Among the many dietary trends that have infiltrated the American running scene recently, the most puzzling to me is the vilification of carbohydrates. Paleo, gluten-free, ketogenic: these are all buzzwords that, while appropriate for some segments of society, are not necessarily in the best interest of endurance athletes looking to recover quickly, stay healthy and increase their performance over the long haul.
If you look at the most dominant distance runners in the world—who by and large hail from East Africa—you’ll find a very different attitude towards carbs and food in general. According to one article, between 64-76% of the calories consumed by elite Kenyan and Ethiopian runners are in carbohydrate form. In the minds of American runners, “This is comparable to ‘carbohydrate loading’ every single day of training.”
Although I certainly wasn’t counting their calories (and I guarantee that neither were they), I can attest that, for the Kenyans I lived with in London and the Ethiopians I spent two months with just outside of Addis Ababa, carbs are indeed king.
Ugali and injera, specifically, are staples of the Kenyan and Ethiopian diets, respectively. Both are especially celebrated among energy-blasting athletes.
In honor of Food Week here at Citius Mag, I’m going to dish out a step-by-step recipe for Kenyan ugali and stew, recorded during my year-long romp around the world. This recipe was taught to me by four-time Olympian Vivian Cheruiyot, fresh off her 5,0000-meter silver and 10,000-meter bronze medal performances in the 2012 London Olympics. Since then, she’s given birth to a baby boy and added two more Olympic medals—including a 5,000 meter gold in a new Olympic record at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
I’m not saying that Vivian’s accomplishments have anything to do with ugali. But I’m also not saying they don’t.
- 4-5 small chicken thighs
- Large head of cabbage, washed, cored and finely chopped (confetti-style)
- 1/2 red onion, diced
- Vegetable oil
- 2 small tomatoes, chopped
- Pinch of salt
- 1 heaping tablespoon of spicy beef mchuzi mix (available at ethnic grocery stores or on Amazon)
- 8 cups water
- 4 cups maize meal (or flour)
- Cut off ends of chicken thighs, peel and remove skin, and chop thighs into bite-sized pieces.
- Heat a large ungreased pot over high heat. Add onion and cook for 2 minutes.
- Cover in vegetable oil and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring with wooden spoon.
- Add chicken to pot and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring constantly.
- Add tomatoes and salt to pot. Cover and simmer for about 8 minutes.
- Add cabbage to pot and flatten without mixing with chicken. Close lid and continue simmering, stirring regularly.
- In a separate bowl, stir mchuzi mix into a cup of cold water. Pour into stew and continue cooking on low while you prepare ugali.
- Pour water into a large pot on the stove and turn heat to high.
- When water starts to boil, add maize meal to the pot. Lower heat to medium, and mix water and maize with a flat wooden utensil until smooth, about 15 minutes.
- When fully incorporated and cooked, mold the ugali into a smooth mound with the flat utensil, and dump upside down onto a plate.
- To serve, ladle stew into bowls and top with a big triangular hunk of ugali (sliced like pie). Using your right hand, tear off a small piece of ugali, roll into a ball, make an indentation with your thumb, and use it to scoop up the stew.
- Optional: Finish the meal with whole milk and ugali. Put a chunk of ugali in your cheek, take a gulp of milk, and chew.
For more recipes like this one, grab yourself a copy of Run the World: My 3,500-Mile Journey Through Running Cultures Around the Globe and take a stab at other runner-endorsed dishes included at the end of each chapter.