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Spice Essentials For Your Kenyan Kitchen: A Comprehensive Guide

In this post, we will go through everything common from spices, herbs to seasonings, that I know of and discuss the use cases and establish if they really deserve a space in your precious Kenyan cabinets or pantry. 

Spices are affordable, you keep them for convenience so that you don’t have to go to the supermarket when the recipe misses one of them, also they keep for long without going bad. The same thing applies to sauces and condiments (well except for the affordable part).

To be honest, I have some ridiculous weird spices some I can’t pronounce that I shouldn’t be having but I just got them for the thrill.


1. Spices

2. Herbs

3. Seasonings


(A) Pure Spices:

Just a heads up, you are probably gonna learn more Swahili today, than you ever did in the entirety of your school curriculum; well, unless you are from the coast. 

The featured spices are majorly from the Tropical Heat brand, this is however not a sponsored article, nor am I affiliated with them; it’s just that I personally prefer their spices.

Related: Test Taste: All 6 Tropical Heat Crisps Flavors Ranked 

You can get the exact quality packaged spices from other equally good brands like Royco, Nature’s Own, and Orley’s.

The New Royco Spices
The New  Royco Spices

The following are the common spices in Kenya;

1. Onion Powder

Made by dehydrating and grinding dry red onions. Not to be used as a replacement for fresh onions, use it to complement their flavor by increasing the depth or thickening soups and curries.

Onion Powder
Onion Powder

2. Garlic Powder

Just like Onion Powder, Garlic Powder is made by dehydrating and grinding garlic cloves. Anti-caking agents are then added to prevent clumping. 

These additives don’t seem to work since my garlic jar is normally clumped all the time. Used to complement fresh garlic but cannot act as a substitute since fresh garlic is more intense, and flavorful. 

Garlic powder is just better for convenience. The Swahili name is ”Kitunguu Saumu”

Garlic Powder
Garlic Powder

3. Cumin

Used in almost all spice blends and masala, cumin is one of the most versatile spices. Can be bought either as seeds or ground seeds. The Swahili name is Jira/Jeera/ Kisibiti

It is a staple in making stews, soups chili, pilau, and even dressing salads. Cumin generally adds warmth to the dish and improves digestion.

Cumin Powder
Cumin Powder

4. Turmeric

This is a colorful bright yellow-orange root spice. So colorful that I hate it for staining white utensils. I know I said cumin was versatile, I meant in the cooking world. 

Turmeric is on another level of versatility; It is not only used as a spice for flavor but also a natural food coloring giving your food that appetizing bright color.

 Use in soups, curries, rice, fish, and vegetables. The Swahili name for Turmeric is ‘Manjano’ which is literally its color(Orange)

It doesn’t end there for culinary uses, it also offers traditional medicinal uses and for good skin health when used as a mask. 

The anti-inflammatory compound it contains called curcumin, helps with managing acne.

Turmeric Powder
Turmeric Powder

5. Cinnamon

Cinnamon is a spice derived from a tree bark. It is so aromatic and has sweet notes to it, there are different types of it, and has been used all over for culinary and medicinal purposes. 

You can get cinnamon either in a ground form or in rolled sticks. Go for the sticks to get more intensity of the cinnamon goodness. 

The sticks can be activated by rubbing them together, soaking them in water, or toasting them. Swahili name is Mdalasini ‘

Cinnamon Powder
Cinnamon Powder

Use cinnamon for pastries(mandazis and cinnamon rolls), soups, hot chocolate, and even coffee. 

Related: Mandazi For Beginners Recipe: No Milk, No Eggs

Related: The 9 Popular Instant Coffee Brands in Kenya: Worst to Best

Just don’t add it to your coffee in the presence of a coffee snob, those guys will literally curse you for adding sugar to coffee what do you expect of cinnamon?

6. Cardamoms

Green Cardamons
Green Cardamons

In case you were wondering what makes mahamri’s special, and 10x better than Mandazi’s, cardamom is the culprit! 

Cardamom, just like cinnamon is available in whole or ground form. Unlike cinnamon, cardamon is in pods and not sticks or barks. Swahili name is  iliki ‘

For culinary, it is used in baked goods, salads, puddings, and tea. Since I’m a baking noob, I use it mostly for tea. 

Cardamom tea is heavenly, I promise you. However, the spice is more on the pricier side, costing thrice the average of others.

7. Nutmeg

Nutmeg Fruit
Nutmeg Fruit

Has one of the most complex flavors in my opinion, so just use a little as it tends to overpower and colonize the dish. 

Just like 1/2 a banana when added to a smoothie of 12 fruits, at the end all you will taste is a banana smoothie. Swahili name for nutmeg is kukumanga

Use it for curries, soups, stews, pastas, and in bakery and pastries. It gives depth and complexity to the dish it is incorporated into. 

