Before we headed to Peace Corps service, we were warned about ugali. This stiff porridge is made from corn flour and tastes like unseasoned tofu. Tanzanians love eating it, cooking it, and teaching visitors how to cook it. Most foreigners hate it.
While ugali is not our favorite Tanzanian dish, we enjoy its cultural significance. Serving ugali is a way to show someone you care for them. Neighbors hand you a plate of hot ugali when you visit. Our village made us ugali our first day at site because they knew our kitchen wouldn’t be set up yet and they wanted us to have a filling meal.
Plus, you get to eat ugali with your hands! It has a consistency like Play-Doh, and you shape it into balls for scooping up other parts of your meal.
We know you want to cook up some traditional Tanzanian food and have fun playing with it. We’ve put together a recipe and eating guide with help from our homestay family. But first, some history…
History of Ugali
Ugali is a newish dish in Tanzanian history. Corn wasn’t grown here until British colonialism in the 1900s. 100 years later, corn (maize) is Tanzania’s biggest crop, with around 6 tons produced annually.
Because corn is so popular, ugali flour is cheap. For our recipe, we made 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) of ugali. The flour cost 50 cents.
Plus, many Tanzanians grow their own corn on micro-plots and have the ears ground into flour, making ugali even cheaper.
What Does Ugali Taste Like?
Ugali is similar to tofu. Both have a neutral taste and need sauces, oils, or spices to appeal to American palates. Once we realized this, we started enjoying ugali. Unlike tofu, ugali sticks together. You can use it to scoop up Tanzanian vegetable dishes like eggplants in tomato sauce, boiled vegetables, or salted leafy greens.
How Do You Make Ugali?
A note about Tanzanian recipes: Many households do not use precise measurements or timers to cook. My Mama laughed at me when I asked her exactly how many minutes to cook the ugali. Her answer: It’s ready when it’s ready. Ugali is a simple dish, so don’t worry about cooking it perfectly. If your ugali is too liquidy, add more flour. If it’s too solid, add more water. That’s it!
Ingredients: Water, ground corn flour. Ugali flour is everywhere in Tanzania. In the United States, try corn meal. The color isn’t important. For this recipe, we used about 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) of cornmeal and fed 4 Tanzanian and 2 American adults.
Step 1: Light a charcoal jiko or turn a stovetop to medium heat.
Step 2: Boil some water. You should have roughly half as much water as corn flour/meal.
Step 3: Add about half the cornmeal you plan to cook to the water.
Step 4: Stir with a wooden spoon until the cornmeal is well-blended. Lower the heat.
Step 5: Add hot water.
Step 6: Stir until your face looks like this:
Step 7: The ugali should be thickening and rising in the pot. Add the rest of the flour.
Step 8: Keep stirring. Let Mama help because you don’t have the endurance to keep stirring the thick, heavy porridge. (seriously, have an assistant when you try to make this at home). You need to beat the ugali against the side of the pot, and it’s hard work!
Step 9: When the ugali is nice and thick, cover it and wait a few minutes.
Step 10: Stick your wooden spoon in the ugali. The spoon should stand upright.
Step 11: Put the ugali in a hot pot or serve immediately.
Step 12: Appreciate your dishwasher.
How Do You Eat Ugali?
Eating ugali is fun. You pick it up with your hands, shape it into a ball, make a hole, and use it to scoop up whatever else is on your plate. Well-cooked ugali will stick to itself without sticking to your hands too much.
Our Mama graciously agreed to show everyone the proper way to eat ugali :
When we get to site, we plan to follow our Peace Corps cookbook’s advice and experiment with ugali flavors. We want to try it with mango salsa, cinnamon, and brown sugar for breakfast and Sriracha sauce for dinner. Let us know if you come up with any great toppings when you give it a try.