The Kikuyu were originally hunter-gatherers, but they gradually adopted horticultural practices. The first crops grown by the Kikuyu were cocoyams, sweet potatoes, bananas, and millet. The cultivation of crops was traditionally segregated by gender. Men cultivated yams and bananas, whereas women grew sweet potatoes and millet. Women also gathered a variety of wild spinachlike greens, tubers, such as arrowroot (taro), and berries. Sugarcane was grown and honey collected from hives in the forest for the production of beer. Maize was introduced early in the nineteenth century and has become a major staple crop. When it is used for domestic consumption, it is usually grown by women, but when it is sold as a commodity, it is more often grown by men.
Many foods have been added to the traditional crops of the Kikuyu. European potatoes, cassava, and rice have been added to the cultivated crops, as well as legumes, which include dwarf beans, cowpeas, pigeon peas, kidney beans, lentils, and garden peas. Today Kikuyu also grow cabbage, tomatoes, onions, carrots, kale, and swiss chard. They season their foods with salt, chili peppers, or curry. A great variety of fruits is grown in the area. In addition to bananas, these include passion fruits, mangoes, papayas, loquats, plums, pineapples, oranges, and avocado pears. Women and children especially enjoy fruits, which they sell in local markets.
Although Kikuyu were formerly hunters, Kenyan game laws prohibit them from hunting today. Meat of wild game (antelope, impalas, bushbucks) and from herd animals (goats, sheep, and African cattle) was the prerogative of men. Pork and fish were prohibited, and game birds and other fowl were eaten only occasionally; eggs were not a part of the diet. Women rarely ate meat and then only when it was handed to them by their husbands. Today meat is served only on special occasions—to celebrate a ceremony, such as Irua (circumcision), or to welcome an important visitor. Cash crops, such as tea, coffee, and rice, were not grown until the 1940s, and, in some areas of Kenya, much later, but they have become an important part of the economy.