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Ugali is a dish made of a thick mixture of cornmeal and water. It is generally the most common starch in African cuisine and forms the basis of many traditional meals. The dish is often used in African cuisine as an affordable means to stretch meats, vegetables, and other items, by making meals as filling as possible while using smaller amounts of more expensive or less available foods.
The process of preparing ugali usually begins by boiling water and then slowly stirring in the ground cornmeal. The exact proportions of hot water to cornmeal by vary depending on the cook’s preferred texture. For a traditional thick mush, common proportions may be two parts water to one part cornmeal. Once the cornmeal is mixed into the boiling water, the heat is usually reduced and the mixture is continually stirred for approximately 10 minutes or so to remove any remaining lumps and to allow it to thicken into a pliable texture. Some cooks may stir in butter, salt, or other ingredients to add a richer flavor to the cornmeal mush.
Since ugali is a basic starch without much of a distinctive flavor of its own, it tends to be versatile in what it can be served with. One common use of the cornmeal mush in African cuisine is as an accompaniment to stews consisting of meat or vegetables. The starch is often scooped into a bowl with the stew poured around or over it, allowing the mush to absorb the liquids and become more flavorful. It is also often served alongside greens or even simply with milk.
Ugali is not traditionally eaten with utensils. Since it has such a thick, pliable texture, the cornmeal mush is often eaten with the hands. A person may roll the mush into a ball to eat it on its own, or may press his or her finger into the ball to make an indentation. The indentation in the cornmeal mush ball allows it to be used as a makeshift utensil to scoop up meats, vegetables, and other foods.
Other regional cuisines have cornmeal-based starch dishes that are very similar to ugali and may be confused with one another or used interchangeably as a substitution. Italy’s version of the cornmeal mush is known as polenta and is often served alone or with sauces, vegetables, or meats mixed in. The United States, especially the Southern region, has a cornmeal-based starch known as grits that is often served as a side dish for breakfast. Mexico’s version, known as atole, is often made with a thinner texture and served sweetened as a hot drink.