Omena falls in the same family as anchovies and sardines and are considered a staple in some parts of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. In Kenya we call it “omena”, Uganda “mukene” and Tanzania “dagaa”. My search on google reminded me of biology lessons in high school which I do not miss at all. Why? Most of what was taught is not practical to my daily living more than 2 decades later or maybe it is just me.
I grew up silently loathing omena because I always associated it with dog food. Dog food in my mother’s house was ugali (either hurriedly prepared or leftover) and omena boiled in under 10 minutes. So, why did I loathe them with such a passion? Every time anyone attempted to make them for human consumption, they were either bitter, stiff & tasteless but most times it was a perfect cross breed of the 3 things. What we used to do instead was bite off their heads and eat it whole with some salt while hidden in the kitchen pantry. Ridiculously, they were a delight and a treat especially on those days that we would eat ugali and green veggies for days on end. Unknown to us, the month had taken the longest bend in our parents’ pockets……..
So, I grew up, left home and started my own home with my parents’ blessing and got to understand the value of omena on a tight budget. I have tried the recipe severally. The number of misses are more than the wins but it has been a journey. Details for another day but this is a simple recipe whose ingredients are in everyone’s kitchen.
With this particular attempt, I aimed at achieving a thick, gravy kinda sauce to go with the omena instead of the usual light soup is common place in many Kenyan households.
I achieved it!!! (bows to the imaginary cheering crowd who understand the omena struggle).
The picky eater in the house – not me -, cleared her omena and veggies in record time. Clearing her portion of ugali still is a fight as I type this.
¼ kg omena
1 medium sized onion finely sliced/chopped
1 (bulb/cylinder or whatever other definition befits…) leek
1 tomato, finely sliced
1 sachet tomato paste
Ginger and garlic paste, 1 teaspoon
1 medium sized chili
1 teaspoon Spanish paprika, leveled
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garam masala
500ml plain yoghurt
Oil for frying
Place the omena in a bowl and soak with water and a quarter cup of vinegar for 30 mins.
As it soaks, heat oil in a pan till very hot
Fry till slightly browned then add black pepper, paprika & garam masala. Fry them gently for half a minute to one-minute ensuring that the spices do not burn
Add onions & leeks and fry them till golden brown. To hasten the frying process, add a little bit of salt & cover…. trust me, it works J
Add the whole chili to the frying onion mixture to fry for a minute or two then add the ginger & garlic paste, tomato paste and sliced tomato.
In the meanwhile, gently remove the omena from the water & vinegar mixture & place in a colander such that there is minimal disturbance to the water-vinegar mixture, so that the sand particles do not float upwards and back into your omena. The water should look something like this
Source: my own
Thoroughly rinse the omena under running water through the colander to remove the taste of vinegar and any dirt/grit left in them.
Back to your pan, add yoghurt & let it come to a boil before adding the omena.
Add salt to desired taste.
Mix well and let it cook for 10-12 minutes.
Garnish as desired & serve.
I served my omena with ugali (Kenyan staple dish) and fried (may I add crunchy) cabbage. I am salivating afresh as I remember the meal that I have just devoured.