One of my childhood pleasures was dipping my ugali, grasped with three fingers, into the emptied cup, wiping dry the last remains of sour milk at the bottom. The other pleasure was in shaking the packet of sour milk and resting it upside down to ensure that every last drop had been collected. Packaged sour milk, or maziwa lala as it is called in Kiswahili, was an occasional family treat accompanying ugali and greens (usually sukuma wiki, braised kale, or kunde, the leaves of the cowpea plant). Other times it was served as an accompaniment to ugali and pan-fried omena. Sour milk was both soup and water for meals that were otherwise too dry. It countered the heat of steaming hot food, and tempered the rancidity, chewiness, or oiliness of the greens or omena. Whenever it was included in meals, it was in short supply, never more than a cup for every individual at the table, because it cost more than milk. Even now, Maziwa Mala, the oldest and most popular brand of sour milk, costs 72 shillings for 500 milliliters—prohibitively high when compared with the same quantity of milk sold at around 50 shillings.
I haven’t been a consistent sour milk consumer in adulthood—that is, until a few months ago when it occurred to me that I could have sour milk whenever I wanted it. My reaction to the constant on again, off again Nairobi lockdowns, a steady feature of the COVID-19 pandemic, has included cycles of sampling new types of food or returning to foods I haven’t had in a long time but remember fondly. This is how I went down a path sampling different types of sour milk until I realized I couldn’t try them all.
I learned that packaged store-bought sour milk, while delicious, doesn’t match the wide range of flavors of sour milk made in different homes. Having grown up consuming packaged sour milk, its smooth texture, neutral odor, and consistent flavor are what I recognize as the “authentic” taste. But this is not so for others.
Homemade varieties of sour milk are often derived from unprocessed milk left to sit for days before it is considered good for consumption. The difference in flavor and texture from one homemade batch to another might be the result of different livestock, the way that livestock was reared and milked, and the way the product is stored. In some cases, batches are also enhanced with ingredients added to preserve and alter the flavour. One variety, mursik, is prepared in gourds whose insides are smeared with soot from the stems of certain tree species. Meanwhile, sour camel milk may have a smoky flavor because of the technique used to disinfect milk containers.
The names for sour milk in Kenya may be as many as the languages spoken by the more than 44 ethnic groups in the country. Wherever there’s a tradition of livestock farming, sour milk is a part of the people’s diet. Though individuals may accept the standard Kiswahili or English names for their sour milk, oftentimes they are speaking about variations of the same thing, which aren’t properly represented in translation. These names reflect an expected lightness, heaviness, fluidity, tang, or sweetness. Though the names’ literal translations may mean “thick,” “curdled,” or “sour milk,” they contain more than that: with each name comes the knowledge that a certain procedure, ingredient, or utensil was included. And this is what leads some to reject factory processed sour milk, even if it means going for extended periods without this culinary favorite. For them, store-bought just doesn’t contain the same sentimental value as homemade.
It’s been a long time since I tasted mavere malulu, the sour milk that my parents grew up with in Kakamega. It had tiny, smooth, buttery, and spongy lumps dispersing in the semi-fluid liquid. Traditionally served in a calabash, the sour milk was constantly churned during the intervals before each sip. This churning ensures that the curds don’t settle to the bottom of the dish. It’s a reflex I’ve observed with most people drinking sour milk, whether it is factory processed or homemade: between sips they agitate their cups, swirling the liquid inside.
The first challenge with sampling homemade sour milk is that every person I contacted relies on, and trusts, only one source: their own mother. As I learned from Ken Mitei, whose mother eventually supplied me with mursik, I could purchase homemade sour milk from sellers on different e-commerce platforms, but they cannot be trusted for all the reasons that we prefer pasteurized factory processed milk; there’s no way to confirm how safe it is. One’s own mother, meanwhile, can always be trusted. My five-liter jerrycan of mursik arrived from Bomet, about 220 kilometers away from Nairobi, as a gift. Of all the sour milk varieties I sampled, mursik was the only one prepared using additional ingredients which enhance the flavor and give the sour milk a grey tint.
For susaac, sour camel milk, I went to a small neighborhood shop which doubles as a cafe. The shop attendant doesn’t offer susaac for sale, telling me that most people just make it at home. As we chatted he said that the camel milk he sells comes from his family’s Isiolo farm, over 270 kilometers from Nairobi. Days later when I collected my free batch of susaac he insisted that he couldn’t sell it to me, but suggested that I try a factory-processed variety available in some supermarkets. I haven’t yet found it.
I got amabare amaroranu from Naomi Kemunto, a Nairobi resident. She isn’t a dairy farmer but has regular access to fresh (raw) dairy milk. Also, she’s a friend’s mother, and as with all my exchanges in this experiment, I got the sour milk for free. There are no special ingredients; unprocessed cow’s milk is boiled and cooled, and then left to sit in a sealed container for three or four days. However, Naomi Kemunto recounts how during her 1950s childhood in Kisii, over 300 kilometers from Nairobi, cooked dried blood was an occasional amabere amaroranu additive. The cow’s blood (drawn from living cows by piercing the jugular) was cooked in a pan until it dried, and looked a lot like black scrambled eggs. These dried bits, when mixed into the sour milk, formed tiny black salty globules floating in the mixture, varying the texture and flavor. I don’t plan to try this any time soon.
Munjiru, who grew up on a family farm on the outskirts of Nairobi, remembers a late ’80s and ’90s childhood of filling up gourds with milk, then transitioning to five-liter plastic jerry cans. After three or four days of waiting for the milk to turn sour, she and her siblings took turns churning the iria imata, literally meaning “thick milk.” The first time she ever tasted factory-processed sour milk was around 2014—because she did not have easy access to fresh farm milk.
“It tastes different,” she says. “It’s too smooth.” I hear this from others more accustomed to homemade sour milk; the little bits of curd that never dissolve no matter how much one churns the milk are what make it pleasurable to drink. It’s also the way homemade varieties of sour milk cake the tongue, allowing the taste to linger as well as the scent, the latter of which is absent from packaged sour milk.
I gathered these sour milk samples in my house: amabere amaroranu, mursik, susaac, and Maziwa Mala, the most popular brand of packaged sour milk. All my suppliers discouraged me from refrigerating them. Over weeks I tasted each of them, either dipping pieces of ugali into them or drinking the sour milk with rice and other accompaniments. I noticed which types of sour milk leave lots of residue in a clear glass, and which ones do not. From my sampling, one way these varieties of homemade sour milk are alike and dissimilar is the tang. Another way is to compare the amount of residue left in the emptied glass.
From my comparison, packaged sour milk had the most consistent texture, no curds at all, and was also the least sour. The susaac was lightest, and smooth, hardly leaving any curd residue in the glass. My batch of susaac had a strong scent and flavour of smoke, the outcome of a process of disinfecting the containers used to store the milk. I like it, a little.
Amabere amaroranu had the most tang by far, and an overpowering rancid odor; I closed my eyes when swallowing it. It also left the most curd residue in my glass. In contrast, my mursik was the thickest and heaviest type of sour milk I’ve ever had. There was the hint of charcoal countering the acidic flavor.
In the end, I couldn’t decide which of these samples I liked best, but I did notice that each of them, accompanying ugali or rice, gave a slightly different feel to my food. I now understand why some people see my preferred packets of store-bought Maziwa Mala as a weak substitute for the “real thing,” but I’ll probably stick to them. Boring or flat as it is, it’s home for me. And as long as my travel remains curtailed, I’m grateful that the flavors of other people’s homes can come to me in the form of a five-liter jerry can.