The Endless Global Variations of Donuts: Kenya Edition
Mandazi in Kenya
I was introduced to the treat of mandazi on a recent work trip to Kenya.
For my job, I create the English curriculum for primary schools in resource-constrained neighborhoods across Africa. Sometimes my trips are last-minute, and this was one of them. In my mad rush to pack, I forgot to check the weather in Nairobi and missed the memo: rainy season.
I slipped down a muddy hill in sandals to reach the first academy on my schedule. The academy manager greeted me in Swahili with a kind smile. Then he surveyed my shoes and absent coat. “You are welcome,” he said, switching to English. “Please, sit down in my office.” A few children walked by in heavy-duty rain boots and winter hats. They chuckled at my mistake.
Within minutes, the academy manager presented me with breakfast, consisting of a warm, milky tea and a plate full of steaming, puffy mandazi—a simple piece of fried dough shaped into triangles which, over the course of my trip, became synonymous with love and hospitality.
“Here, have a crispy one,” he said. “These ones have been fried more, so they have less cholesterol.” I didn’t argue, and reached for one. The taste was simple, but familiar—a relative of a scone or donut. I detected the smallest hint of sweetness. The mandazi warmed my body and helped me relax for the first time since I’d arrived in Kenya.
Mandazi, omnipresent in the Kenyan breakfast scene, is not difficult to make. It comes in all shapes and sizes, but the most common shape in Nairobi is a triangle. There are infinite variations, but the most basic ones are made of flour, baking powder, sugar, and maybe a pinch of lime or lemon zest. Sometimes yeast is substituted for baking powder or coconut milk is used to increase the sweetness. After the ingredients are mixed and shaped, the dough is fried in oil.
Mandazi is eaten in the morning, as snacks (also known as “bitings”), dessert, and at all times of the day, because they’re quick to make and easy to store and reheat. It seems to be a universal comfort food. It certainly was for me.
After two weeks of busy days visiting academies without warm clothes, I got sick, to no one’s surprise but my own. I coughed and sneezed and hacked until Mary, the housekeeper where I was staying, knocked on my door.
“Rachel, come out of there,” she ordered. “I have something for you.”
Mary was not a person to mess with. I emerged from the room. She told me to sit at the table, where a cup of hot tea awaited me. I was in the middle of thanking her when she interrupted. “—No. That isn’t only what you need. Just wait.” Mary went to the kitchen and returned. I was not surprised to see her carrying a pile of perfect triangles on a tray.