That vegetables are rich in important micro nutrients vitamins A, B, and C, and minerals iron, zinc and calcium is well known. Further, veggies contribution to fiber, carbohydrates and proteins in our diets is proven in science. What today is not well known is the importance of indigenous foods in achieving health. This article introduces us into a variety of Luhya traditional vegetables. In doing so, I hope that these delicacies from my people will find more space more often on our tables.
Though fads and changing taste profiles are often blamed, the main problem with traditional vegetables is the lack of availability due to seasonality. However, with the rising ease and popularity of urban farming – through technologies like hydroponics, aquaponics and green housing – we can improve the availability of traditional vegetables.
Moreover, while it was traditionally the duty of women to grow, procure and prepare the vegetables used in traditional dishes, a leveling gender landscape provides new opportunities. Above all, the chance to reconnect with authentic tastes of our heritage is a call that we must answer. Because it is only then that we can rediscover local species of vegetables that our grandparents swore to be key to their health, virility and longevity.
Know your Luhya traditional vegetables
Cultivated Luhya traditional vegetables
A healthy proportion of Luhya traditional vegetables can be considered ‘edible weeds’. However, the majority of traditional Luhya vegetables are cultivated on purpose. Cultivation occurs either in the main farm crop fields or among the bananas in the kitchen garden. Likhubi (cowpea) and bean leaves (makhalaba) are the main field varieties. Whereas murere, miroo, lisebebe, libokoyi and tsisaka are cultivated and harvested from the kitchen garden.
Scientific name for likhubi is Vigna unguiculataa. Common name is cowpea in English and kunde is Swahili. It is the most ubiquitous of traditional Luhya vegetables as it is also a common delicacy in other ethnic groups in Kenya. So popular is likhubi that it is often commonly cultivated commercially.
Further, likhubi’s popularity stems from its wide spread use as the ‘second vegetable’ when cooking traditional Luhya vegetables. As seen in our suggestions below on cooking Luhya traditional vegetables, we often prepare our vegetables as a mixture of two or more vegetables.
Types of likhubi
There are two types of Likhubi. The fist type known as ilande (Isukha) is planted in October – December during the short rains. Its cultivation goes on upto until the start of the long rains in March.
The second type is known as inzekhu in Isukha is a shorter crop that thrives during the long rains of March – May and is harvested from May – August. The seeds of inzekhu variety are often mixed with those of beans and together, they are inter-cropped with maize. Towards the end of its cycle, this variety of likhubi is ‘left’ to mature and bear seeds for the next season. Thus, the seeds are often harvested in July – September.
Nutritional value of likhubi (kunde)
Likhubi is high in the following micro nutrients: potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron and manganese. Refer to the table below for details on the nutritional value of cowpea leaves.
|Nutrient content of likhubi per 100g|
|Total CHO (g)||4.3|
|Vitamin C (mg)||76|
|β-carotene Eq. (µg)||185|
Fun facts on likhubi
Lisebebe or seveve in Lulogooli is a Luhya traditional vegetable from the Cucurbita spp. This is your everyday pumpkin leaves. In terms of the use of pumpkin leaves as a traditional vegetable by a majority of ethnic groups in Kenya, sebebe comes second only to likhubi in popularity. However, unlike likhubi, lisebebe is often cultivated in the kitchen garden as opposed to the open fields.
Sebebe is best cultivated towards the end of the rainy season. This is because its seed sprouts better when the soils are draining well and not water logged. However once sprouted, unlike likhubi which is affected by too much rain, lisebebe thrives with wetness.
Preparation of lisebebe for cooking starts with observing certain rules of hand. First, lisebebe is best harvested from a pumpkin plant that is yet to flower. Nonetheless, once a pumpkin plant has flowered, the leaves can still be harvested as this favorite of Luhya traditional vegetables.
However, an experienced hand is tasked with the onerous task of selecting the leaves to be harvested as vegetable. Poor harvesting leads to the plant gets injured and thus failing to produce fruit.
Secondly, lisebebe leaves are harvested using a sharp knife and not by plucking. The knife is used to cut the leaf at the base where it meets the stalk. Further in most Luhya cultures, not just anybody is allowed to harvest lisebebe. It is believed that there are serious implications if an unmarried girl or one yet to bear children and have a ‘home’ harvests lisebebe. Often, this task is left to the woman of the home.
Finally, there is a special way that the pumpkin leaves are prepared for the pot. Failure to prepare lisebebe as described in the article below greatly makes them less palatable.
