Ugali – Kenyan cornmeal

AfricaUgali – Kenyan cornmeal

I’m amazed at how many versions of cornmeal porridge exist in the world! Once upon a time, I thought Italian polenta was it – but, noooo – there are delicious and unique versions throughout Europe, the Americas, and even Africa. Who knew that humble corn would make such a mark across the globe!

This version, called ugali, comes from my friend, fellow Food Revolution ambassador, and cookbook contributor, Sandra Mukidza, of Nairobi, Kenya. And it happens to pair perfectly with her rich and hearty Kenyan Beef Curry. Yumm!

Kenyan Beef Curry

A bit of ugali history

Before the 19th century, sorghum and millet were the primary grains produced and consumed in Kenya. Corn, or maize, the main ingredient in ugali, was introduced to the area by Portuguese traders. It was initially produced for export but was eventually adopted by locals, who transformed it into the simple and nourishing porridge called ugali.

Today, ugali is a staple of the Kenyan diet, eaten by many on a daily basis. It is generally served as a side – the perfect accompaniment for stews, curries, or veggie dishes.

If you visit Kenya, don’t be surprised to see locals eating ugali with their hands, using it almost like a utensil. The proper way is to pinch a small bit off with your fingers, roll into a ball, and use your thumb to make a small depression for scooping up a bite of stew.

Notes on the recipe

Ugali doesn’t generally call for salt. This recipe follows that tradition. If your tastebuds require a bit of saltiness, simply add a big pinch of salt to the water at the beginning of cooking, or top with salted butter at the table.

You will want to use a sturdy wooden spoon for cooking the ugali. Expect to get a workout in the process, as the dough becomes quite stiff.

You’ll know the ugali is cooked when it starts to pull away from the sides of the pan, and begins to take on the aroma of roasted corn.


What kind of cornmeal should I use in ugali?

White cornmeal is traditional, but yellow or a blend of the two will work beautifully.

Do I have to use white cornmeal in ugali?

Nope! While white cornmeal is traditional, yellow cornmeal will work just fine.

Should I use finely or coarsely ground cornmeal in ugali?

Any grind will work fine. The more finely the cornmeal is ground, the faster the ugali will cook. I personally like more coarsely ground cornmeal, and even use grits or polenta-style ground corn, because it adds more texture to the finished ugali.

Can I use grits or polenta-style cornmeal in ugali?

You bet! For the most part, the only noticeable difference between ground corn labeled as cornmeal, grits, or polenta is how coarsely it is ground. Additionally, grits are sometimes ground from hominy, which, in my opinion, makes no discernable difference in the finished ugali.

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Ugali – Kenyan cornmeal

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  • Author: Sandra Mukidza
  • Yield: 4 as a side 1x
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Simple and satisfying, this cornmeal porridge from Kenya, called Ugali, is the perfect accompaniment to soups, stews, and savory curries, especially our recipe for Kenyan Beef Curry.


Units Scale
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cups white cornmeal (white is traditional, but yellow works fine)


  1. Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan.
  2. Reduce the heat to low, and stirring constantly with a whisk, slowly add the cornmeal to the boiling water. The ugali will begin to thicken quite quickly.
  3. Continue cooking on low heat, stirring every minute or so with a sturdy wooden spoon, until the ugali begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and hold together, and takes on the aroma of roasted corn. Turn it out immediately onto a serving plate. If you would like, using a spoon or spatula, quickly shape it into a thick disk or round.
  4. The ugali will continue to firm as it cools, and will be thick enough to cut with a knife (similar to firm polenta).

Recommended Equipment and Goodies


Ugali is a cornmeal porridge similiar to polenta.

The recipe does not call for any salt, but if you find your tastebuds need a bit more saltiness, you could serve it with some salted butter or add a big pinch of salt to the water at the beginning.

You will want to use a sturdy wooden spoon for cooking the ugali. Expect to get a workout in the process, as the dough becomes quite stiff.

You’ll know the ugali is cooked when it starts to pull away from the sides of the pan and begins to take on the aroma of roasted corn.

Wondering what to serve with Ugali? Give our recipes for Sukuma Wiki (a flavorful combo of cooked greens, onions, and cream) and Kenyan Beef Curry (a savory stew) a try!

If you are looking for more African recipes, South African Bobotie is a favorite around here!

  • Category: Side
  • Cuisine: Kenyan
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12 responses to “Ugali – Kenyan cornmeal”

  1. Marco Savio Avatar
    Marco Savio

    Hi Julie, I love all stews accompanied with a stiff maize porridge. In South Africa the Afrikaans people make a crumble porridge version (krummelpap) which is great, served with a spicy onion and tomato relish/stew and traditionally served at a ‘braai’ (barbecue), and if really authentic, made in cast iron pots (potjie pots) over an open fire. African sunset in the bush completes the meal.

    1. Julie Cockburn Avatar
      Julie Cockburn

      This sounds amazing, Marco! Thanks for sharing! I look forward to one day visiting South Africa and experiencing an authentic braai – complete with African sunset!

  2. Ruth Avatar

    hi am in spain I was asking how can get the cornmwal from kenya? or that your using so I can cook for my kid’s

    1. Julie Cockburn Avatar

      Hi Ruth! Thanks for stopping by! There is no need to get cornmeal from Kenya. Simply use whatever is available in your area. Italian polenta would work well. Just keep in mind that cooking times vary depending on how finely the corn is ground – less time for a fine grind and more time for a very coarse grind. Enjoy!

  3. kelly Avatar

    i’m using this for a school project, how did you know it was traditional and how should i trust you

    1. Julie Cockburn Avatar

      Hi Kelly!
      That’s a great question – thanks for asking! The recipe comes from a friend of mine who grew up eating and learning to cook in Nairobi, Kenya, Sandra Mukidza. So it is about as authentic a recipe as you can get. There are, of course, other versions of ugali out there, which could be fun to research, as well. Good luck with the project!

  4. Robin and Tab Westbrook Avatar
    Robin and Tab Westbrook

    What kind of cornmeal, plain or self rising?

    1. Julie Cockburn Avatar

      Hey there, Robin! Just plain cornmeal. It shouldn’t have additives in it – just corn. Medium or coarse-ground works best in this application.

  5. Jay Lynne Kimball Avatar
    Jay Lynne Kimball

    Have I tried this? It sounds quite tasty!

    1. Julie Cockburn Avatar

      It is tasty! Perfect for serving with stew!

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Julie Cockburn with the Taste Of The Place cookbook

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