter is optional). Even in the slightest of amounts, these spices make all the difference in flavor after you’ve fried your mahamri up. And with ingredients like butter, egg and coconut milk, you can readily expect to get a much more decadent and richer dough than you would if you were to use water.
You’ll let the dough sit for at least 1-2 hours once you’ve put it together to allow the yeast and dough to rise. Once risen, you’ll take it out, knead it and roll it flat until you have at most at a ~1 inch thickness.
And now comes the frying! Cut your pieces of mahamri dough into fry-able squares, which you’ll then pop into sputtering pot of oil. These beignets don’t take very long at all to fry (as little as 30 seconds per side sometimes), but what you’ll notice is how quickly they puff up once they have. You can thank the yeast for this major puffing.
After your mahamri are fully fried, you simply set aside to let them cool as you tend to your remaining pieces of dough. When it comes time to enjoy, you can either sprinkle a little powdered sugar on top or you can simply leave them be. The cardamom flavor in the dough makes them flavorful enough as is… at least in our opinion.
Helpers for this Recipe
Our Take on the Recipe
Never mind the fact that the site is called All Kenyan Recipes, but we really enjoyed the coconut leanings of what became our original mahamri reference recipe.
Perhaps the largest adjustment we made came more in the sizing of our mahamri. Rather than having massive triangular puffed pockets of fried dough, we opted instead to made smaller more beignet-sized versions of the delectable donut treat.
Ingredient-wise, we did add a touch of cinnamon as well as swap in grass-fed butter in place of the recommended ghee. The reason for the latter was more that we had it more readily available. We actually wouldn’t have been opposed to using ghee had we had some more readily available.
As for frying, rather than use vegetable oil, we stayed in a coconut state of mind. Since most of the mahamri recipe was coconut-heavy as is – including a coconut sugar swap we did as well, per usual – it seemed an easy switch to fry with the slightly healthier coconut oil instead as well.
Other than that, the recipe is simple and straightforward enough that it needs very little adjusting. What you get in the end with mahamri is a delicious breakfast (or midday snack) that pairs particularly well with a tea or chai.
How would you prepare your mahamri? Comment below!
Mahamri: Kenyan Cardamom Beignets
Yield 24 beignets
- 2 1/2 cups organic pastry flour
- 1 4oz package of dry active yeast
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1/3 cup coconut sugar
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
- Coconut oil for frying
Stage 1 - Prepare the Dough
- Start by sifting your pastry flour into a large bowl to get rid of any clumps
- Next, add your cardamom, cinnamon, salt, coconut sugar and yeast into the bowl. Ideally with your hands, mix all your dry ingredients around
- Start by adding your melted butter into the dry ingredients and mixing around. With your hands, press the butter as it softens so that it mixes more thoroughly with more of the dough
- Crack your egg into the bowl next and begin to mix through
- As you're mixing in the egg, gradually add your coconut milk bit by bit. The dough will start to form and thicken. You want to add your coconut milk in gradually so that you can stay mindful about the consistency of the dough that you're looking for.
- Once you've added and mixed in your coconut milk, you should have a dough that's non-sticky and easy to mold into the shape of a ball. If you find it to be a bit sticky, add a little bit of extra pastry flour in
- Cover your bowl with a towel and let the dough rest for 2 hours in a warm place. It should begin to rise and double in size
Stage 2 - Roll and Cut Your Beignets
- Once the dough has risen after several hours, lay it on some well-floured parchment paper and begin to roll it flat. You want to roll it to about a 1 inch thickness before cutting
- With your desired thick Mahamri dough ready to go, take a dough cutter or a knife and cut in a grid shape to get small square pieces of dough. Once you've cut all the dough, you're ready to fry your beignets
Stage 3 - Frying the Mahamri
- Take a pot over medium-high heat and add your coconut oil. Your oil should melt and become very hot and ready for frying. Once it starts to crackle and sputter, you're ready to go
- Start by adding in several pieces of your Mahamri dough at a time. Let the beignets fry for ~30 seconds before flipping
- Flip again after 30 seconds back to the original side. These cook very quickly and can very easily become too browned, so you want to flip quickly and often
- After another 15 seconds on the original side, flip one last time over for a final 15 seconds on the other side. After 1 1/2 minutes total of frying, take your beignets out and set on a plate lined with paper towel
- Repeat for all your Mahamri dough, then you're done! Sprinkle the Mahamri with a bit of powdered sugar, and enjoy!