WATCH: How to prepare pumpkin leaves the traditional Luyha way
In this video, we learn how seveve (pumpkin leaves) were traditionally prepared before cooking. Particularly how this loved vegetable was packaged so as to keep it farm fresh for longer.
Simple lisebebe recipe to try out: Creamy lisebebe in no time recipe
Just like likhubi above, lisebebe is a commonly used as the ‘second vegetable’ when cooking Luhya traditional vegetables. We’ve crafted the simplest recipe for a Luhya delicacy. Try out our classic and contemporary take on a creamy seveve recipe, the traditional Luhya way.
In Luhya folklore, there is a cautionary Maragoli saying that urges for the importance of desisting from nipping in the bud the efforts of others. It goes: The lisebebe that you will eat is not the one you’ve planted.
Mitoo in Maragoli, kimiro in Lubukusu is a less popular Luhya traditional vegetable of the Crotalaria spp. The two species that are commonly used as a vegetable is the Crotalaria brevidensa, commonly known as Sunhemp. The other is Crotalaria ochroleucaa, commonly known as Giant sunhemp.
The former C. brevidensa is what gives miro its bad name as it is a particularly bitter vegetable that needs some getting used to. The later, C. ochroleucaa is becoming a new favorite among younger generations as it is much less bitter.
The second reason why mitoo isn’t a favorite among Luhya traditional vegetables is the trouble one goes trough plucking its tiny leaflets of the stem. Woe unto you if the mitoo isn’t fresh from the shamba and has been allowed to wither! I don’t envy you.
Nutritional value of mitoo
|Nutrient per 100 g fresh edible portion|
|ß‐carotene||4,907 ± 922 μg|
1. Consumption patterns and nutritional contribution of Crotalaria Brevidens (Mitoo) in Tarime District, Tanzania.
Easy tasty creamy mitoo recipe
In this recipe, we use whole milk, onions and a combination of traditional Luhya vegetables to take the sting off the known bitterness of mitoo (miroo) for a tasty meal.
Fun fact on miro
Miro, especially the giant hemp (non bitter variety) is a good source of green manure. When intercropped with maize or planted in rotation, it’s been observed that “maize may withstand two additional weeks in a dry spell when intercropped with C. ochroleuca compared with monoculture.”
Also known as likhu (Isukha) or mrenda (Maragoli), is the most notoriously famous of Luhya traditional vegetables – given its slimy, somewhat runny appearance when cooked. For the uninitiated, its okra-like appearance requires some convincing for one to try out. However, I urge you not to be put off by the appearance. In truth, murere is a quite a delight.
For the scientists among us, this traditional vegetable belongs to the Corchorus spp.; they are two main types of murere. The more popular but rarer Corchorus olitorius has broad leaves. This means that it yields more edible mass. Then there is the more common variety the Corchorus trilocularis which has narrow leaves.
Scientific name: Cleome gynandra, Gynandropsis gynandra
Also known as esaka (Lubukusu), saga (Maragoli) and spider plant (English) is a popular Luhya traditional vegetable. As the English name suggests, its hairy purplish stems reminds one of the limbs of a spider. Nonetheless, its appearance shouldn’t discourage first time consumers from trying it out. It’s indeed a tasty vegetable.
While tsisaka holds the most commercial potential of Luhya traditional vegetables, it is a hard crop to cultivate. This is because namasaka requires fertile well drained soils; warmer temperatures and plenty of rainfall.
Nutritional value of Tsisaka/saga/namasaka
|Vitamins||High in Vitamin A, B and C|
|Other micro nutrients||High in calcium, phosphorous, iron and magnesium|
Libokoyi is the wide variety of vegetables principally belonging to the Amaranthus species. There are both wild and cultivated varieties. They include: Amaranthus blitum commonly known as purple amaranth or Guernsey pigweed. Amaranthus viridis commonly known as green amaranth. Amaranthus graecizans (michicha). Also see entry on tsimboka below.
Another of the what can be classified as ‘royalty’ of Luhya traditional vegetables. The scientific name of ikanzira is Brassica carinata. When in the market anywhere in Kenya, ask for khajira/ kanzira.
This vegetable also known as the Ethiopian kale has more ‘depth’ in taste than your everyday kale. It’s delicate aromatic (mustard -like) flavors go well with lisustsa (Isukha). As it helps balance the bitter taste of the former. It does well when grown in the shade of bananas though it is particularly suffers with adverse weather and pests.
Or namasaka (Lubukusu) or risuza (Maragoli) is known a traditional vegetable known as black nightshade in English and managu in Gikuyu. In the recent past, this vegetable has grown in popularity as less bitter variants (Solanum scabrum) have been propagated and cultivated.
