The flavour in this Kenyan bean dish – maharagwe – is out of this world! Buttery beans swim cozily in a rich, creamy, spice-laden broth of coconut milk and tomato. Serve the delicious, saucy beans with rice, flatbreads, or the Kenyan staple – ugali. Keep the ingredients for maharagwe in your pantry and you can have an amazing dinner on the table in half an hour. (Skip to recipe.)

 a bowl of maharagwe with brown rice and cilantro

This month on our Eat the World recipe challenge we travel to the continent of Africa. Jungle drums are throbbing as we sit ourselves down to a meal of maharagwe, the most deliciously rich and creamy spiced beans ladled over a slab of the Kenyan staple, ugali. In the distance a family of giraffes gracefully flutters around a huge acacia tree, nibbling at the tasty uppermost branches, and we see  a herd of zebras drinking lazily around the water hole. The sun is setting in this safari paradise.

I open my eyes and I’m at our kitchen table, with a sink full of dishes in the background. The only wildlife around me is the dog making her ‘nose art’ against the window in our kitchen door. But I have this fantastic bowl of Kenyan beans in front of me and I can savour a spoonful and close my eyes again, to transport myself back to that magical land.

a bowl of maharagwe with wedges of ugali - delicious Kenyan dish

Kenya is on the east coast of Africa, halfway down the continent near the equator. It is a country of diverse landscapes and rich culture. Home to over 45 national parks and reserves, you can go on safari to see an abundance of wild animals or you can explore large metropolitan cities like the capital, Nairobi. The climate and geography is warm and tropical along its coastline and cooler and more open in the savannah grasslands of the interior. If you look to the south, the stunning vista of Mt. Kilimanjaro in neighbouring Tanzania fills your view.

The traditional food of Kenya is as diverse as its tribes, landscape, and the cultural influences of the many different nationalities that have settled this land during its long history. However, ugali, a thick-cooked cornmeal mush is undoubtedly its most commonly eaten food. Ugali is a Kenyan staple, served with both lunch and dinner. It is a thrifty and filling side dish to stews and saucy meals. Maharagwe is one of the popular dishes served with ugali, and consists of red beans and onions simmered in a velvety sauce of coconut milk. Tomatoes add just the right touch of acidity, and rich spices turn this simple bean stew into a taste you’ll remember.

close-up of maharagwe bean stew

In my internet research, I found many versions of maharagwe, some quite simple, with very little spice added, and others with added vegetables and even some versions sweetened with sugar. I’ve taken the elements common to all the recipes and added the spices found in most of them, to give you as authentic a version as I can. If you don’t have all the spices in your cupboard, you don’t need to rush out and buy them; just use whichever ones you do have. Every Kenyan cook makes her maharagwe just a teeny bit differently. However do use  beans, onions, coconut milk, and tomatoes as your base.

Maharagwe is the Swahili name for beans in Kenya.

a bowl of maharagwe with chopped cilantro and wedges of ugali

Maharagwe is served with cooked rice, or with any type of flatbread, or with the traditional cornmeal staple, ugali. Fine cornmeal is cooked until thick, then shaped into small balls or a large disk and cut into slices or wedges. White cornmeal is used in Kenya, but here in North America, white cornmeal is harder to find. The yellow cornmeal that we commonly get works just as well; it tastes the same, just looks different and is made from yellow corn rather than white corn. So use whatever you can find most easily.

I can’t decide if I like the maharagwe better with rice or with ugali. And I haven’t even tried it with flatbread yet!

big bowl of maharagwe with a bowl of brown rice and some chopped cilantro

I made this batch to serve with brown rice, and a bowl of chopped cilantro (coriander) to sprinkle on top

This is such a comforting and flavourful dish that it will definitely be served often in our household from now on. I urge you to cook it, just to taste for yourself how fantastic it is – so much more than it looks and than its simple ingredients would suggest. If you keep canned beans, tomatoes, and coconut milk on hand, whipping up a pot of maharagwe becomes an easy pantry meal. It’s quick to prepare; you can get home from work and have a delicious and nourishing dinner on the table in no time.

I’m heading back to have another bowl of Kenyan beans and to imagine I’m back at that acacia tree, watching the giraffes. Won’t you come and join me?

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Kitchen Frau Notes: This dish comes together quickly (under 30 minutes), if using canned beans. If you cook your own beans, it’s more convenient to cook them a day ahead or in the morning so they can cool in their cooking liquid (to avoid split skins).

Cook up a large batch of beans and freeze them – this is more economical than buying canned beans. You can either measure out the amount of cooked and drained beans you’d need for the recipe, then freeze them in freezer bags, or freeze them individually. To do this, measure out the amount of beans and spread them in a single layer on parchment-lined cookie sheets, transferring the beans to freezer bags after they’re frozen. They’ll defrost faster that way.

If you don’t have cardamom or coriander, you can omit one or the other of them. Some traditional recipes are very simple and without extra spices.

