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Why is my Omena bitter?

fresh sardines

What makes omena bitter, and how to have tasty sardines

Omena is a  major delicacy in Kenya and a staple food in Luo Nyanza, especially around Lake Victoria.   The English name for omena is sardines. They are a tiny nutrient-rich type of fish that is often sold dried in Kenya but canned elsewhere.

Why people hate Omena

I first came across omena during my first year at Moi University. They were very popular at the University which is not very far from the lake. People would identify them with their pungent smell that threatened to make entire hostels inhabitable. They were very popular among the Freshmen., and my friends said they were very bitter.

In my second year of study, I met a friend from Migori who offered to teach me how to make omena not bitter. I had never tasted sardines in my life, but detested them due to the negative reputation they carried in campus. People said they were a poor man’s food. Anyway, I accepted Dan’s offer and so one evening he came to my room to show me how to fry these tiny little things. One of the most unique things about omena is that it is eaten whole, though some people try to remove the head or eyes.

After following Dan’s method, I fell in love with omena and I’ve never looked back. Actually, when I’m run down, I just fry some omena and I’m back to life.  However, it still had some bitter taste and made the entire house smell for days. I could not make it without a proper headcover to protect my hair from the pungent smell…until August 2020.

Finally, I find out why omena is bitter

I had gone for a function in Western Kenya and decided to steal some time to visit Kisumu. Naturally, I love fish and will not waste any moment to get a few pieces especially from the Lake. Fresh Tilapia is a unique  Kisumu dish, just the same way coconut Tuna (una wa kupaka) is a unique Mombasa delicacy.

So after buying a few pieces of Tilapia, I started looking for Omena. Omena here seems to be quite expensive, but I decide to buy these fresh ones from the lake.

Three types of Omena

There is a female dealer who has three baskets with portions of omena. One is gray in colour, another one golden, and the last one is golden with a hint of gray. They all taste differently.

The taste of omena is mainly determined by how it was handled after harvesting. Once you harvest it from the lake, you can either fry it immediately, sundry for a few hours then fry it later in the day, or sundry the whole day then fry the following day.

The one that is fried immediately retains the gray colour and is the most preferred type around Kisumu, because it has a very delicious taste. The one that is sundried for a few hours then fried is in between – golden with a hint of gray colour – and has some bitter taste. The one that is sundried the whole day then fried the following day is golden in colour. People in Kisumu use it as chicken feed because it is very bitter.

How much tasty omena costs in Kisumu

bitter and not bitter omenaI learn that the gray one, which she agrees to sell for 350 shillings per gorogoro (a 2-kg tin )is the one for stew, and the golden one, which is going for 250 shillings, is for chicken.

Chicken? I am stunned. But she responds that the golden one is very bitter as it is first sundried before it is fried, and that makes it taste bitter.

She also goes on to explain the third portion was fished the previous day, was sundried and fried with oil the following day, also making it bitter.

I buy the fresh omena which is gray in color and to my astonishment, it is delicious and ready to eat.

This is the first time I am eating omena that is not bitter. I buy several gorogoros and go my way, knowing that omena does not need to be bitter. So, if you are wondering why omena becomes bitter, here is your answer. If you want tasty omena, get it fresh from the lake and deep fry it as soon as possible, just like you do the fresh Tilapia.