There are four types that are commonly consumed: Solanum villosum, Solanum niqrum, S. scabrum and S. americanum. Lisustsa has found commercial success in Kenya although a variety of these vegetables are gathered in the wild.
Perfect when cooked with milk or cream and left overnight before consumption. See entry below on wild type lisutsa.
These are the leaves of your everyday bean (Phaseolus vulgaris). Makhalaba is not a favorite and is eaten only when other vegetables are scarce. In truth, when you find a people feasting on makhalaba, often is the case that there is widespread communal scarcity of food. Or that a particular family is hard up and thus cannot afford to buy exotic vegetables from the market.
Meet makhalaba the reluctant Luhya traditional vegetable: Of eating eggs and expecting chicken, taboos, books and a Maragoli saying
The Bukusu call it likanda. It is a vegetable shrouded in taboos and sayings, making it a reluctant choice for a meal.
Magaraba (Maragoli) is unpopular partly because it fits into the profile of the folly of ‘eating eggs and expecting to breed a flock of chicken’. For it goes without saying that harvesting the leaves of the bean plant negatively affects the eventual fruit to be harvested. The other reason why it is unpopular is because of the way it is cooked. It is the blandest of meals and there are sufficient cultural reasons as to why it is so.
Wild but also cultivated traditional Luhya Vegetables
There is an indoor climbing plant known as the ‘money plant’. If you grew up in a home with one, then you might be able to recognize inderema in the wild. This is because in appearance, inderema can be said to resemble a miniature version of a money plant.
However, when cooked as a vegetable, inderema assumes a slippery consistency kind of that of murenda. Commonly, inderema is known as the Indian spinach.
In the wild, inderema is common in riverine environments. When domesticated, it is planted among banana plants whose shade is protective. Moreover in urban environments, I often sight inderema on hedges where it is found climbing. We urban dwellers risk snake bites (as it is associated with snakes) for nothing but aesthetics from this evergreen climber. However, our forefathers found nutrition from this plant scientifically known as Basella alba.
See the entry ‘lisutsa‘ above. When virgin land is cleared, the black type (Solanum americanum) sprouts. Lisusta also grows wild among banana plants; its seeds having been dispersed by bird droppings. The orange-fruited type (Solanum villosum) is rare but occasionally seen in Isukha.
Also refer to libokoyi above. Wild varieties include – Asystasia schimperi, Digera muricota and Coccinia grandis that are found as weeds in cultivated fields. The Bukusu have emboka Amaranthus lividus while litoto refers to Amaranthus hybridus. Among the Maragoli, this family of vegetables are also known as livokoi.
Wild luhya traditional vegetables
What follows are wild plants that the Luhya have been known to consume as vegetables.
Lifwafwa (Commelina bhenqalensis) is the more common of this vegetable is found in fertile areas in forest and crop fields.
If you thought makhalaba was the least liked traditional Luhya vegetable, I don’t know what you will have to say about linyolonyolo (Lwidakho). Also known as linyoronyoro (Maragoli) or lifwafwa/ sikayangaya (Lubukusu) or the Wondering jew (English) or Commelina spp. (scientific name) is a traditional vegetable of immense cultural value.
Discover interesting facts and myths on linyolonyolo
Know more about its use in Luhya traditional medicine; why it was a taboo for pregnant women to eat linyolonyolo; the history to how it found its way into Mulembe palates and how a Luhya folktale cements its position as the most disliked of Luhya traditional vegetables.
Rediscovering lifwafwa, linyoronyoro, sikayangaya the forgotten Luhya traditional vegetable
Vegetable from the leaves of a tree whose scientific name is Erythrococca bongensis. This is a small shrub or tree, sometimes climbing, that is found in bushland, forest edges, along rivers, lake shores and roadsides.
This vegetable comes out as a weed in cropland especially during weeding time.
Shikhubayeka is a vegetable that resembles likhubi in taste, though it’s more popular for its use in treating endwasi. The scientific name of this wild climbing plant whose natural habitat is forested and mountain areas is Vigna membranacea.
Imbetsa is a creeping plant and slimy when cooked. Leaves resemble those of miroo (mito). During the dry season it is only seen along streams where there is little interference from human activity. They can also grow in inhabited areas such as home compound where the seeds have been deposited.
- Traditional African vegetables in Kenya: production, marketing and utilization, P. Nekesa and B. Meso, Organic Matter Management Network, Nairobi, Kenya
- Safeguarding intangible cultural heritage: Traditional foodways of the Isukha community of Kenya, UNESCO.
- Oral literature.
- Various sources from mulembenation.co.ke archives.