Nutmeg just like Cardamons is mad expensive, a 50g jar goes for over KSh 235.

8. Coriander

Coriander is ‘Dhania’ in Swahili. You may be familiar with fresh coriander leaves also known as Cilantro by Americans, as it is so commonly used in sautes, and garnishing. Coriander in a jar, however, is from the seeds of the plant which are ground.

Corriander, Ground
Corriander, Ground

Use coriander for soups, stews, beans, and meat dishes. You are not limited to these, just explore. It gives off a good aroma that stimulates the appetite for the dish.

Coriander leaves act as an herb and ground coriander acts as a spice, so yeah they have different uses and can’t be substituted just because they are from the same plant

9. Black Pepper

It is widely used to the point where the word pepper means black pepper, despite being like 5+ pepper types. It is known as ‘Pili Pili Manga’ in Swahili. 

It comes from dried fruits known as Black Peppercorns which are dried and packed. Sometimes the corn is ground to a powder. 

However, I insist you get the peppercorns with a grinder; to get more fragrant and spicier pepper, since ground pepper degrades on exposure to air to a point where it just tastes like stale ash.

Black Pepper Corns in Grinder
Black Pepper Corns in Grinder

Use in meat dishes soup, eggs, and salads, I think it is used anywhere where salt is used. Salt and pepper go together just like sushi and chicken legs.

10. White Pepper

This is just black pepper but with the white privilege, jk. It is still known as ‘Pili Pili Manga’  in Swahili, looks like they ran out of names. 

In the defense of Wahenga na Wahenguzi, black and white peppers are both derived from the same plant just that they are processed differently.

White pepper is more processed and thus tends to be more expensive than black pepper.

White Pepper, Ground
White Pepper, Ground

Use in meats, soups, eggs, and salads. I tend to use white pepper where I would need black pepper but would love to maintain the dish color for example in rice and scrambled eggs, this is my pepper of choice.

11. Chilies

Made from drying and grinding chili peppers. Known as  ‘Pili Pili ya Kusaga’ in Swahili. Not only used for flavor and spice heat but also for color enhancement. 

Unlike Turmeric with a bright orange color, ground chilies make the dish more reddish, infact deep red.


Use in meat, vegetables, eggs, rice, and everything just like how you would use any other pepper.

12. Cayenne Pepper

Not to be confused with a Porsche Cayenne, I mean the car is spicy, and so is the pepper. 

Swahili’s name is ” Udaha ” Cayenne is so similar to Chilies that you can’t tell a difference if they are laid side by side. 

Cayenne is slightly hotter in terms of heat levels, more vibrant red in color, and intense flavor-wise.


Use it to generally season anything you want that spice peppery kick in. Just don’t use it on hot beverages please, don’t ask me how I found out. 

13. Paprika

Made by drying and grinding bell peppers or capsicums. Has a mild flavor and the smoked version with the signature smoky flavor is my favorite. 

Known as “Pili Pili Hoho” in Swahili the hoho part distracts, as it reminds me of Santa’s laughter. Also, it has a pili pili name and it is not even spicy, actually not spicy at all, it is just peppery and smokey.


Use as a garnish for deviled eggs, omelets, scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes soups, salads, coleslaw, and sauces.

14. Ginger

Reminds me of Stoney soda, my soda choice as a child so as to act tough and intimidate my fellow kids who drank fruity Fanta’s. 

The Swahili name of Ginger is ‘Tangawizi’ Ginger powder is made by dying and grinding ginger plant roots. Belongs to the turmeric family.

Ginger is used in everything I can think of from hot beverages to soups, curries…you name it. 

You can even make ginger ale the beer, but I wouldn’t trust powdered ginger for that; solubility issues Yeah, Science! and just that fresh ginger has more oomph to it.

Ginger Powder
Ginger Powder

(B)Masala Spices

Masala, derived from the Indian language, refers to spices. Masalas are typically spice seasonings from a combination of specific spices, carefully blended in specific ratios to create a distinct flavor profile when used in particular dishes. 

Some of the Masala Spices
Some of the Masala Spices

This is why a Fish Masala, for example, will have a different composition than a Beef or Chicken Masala, as each blend is tailored to bring out the unique flavors of a certain dish.