Adjust the heat level to your liking. I find that one seedless jalapeño plus an extra pinch of cayenne pepper is just right for us. You can always pass the cayenne or dried chili flakes at the table for those who want to spice up their dish.

a pot full of delicious maharagwe, the Kenyan dish of red beans in coconut milk, tomato, and spices

Maharagwe (Kenyan Red Beans with Tomato and Coconut Milk)

gluten free, dairy free, vegetarian, vegan

  • 4½ cups cooked red kidney beans or other red beans (350 grams/1½ cups raw beans, soaked and cooked until tender or two 19 oz/540 gram cans of beans or three 14 oz/400 gram cans of beans)*see below for how to cook the beans
  • 2 tablespoons oil (peanut oil to be authentic)
  • 2 medium onions, chopped (2-2½ cups)
  • 1 jalapeño or other hot pepper, seeded and minced (seeds left in if you prefer it spicy) or ¼-½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, to taste
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon mild curry powder
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • ½ teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon salt + more to taste (you may need more if using cooked beans)
  • 1 can (14 oz/400ml) diced tomatoes (or 2 cups diced fresh tomatoes)
  • 1 can (14oz/400ml) full-fat premium coconut milk (not light)
  • chopped cilantro for garnish (optional)
  • cooked rice, flatbreads, or ugali (see recipe below) as an accompaniment to the beans

*To cook raw beans: Pick the beans over to remove any bits of rock and broken beans. Cover with two inches of water and soak for 6 to 8 hours or longer. Drain the soaking water, place the beans in a large saucepan and cover with two inches of fresh water. Cook for 1 to 2 hours, or until the beans are tender and soft inside. The time will depend on the age and size of your beans. Allow the beans to cool in the cooking liquid to avoid split skins. Drain.

Drain and rinse the beans if using canned beans.

To make the Maharagwe: Heat the oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot or skillet. Add the diced onions and hot pepper and cook for five minutes, until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic, curry powder, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, and salt, and cook for one minute more.

Add the drained beans to the onions, along with the tomatoes and their juices and the coconut milk. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook for about 15 minutes, until the coconut milk thickens a bit and the flavours meld. The level of the sauce should come up to just cover the beans. If there’s not enough liquid, add a bit of water and cook another minute or two. Taste the maharagwe, and add more salt if it needs it or more cayenne pepper if you’d like it spicier. The sauce will thicken more as it cools.

Serve maharagwe hot with cooked rice, ugali (recipe below), or with the flatbread of your choice (naan, pita, chapati, roti, tortillas, etc.) to scoop up the beans.

Serves 4 to 5. (Makes ~7 cups)

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I only had yellow cornmeal on hand and it worked fine. If you were to eat ugali in Kenya, it would be white  because of the white cornmeal they use (but it would taste the same).

Kenyan ugali - a disk of cornmeal paste - cut into wedges and serve with maharagwe

Ugali

  • 4 cups (960 ml) water
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups (350gms) fine cornmeal (white is traditional, but yellow works just as well)

Bring the water and salt to a boil in a large saucepan. Pour the cornmeal into the boiling water in a steady stream, stirring constantly with your other hand. Keep stirring, with a wooden spoon, to avoid lumps. Smash any lumps that do form. The mixture will thicken up quickly.

Turn the heat down to medium, and keep stirring and cooking the mixture for 5 minutes, until it forms a thick ball. Turn the heat to low, cover the saucepan, and cook the ugali for 10 more minutes, stirring occasionally.

Scrape the mass of cooked ugali onto a plate and quickly shape it into a thick disk using a silicone spatula. Cut it into slices or wedges and serve it with the maharagwe.

You can also scoop out balls with an ice cream scoop and set them on a plate, not touching each other, to make more individual portions.

{Or — if you want to be traditional, set the plate of ugali into the center of the table and let people pinch off small balls of it. With their thumb they make an indent in the middle of the ball, and use that to scoop up the maharagwe to eat it. No cutlery to wash! 🙂 }

Serves 4 to 5.

Guten Appetit!

 

Check out all the wonderful Kenyan dishes prepared by fellow Eat the World members and share with #eattheworld. Click here to find out how to join and have fun exploring a country a month in the kitchen with us!

Wendy: Kenyan Pilau
Camilla: Kuku Paka + Irio
Tara: Chapati Za Ngozi (Kenyan Soft-Layered Chapati)
Margaret: Maharagwe & Ugali (Red Beans in Creamy Coconut Sauce with Cornmeal Slices)
Amy: Crunchy N’Dizi
Heather: Irio
Juli: Nyama Choma
Loreto and Nicoletta: Mango Ice Cream with Pineapple Rum Sauce (Coupe Mount Kenya)
Evelyne: Uji, a Kenyan Fermented Porridge

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Maharagwe is a traditional Kenyan bean dish - red beans in a rich, creamy broth of coconut milk, tomatoes, and lots of rich spices. Serve it with Ugali - the traditional cornmeal side dish. It's gluten free and vegan, too.

 

Check out some of my other ‘Eat the World’ Recipe Challenge posts:

(in alphabetical order)