Eat like a Kenyan (for one day)
I’m a little embarrassed to be putting this week’s food focus out there. It was only one day, but I actually rearranged components of my week very specifically in order to make it happen. Not only that, the effort could well come off as gimmicky, rife with contradictions, and even just plain dumb. But, having gone to the trouble with zeal, there’s nothing left to do but share. Besides, if you read this Running Times’ article, you probably felt the allure, if just a little, too.
We’re back in marathon training mode, and I’m loving it. As much fun as multisport is, I’m in it more for the longevity it can offer running than its own sake. That, and the morbid knowledge that at some point not too far away, my body will begin to break down in ways that defy future dreams of run PRs, challenge options, etc, but I’ll still have hopes of continuing to improve on the bike and in the water. I know this, because there are days when 80-year old women slip by me like dolphins in the pool, and I’ve decided that, since we’re all getting older in spite of ourselves, this is cause for celebration more than irritation, most of the time.
There’s something about the basic purity of running that calls to everyone it can in its own way. If it hasn’t worked for you yet, that day is probably still coming, whether on the heels of a pair of shoes, an outing with a group, or whatever. Whether your thing is social, in the mountains, or on the track, it’s all about communion. There’s synergy, raw honesty, connection with nature, and whole body awareness. I especially love fall running, with crisp air and cooler temps, without being too damp. Although I go through an annual mourning of the loss of summer (exaggerated by back-to-school), autumn runs usher in the turn of the seasons with a breezy contentment.
We marked the return to the run focus this season a little indulgently, with the purchase of our first pair of Hokas…and wow, do I love these shoes! The fact that they’re catching on in fad-like fashion created initial skepticism, but I am already a true convert. Since it’s looking more and more like we’re going to be increasingly dabbling in the world of ultras, these shoes are going to be an essential, and one more reason I probably won’t be buying any new clothes for myself for even longer stretches than usual. Of course, no shoe is for everyone, but these shoes are amazing just for the mere fact that they seem expressly designed to tailor to (and develop) both Dave’s and my respective weaknesses. Dave, for the record, is 6’5″ and has to be wary of too much impact. I am 5’2 (and a half) and exercise excessive caution on downhills and trail. Just one week into breaking in our new shoes, Dave’s recovering much better from long runs and road intervals than ever, and I am already leagues more comfortable on trail and descents.
Another semi-commemorative thing I decided we were going to do, as you’ll have gathered from the RT article, is explore the Kenyan diet (naively, but with good intentions). It was originally Dave’s idea, way back in the summer. Until I got so conscientious about planning for it, he went off the whole thing entirely, and
I tricked him we compromised to try out the principles we gleaned from the write-up and research…for just one day. Here’s how it shook out.
Breakfast: boiled egg, fruit, tea.
Tea is a mega staple, it seems, marking the Kenyan diet. Along with lots of greens, and of course ugali, a cornmeal porridge made from maize and water. Apparently the Kenyan runners typically skip breakfast (one item contrary to personal belief), unless they’re training, say, three times a day at the time, when they’ll go for a morning meal of a boiled egg, fruit, and tea.
Needless to say, I did not train three times on my self-proclaimed “Eating Like A Kenyan” day. In fact, I barely trained at all. It was Friday, the day after a medium-long run and the day before the long run which, at 15 miles this week was still pitifully short and easy for your average Kenyan. I had a short swim in the morning, and that’s all for workouts.
Regardless, training low volume or loads, swimming makes me hungry. It just does. Since the Kenyans are said to rely on lots of chai, with plenty of milk and sugar, I broke another one of my usual rules, and bought a Starbucks chai before work. These are usually too sweet, and I don’t often buy chai out anymore unless it’s real chai (like you can get at Vic’s now!), opposed to a pre-sweetened mix. Nevertheless, on Friday I bought the chai, and it was gorgeous.
The chai may have provided some mental fortitude, but it was the egg that kept me from being hungry on Friday. I forgot how perfect a simple boiled egg can be. In fact, I might start alternating with oatmeal more regularly. In any case, my stomach refrained from rumbling in class (my fear), but I will admit I drank A LOT of tea that day.
Lunch: Whole Foods Kenyan-style Kale and Tomatoes, with polenta
Polenta was the closest thing I thought I’d get to ugali, and I knew I’d like it. This simple dish is a super side, bright and easy, and a quick main dish, too, especially satisfying with the addition of a little meat. I used collard greens (Dave prefers them), no jalapeno…really good.