  •  Pilau Masala: A spice blend used to prepare Pilau or Pilaf a flavorful rice dish cooked in spices and meat; beef or chicken. The blend constitutes: Cumin, Black Pepper, Cinnamon, and Cloves 

Also Read: The 5 Best Pilau Masala Brands in Kenya

  •  Tea Masala: A spice blend used to prepare Masala Chai an aromatic spicy milk tea. The blend constituents include Ginger, Cinnamon, Cardamons, Cloves, Black Pepper, and Nutmeg.
  •  Garam Masala: Translates to “Hot  Spice” from Indian. Used in soups and curries to bring out aroma, and sweet and savory flavors. The blend packs the following: Star Anise, Salt, Ginger, Bay Leaves, Black Pepper, Cloves, Cardamon, Cinnamon, Coriander, and Cumin Seeds. 
  •  Dhana Jeera: Doesn’t have masala on its name but it sure fits the description of a masala. Just two major spices; coriander and cumin seeds. Majorly used to thicken soups and as a garnish.
  •  Fish Masala: A spice mix of all spices you would need in preparing fish
  •  Chicken Masala: A spice mix of all spices you would need in preparing chicken
  •  Beef Masala: A spice mix of all spices you would need in preparing beef 
  •  Githeri Masala: It is at this point that I realized there is a masala for everything under the sun. This was my high school essential and I would get this before toiletries or anything when shopping. It somehow transformed the boring boiled student’s githeri into a Staff-room Grade githeri. I don’t know how it did it, but it just did it.
  •  Curry Powder: Same as Garam Masala in the constitution only that turmeric is not in Garam. Curry powder gives the orange-yellow color thanks to turmeric. Curry powder is so versatile that it works in any dish you prepare as an all-purpose masala. If you don’t wanna mess around with all the spices and masala in this list, and you just want one jar, then I would recommend curry powder.

Also, Read: The 3 Best Curry Powder Brands in Kenya

Curry Powders, Tropical Heat & Simba Mbili
Curry Powders, Tropical Heat & Simba Mbili
  •  Mixed Spices: Generally a blend of common spices and can be used in a wide range of dishes. Normally contains; Cinnamon, Coriander, Nutmeg, Cardamons, Cloves, Ginger, and more. Swahili name is ” Mchanganyiko wa viungo “This would be your other substitute for curry powder if you don’t want the yellow coloring

Other masalas include; Tandoori, Chaat, and Biryani

You are not limited to the above, you can always make your own custom masala and give it your name, or adjust the ratios of the existing ones to your liking.


Rosemary Sprigs
Rosemary Sprigs

Fresh herbs will always be superior to dried ones. Get potted herbs from your supermarket and grow them on your kitchen window for a continuous and constant fresh supply. 

Most are low effort in maintenance and you can get away with watering once a week.

1. Oregano

An herb native to the Mediterranean region and cuisine. There is a Greek and an Italian version of this. The Dried version is more concentrated while the fresh is milder and is used as a garnish or in salads.

Dried Oregano Leaves
Dried Oregano Leaves

Dried rubbed oregano is by far my favorite and almost the default herb of choice whenever I want the unique aroma and flavor. Use it in Italian cuisines for pasta, pizzas, soups eggs, and curries.

2. Bay Leaves

Whole leaves dried or fresh are used for aroma enhancement. Flavor-wise, not that much just a mild flowery taste. 

Dry Bay Leaves
Dry Bay Leaves

The whole leaf is thrown into the pot cooked with the food to infuse its flavor and taken out upon cooking completion. 

Use for anything from stew, sauce, or curries, and it especially shines in cooking rice, just add it alongside water and let it cook with the rice for a unique flavor profile.

3. Untouched Mint 

Mint Plant
Mint Plant

This is one of those things I bought and never used, I mean mojitos call for mint leaves but fresh, not dried.

Mint adds a refreshing and cooling element to cold drinks, like sweet teas, lemonades, and cocktails. Can also be used in soups and stews and sometimes in Indian cuisine.

4. Thyme

A strong herb with an intense aroma from The Mediterranean and is related to oregano. 

I mostly use this for searing steaks alongside Rosemary sprigs in melted butter. It creates both an appetizing aroma and flavor.

Dried Thyme Leaves
Dried Thyme Leaves

5. Rosemary

I only knew rosemary was for steaks till I tried rosemary tea. It is so herby and good. Rosemary has needle-shaped leaves and is soooo fragrant the most fragrant herb when fresh. 

Dried Rosemary Leaves
Dried Rosemary Leaves

Use for meat and poultry products or anything you are grilling for that appetizing aroma and woody flavor.

6. Basil

Belongs to the mint family and is the holy grail in Italian cuisine. Fresh basil leaves would literally change and define your standards for spaghetti, and all Italian cooking; or at least they did for me.

Read: 5 Best  Pasta & Spaghetti Brands in Kenya

Sweet, a little minty, and peppery. Use it to make pesto,(a traditional Italian sauce made by pounding fresh basil with garlic) and pizza toppings.

