Learn about Kenya’s most famous love-it-or-hate-it ingredient.

For quite some time, a war has been brewing on Kenyan food Twitter. It all came to a head when Kaluhi Adagala, Kenya’s most well-known food writer, posted a recipe for njahi, and Kenyans on Twitter (KOT) reacted. Adagala has been featured in best-of lists on HuffPost, Cosmo, CNN, and others. “Njahi Defence Association have hired their strongest weapon, Kaluhi to unleash proper PR on that prison food,” one enraged KOT wrote.

Defenders of the njahi wars, led by Adagala, are on one side, extolling its virtues. Njahi is a black bean with a white stripe running down the middle (scientific name Lablab purpureus, black beans/dolichos/hyacinth bean/etc. in English). It tastes great, is high in insoluble fiber, and is said to cleanse the gut, lower blood pressure, aid in blood sugar regulation by slowing the release of simple sugars, and facilitate the body’s removal of excess fluids through the kidneys. It also contains phenols, which are thought to aid in weight loss.

None of this matters to its detractors. They claim that Njahi is every negative adjective in the book—disgusting, terrible, atrocious, and so on—and that it hardly deserves to be called food. It tastes like 2020; it tastes like a sad only child; it tastes like grief and abandonment issues; it tastes like there’s no internet connection; it tastes like “chalk dust mixed with cement…no matter which way you cook it”; it tastes like unreplied-to emails when you’re unemployed; and it tastes like rusty iron nails cooked in soup, according to Leah Kanda, one of Kenya’s leading food bloggers. And so on.

The question of who gets to decide which foods are tasty is at the heart of the njahi wars. But, as with many other wars, the violence of British colonialism is at the heart of these conflicts.

Njahi (also spelled njahe) was a staple food of the Gikuyu of Central Kenya before the British arrived—it was native to the region, and its drought tolerance added to its appeal. Njahi was a significant figure in Gikuyu culture, holding a significant place in Gikuyu spirituality and being closely associated with fertility. “ninguka kuria njahi” (“I will come eat njahi”) was a phrase used to tell nursing mothers that the person saying it would soon come see the new baby. Jomo Kenyatta, a Gikuyu anthropologist (before he became a rogue of a president), wrote about how njahi was fed to girls before clitoridectomy.

Njahi was used for divination, according to British colonial writer Elspeth Huxley. Kirima Kia Njahi (literally “the mountain of njahi”), a mountain in Central Province, was thought to be one of God’s main dwelling places. Njahi cia Ngai (God’s njahi) grew on the mountain’s lower slopes. Mibura ya njahi (literally “season of long rains and njahi harvest”) was the name given to the rainy season.

The British, on the other hand, arrived later. “The colonial administration sought to impose on Kenya the British model of agriculture, including an approved list of crops to be grown at the exclusion of all others,” writes Claire C. Robertson in her paper “Black, White, and Red All Over: Beans, Women, and Agricultural Imperialism in Twentieth-Century Kenya.” One of the foods that had to be avoided was njahi. “Njahe had lost its supreme position in the Gikuyu district, due to its being limited to local markets,” W. L. Watt, the Central Province senior agricultural officer, observed in 1939.

The colonial administrators established a taxation system and introduced foreign bean species to the region, particularly French beans, which were intended for export. Gikuyu farmers shifted to producing beans for the export market because colonial markets did not accept indigenous bean varieties, and farmers needed to sell beans to pay British taxes, so they no longer cultivated beans like nyagaitho, nyakamandu, ndulei, kamuiru, and wamwetha.

Kenya now produces the most common beans in Africa, but the amount of njahi produced pales in comparison. Njahi is currently the most expensive bean type in Kenya due to its scarcity; while it remains a staple of the Gikuyu diet, it has been surpassed by other beans such as the borlotti, also known as the rosecoco in Kenya.

As a result, njahi is political by definition. However, the popular Kenyan comedian Njugush used this idea of njahi as a lesser bean, one that has been usurped by colonial beans, as part of his critique of the Kenyan government, its policies for enforcing Covid-19 curfews, and the country’s epidemic of police violence last year.

