Italians have pasta, Russians have borscht, and Americans have cheeseburgers and cherry pie; traditional foods can be found in every culture, and the 120+ ethnic and tribal groups living in Tanzania are no exception.
To a westerner, though, traditional eating for the Maasai may seem distinctly unorthodox. That’s because a traditional Maasai diet not only includes, but primarily relies upon, both cow’s milk and cow’s blood.
In Maasai culture, cattle are highly valued. The size of your herd indicates your status in the community, and accumulating animals—rather than consuming them—is common practice.
That means that milk plays a huge role in a traditional Maasai diet. Drunk raw (or soured), drunk in tea, or turned into butter (which is especially important as a food for infants), milk is a part of almost every meal for Maasai herders.
Raw beef is also consumed, but much more fascinating (and possibly a little off-putting to the western palate) is the tradition of drinking raw blood, cooked blood, and blood-milk mixtures.
Blood is obtained by nicking the jugular artery of a cow precisely, allowing for blood-letting that doesn’t kill the animal. Mixed blood and milk is used as a ritual drink in special celebrations, or given to the sick.
Of course blood and milk aren’t the only things Maasai eat; the diet has always been supplemented with tubers, honey, and foraged plants that are most often used in soups and stews. More recently, Maasai have supplemented their diet with grains and maize-meal (and of course many modern Maasai live an urban lifestyle, with the more varied diet that entails). They still play an important role in many Maasai meals, however; for example, ugali (a thick maize-based porridge that serves as a staple food throughout Tanzania) is generally served with milk in Maasai households.
A pair of Ingri, traditional Maasai gourds used to hold milk.
By Omondi (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Though a diet made up of primarily animal proteins might sound like a heart attack waiting to happen, Maasai that consume a primarily traditional diet are emphatically healthy. Studies going as far back as the 1930s showed almost no diseases or cavities among Maasai tribesmen, and more recent studies on Maasai warriors showed no signs of heart disease, and cholesterol levels about half as high as the average American’s. The absence of negative heart effects is so pronounced, it’s led some researchers to posit that the traditional Maasai diet has led to very localized evolution in the Maasai people, such that they’re better-equipped to process animal fats. Interestingly, Maasai that have moved into cities, where they are eating diets with higher levels of sugar and grains than a traditional Maasai diet contains, show much higher rates of heart problems.
Today, dwindling herd sizes mean that blood plays a less important role in the Maasai diet than it once did. That may make it easier for a westerner to stomach the idea of a Maasai dinner…but it means missing out on one heck of an eating adventure.