Dried Basil Leaves
Dried Basil Leaves


1. Salad Seasoning

A mixture of the following spices, herbs, and salts is used to garnish your salads: Paprika, Black Pepper Oregano, Parsley, Garlic, and onion. You can make your own to balance out the constituents to your liking.

2. MSG

Is a flavor enhancer with natural umami the fifth sense of taste after sour, sweet, salty, and bitter. MSG adds that salty flavor without making your food salty like normal salt would if that makes sense

It is not that common in Kenya and is hard to come by. Sometimes available at Carrefour supermarket.

MSG Kenya

MSG stands for monosodium glutamate and it has been a center of controversy for the past years. It is extracted from an amino acid called glutamic acid that is naturally occurring in certain foods.

It is a staple in Asian cooking, and it makes everything better from eggs to steaks, mashed potatoes, and even soups. It is the King of flavor according to Uncle Roger on YouTube.

If you can’t find pure MSG, it is available as an ingredient in other seasonings like Aromat discussed below.

3. Royco

 Royco is a Kenyan seasoning brand offered in Mchuzi Mix or in Cubed Form. Mchuzi mix is powdered, while cubes are solid cubes that require crumbling upon use.

Royco Beef Cubes
 Royco Beef Cubes

It is essentially a mix of flavor enhancers, spices, and salts. Use it for anything stews or vegetables especially Sukuma Wiki. 

Royco comes in handy whenever I need beef or vegetable stock which I usually don’t have. Dissolve Royco cubes in water and I have the stock ready!

Royco cubes are offered in either Beef(Red) or Chicken(Yellow) flavors. Royco Mchuzi Mix is offered in Beef, Chicken, and Ginger-Garlic-Tomato flavors.

4. Knorr Aromat

Knorr Aromat Original Seasoning
Knorr Aromat Original Seasoning

This is a seasoning that contains MSG and corn majorly among other ingredients. Aromat is a multi-purpose seasoning however, it shines for me in Sukuma wiki and egg dishes.

(Update: August 2023)

The very Aromat pictured above(Original Seasoning) has been recalled and is no longer available for purchase. 

The reason for the recall is probably along the lines of MSG and GMO corn used in the seasoning.

There is another version that has a green lid instead of a red one, and it is disappointing… I wouldn’t recommend it. 

It is advertised as No MSG, which is the entire reason I personally get seasonings.

Aromat is offered in Original Seasoning( not anymore), Chili Beef, Cheese and Peri-Peri

5. Knorr Cubes

Knorr beef chilli cubes kenya

Knorr cubes are in many forms, the green and yellow packets. The green ones are beef flavored and make the best Sukuma Wiki ever, you can experiment with other veggies.

The yellow packets are further divided into  Beef, Beef Chili, and Chicken Flavors. I think these are self-explanatory from the naming. 

Beef chili is a spicier version of the standard beef.

Knorr Beef Chilli Cubes
Knorr Beef Chilli Cubes

6. Maggi Star Cubes

Maggi cubes Kenya

Maggi is a brand by Nestle, not so common in Kenya despite the cubes being available forever. They are a bouillon seasoning and work just like the other cubes. 

They have a distinct taste and flavor profile, try them and you might just love them, but for me personally…nothing special, they are a Nestle product.


Keep in mind whatever you need will depend on the cuisine. If you are not a home cook or cheffy, you can go as basic as; just curry powder or any multi-purpose seasonings and you have all spices in one container.


Which is the best spice brand in Kenya? Tropical Heat is the best and the one I would recommend, The price is slightly higher than other brands but the value offered is totally worth it.

Where should I buy spices in Kenya? You can buy pre-packed spice jars if you need small quantities, say less than 100g. 

For bulkier quantities, I recommend shopping from Indian spice shops to get even fresher spices and for way cheaper. These shops are common, especially in Ngara and Parklands neighborhoods of Nairobi.

Should I buy whole or ground spices? Whole spices are the best since you grate or grind them whenever you need, you get a more intense flavor and aroma compared to the stale pre-ground alternatives

The only reason why ground spices exist is the convenience of use.

What spices can I add to tea? You can do individual spices like ginger, cardamons, cinnamon and cloves. Or you can use tea masala which is a blend of most of the spices but in ratios

What spices can I use on mandazis? Cinnamon and cardamon powders

Can I use spices on chapatis? No, it is not recommended to add anything to chapatis as it will ruin the texture

Is MSG bad? No, MSG is naturally occurring and it is just extracted from foods like sugarcane and tomatoes, it hasn’t been linked to any side effects from research despite there being numerous myths about it.

Read More from Category: Guides & Reviews

Essentials: Pantry & Fridge Staples in Kenya

Review: The 6 Best Green Groceries in Nairobi

Explore Tropical Heat Spices (External Link)

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