The lady at the food stall in Forodhani Gardens does not understand the word ‘no’ – here, you either eat or are force-fed by the local street chefs. Back in medieval times, a traveller named Ibn Battuta noted the incredible hospitality of Zanzibari sultans, who not only opened their doors to a stranger, but also gifted him with slaves and food supplies for the journey.
Slave-trade once played a major part of Zanzibar’s darker history. It has not been forgotten, and the remains of former slave prisons stand here along with monuments to the victims of the ugly commerce.
But Zanzibar didn’t only trade slaves, it also traded spices. For most of us, spices are just ground and powdered mixes in containers sold at the grocery store. Here, in Zanzibar, spices are handpicked and served in many forms: dried, fresh, ground and mixed together. There is really no limit to what can grow here: ginger, cumin, turmeric, pepper, cardamom, chilli, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and vanilla. The latter is an extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive item to grow, because every flower must be pollinated artificially for the lack of natural pollinators. An organised spice tour of Zanzibar can introduce you to the world of smell and flavour on a walk-through spice plantations and by visiting local restaurants serving traditional food.
If there is one word to aptly describe Zanzibari food, it is ‘fusion’. Here, on this relatively small island, the original Bantu cuisine has been influenced from all around the world: starting with Arabic and Persian traders who came around in medieval times, followed by the Portuguese, the Indians, and the British.
Zanzibar mix is a typical street food, even for the busy crowds of Dar-es-Salaam. Fried potatoes, chickpeas, peanuts and other crunchy items are covered in creamy curry with cassava or potato chips, chilli sauce and coconut chutney. Zanzibari pizza is a typical snack found only on this island: a thin dough base is covered with chicken, beef or fish mix, eggs with pepper and onions, then cheese and mayonnaise – all folded into a rectangular-shaped delicacy. Everything about these ingredients screams ‘unhealthy’ but, who cares? Along that same vein is mayai – deep-fried potato chips in a circular omelet, covered in kachumbari – tomato and onion mix. Welcome to the world of exquisite Zanzibari junk food.
When it comes to meat, the locals eat primarily beef, mutton or goat. Sorpotel is a very popular Portuguese-Indian dish, prepared from boiled liver or tongue with mixed spices and vinegar. Boku-boku is meat prepared on skewers with chilli, tomatoes, onions, ginger and cumin, while mishkaki is marinated beef on a skewer served both in restaurants and from food stalls in the street.
The original Bantu cuisine was primarily seafood-based: all the dishes included mackerel, squid, lobster or tuna, cooked in one way or another. Nowadays, delicacies such as octopus with fried cassava and chilli tomato sauce, or octopus in coconut milk, with curry, cinnamon, cardamom, garlic, turmeric, coriander and lime juice (called mchuza wa pweza) can be easily enjoyed.
Rice, along with mangoes, citrus and coconuts, was brought along by the Arabs and Persians, and there are many ways to prepare it with vegetables, spices and all kinds of meat. It’s important to know the difference between pilau and biryani. Pilau is of Arabic origin, and to prepare it one must cook rice, meat, coconut milk, spices and nuts all together in one pot. Biryani, an Indian dish, includes cooked rice and meat or fish curry mixed together after they have been prepared in separate pots, and then coloured yellow with ground turmeric. Rice dishes are great with some of Zanzibar’s interesting salads, such as pickled pumpkin leaves.
Zanzibar is not too big on desserts, and even bananas are mainly used to prepare savoury soups. For those with a sweet tooth, there is a slice of spiced cake with cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and chocolate, or hazelnut and date bread, or mandazi – fried dough with cardamom. There is no shortage of fresh fruit; pineapples, mangoes, citrus and coconuts are not native to Zanzibar but thanks to the fusion of culture they have found their way onto the local market stalls. Zanzibar – only seasonally – also grows durian, one of the most controversial fruits of Southeast Asia. Some call it the king of fruits, some say that it smells like old socks. Nevertheless, like with any food, it’s always best to try before ruling it out.
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