- 2 teaspoons canola oil
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 1 jalapeño, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped (optional)
- 3 ripe but firm tomatoes, cored and chopped
- 2 bunches kale or collard greens (about 1 pound total), ribs removed, leaves thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and jalapeño (if using) and cook, stirring often, until softened and golden brown, 7 to 8 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook until collapsed and juicy, about 10 minutes more.
- Add kale, water, lemon juice, salt and pepper, toss once or twice, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until kale is tender and flavors have come together, 10 to 15 minutes. Spoon into bowls and serve.
I’ve made this before, and it’s great, especially since it’s perfect for the luxurious ease of the slow cooker capping off the work week. In my version (below) I added a bunch of vegetables and greens, plus some potatoes. I also used the spices I had on hand instead of specified berbere spice blend. And finally, I lazily put everything straight in the crockpot, no pre-cooking. It was hearty and delicious. Yeah, it’s Ethiopian, not Kenyan, and I’m over-reaching, but by now you’ll have probably laughed at me more than once for the fallibility of the day’s nutritional “project”.
- 1 1/2 cups lentils
- 2 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed
- 4 cups chopped red onions
- 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- 5 tablespoons berbere spice blend
- 3 cups spinach leaves
- 1 zucchini, chopped
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground allspice
- 2 cups cored, diced tomatoes
- 2 cups water or reduced-sodium chicken broth
- Put all ingredients in a slow cooker. Cover and cook until the chicken is falling-apart tender, 8 hours on Low. Stir the stew to combine.
Obviously there are too many holes in my indulgent experiment to even really know where to start. For one thing, modeling off a Kenyan runner’s diet was just a very small aspect of the equation that embodies the role model. As Dave pointed out, you’d be insane to simply jump into a day in the life of Kenyan training, so why would you expect to fly high on a foreign diet like that? I may be reveling in “marathon mode”, but I hope I’ll never be so self-deluded as to think I’m worthy of comparing my training regimen to that of the Kenyans.
So was it worth it? The long run was going to be a key test, and deep down, I really hoped I’d have a magical burst of African energy, though even deeper down, I didn’t expect it.
The run was just fine.
It’s human nature to decide our choices were worthwhile no matter what, and unsurprisingly, that’s what I’ve decided with this. What did I really learn? Not a ton, but it was good reflection. From what I gather, the Kenyan diet is characterized by lots of cooked, dark greens, small amounts of meat, and ugali, altogether being high in carbohydrate and low in fat. This is in contract to some current trends of prioritizing healthy fats and protein, which also have a lot of merit. Carbs are so vilified today, however, I think we’ve forgotten how crucial and beautiful they can be, and tend to associate the word foremost with sugary doughnuts, cakes and pies, when actually vegetables and whole grains fit here, too.
One thing that stood out, in the RT article and elsewhere, was the healthy attitude towards food as fuel. Other cultures enjoy their food fully, thrive on it, and are ever conscious of it as a means to fuel their bodies. They savor it and don’t shy away from eating a lot when they need to replenish. On the other hand, they don’t “eat like there’s no tomorrow”. Not saying we are a bunch of gluttons, but we do attach so much guilt and emotion to food as a culture, we may forget to listen to our bodies when it comes to nourishing them. Finding means of becoming as attune to our bodies as we can, therefore, seems like a solid step to achieving your individual perfect health.
The best part of evaluating the weak-willed, one-day Kenyan eating experiment? The biggest hypocrisy, in the form of a big old excuse. Our post-run lunch was butternut pancakes, and they were soooo good. I used leftover puree from a weekday casserole; pumpkin would work just as well. Key tenets to pull from the Kenyan diet (after the dark leafy greens and the tea, were: a) fueling with what your body needed, and b) all things in moderation. These seemed good enough justification for these pancakes (which, incidentally, are sweetened purely with the butternut and a tablespoon of healthful blackstrap molasses). They really were awesome, too. I don’t feel guilty about them at all. 🙂
- 1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry or white whole wheat flour
- 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin-pie spice
- dash salt
- 1 cup milk (I used skim)
- 1 tablespoon blackstrap molasses
- 1 tablespoon olive or canola oil
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 1 egg white
- 3/4 cup roasted butternut squash puree (or pumpkin puree)
- Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking powder, pumpkin-pie spice, and salt in a large bowl. Combine milk and remaining ingredients; add to flour mixture, stirring until smooth.
- Spoon about 1/4 cup batter onto a hot nonstick griddle or large nonstick skillet. Turn pancakes when tops are bubbling and edges look cooked.