Njugush posted a video titled “Njahi: Human Beans Matter.” on June 2, 2020, during the height of protests in the United States over police killings. Njugush uses the clip to metaphorize police killings in Kenya and the United States. “Why do you despise poor people’s lives?” he inquires. “Kwa nini mnachukia njahi?” “Kwa nini mnachukia njahi?” —What is it about njahi that you despise?

As Njugush sees it, Njahi are ordinary people. The people of Njahi are poor. Njahi refers to the people who have been killed by Kenyan cops as a result of enforcing COVID-19 curfews, a tally that rivaled that of the virus itself in the early stages of the pandemic, even as leading politicians politicked and held massive campaign rallies for an election two years away. “Black beans matter!” chants Njugush at the end of the video. “Black beans are important!”

The Kenyan government’s response to the nationwide protests, as well as everything that has happened since in terms of police violence, appears to be, “No they don’t.” “It doesn’t matter if the beans are black or white.” To put it another way, njahi is going to be njahied.

Leaving aside Njugush’s metaphor, the njahi wars do matter, if the KOT is to be believed. Martha Karua is a njahi defender who ran for president of Kenya in 2013. “My queen @KaluhisKitchen defending us Njahi eaters is the only thing that matters to me rn,” one of Kaluhi Adagala’s fans puts it succinctly. (“You are very good Kaluhi, but njahi cannot be saved,” a Twitter user retorts, emphasizing the stakes of the situation.)

Despite our belief that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder (or, in this case, in the tongue of the taster), Immanuel Kant argues that we debate and argue about our aesthetic judgments in order to achieve a certain level of universality. Perhaps this is what the njahi wars are all about: a collective attempt to determine whether njahi is food or not. I’m not sure, but I’m sure Kant never imagined he’d be mentioned in the njahi wars of 2017-2021.

The njahi wars always pale in comparison to the zeal with which Africa’s largest food war, the jollof war, is fought. Ghana and Nigeria, the two jollof rice giants, compete for supremacy, each boasting about its jollof variant like it’s holy ghost fire. This is a war that Kenya has decided to join for some inexplicable reason, claiming that its pilau is superior to any form of jollof rice.

According to the rules of war journalism, a reporter must remain objective and refrain from taking sides in any conflict they are covering. However, this reporter isn’t unbiased. After all, this reporter is Kenyan and believes that pilau is superior to jollof.

As a result, this reporter made the decision to buy his own bag of njahi. He strolled into the supermarket and immediately noticed the beans, which were black flat ovoids with a white cap on the side. “Nipee njahi,” he said, as if this was something he’d heard before, perfecting the pronunciation and all.

The first time I cooked njahi, it was raining. The rain stopped as I was putting the beans on to boil. Returning to the living room, I sat down. I did whatever I wanted: read a book, watch TV, listen to music, etc. I was briefly perplexed when the air began to smell like the smell rain produces when it hits dust on the road after a particularly dry stretch. I realize the smell is coming from my kitchen after a few moments. On the stove was the njahi, which was boiling.

The boiled njahi is a dark brown color, and the white strips have turned black. I used a leftover recipe to cook the njahi after it had boiled: onions and tomatoes fried in vegetable oil, salt and pepper, a few chiles tossed in, and dhania (cilantro) sprinkled on top at the end. I was dead set on trying the njahi by itself. I scoffed when I told someone I was making njahi and she said she was 99 percent sure I’d hate it the first time I tried it. She stated that some tastes are acquired. When it comes to food, I don’t believe in acquired tastes. I tell her that this is just an excuse to justify bad food.

The njahi was served with steamed rice. The aroma of cilantro, chiles, and pepper was enticing. The njahi was consumed by me. It wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either. It had been…nothing. Its blandness was too much for me. The blandness of the njahi struck me, and I immediately thought of the other beans I had on hand, and wondered why I hadn’t made them instead. Njahi’s flavor reminds me of British food, and I’m curious what it means that the British themselves launched a campaign to eliminate it from the Gikuyu diet.

Finally, this reporter realized that the real reason for the njahi wars was that some people don’t understand that food is supposed to be tasty. And that the colonizers may have been correct about one thing.