Zanzibaris have perfected the art of taking any food and adding a blend of spices that turn ordinary into exotic. From seafood to rice, each popular dish brings the taste buds to life in the most delicious way.
— By John Jacobs
In Swahili, Zanzibar is called Unguja. Located in the Indian Ocean, it is an island that lies 22 miles off the coast of central Africa and is one of a group of islands, along with Tanganyika on the mainland, that form the United Republic of Tanzania. Zanzibar is believed to have once been part of the African continent, but Mother Nature had other ideas.
The tropical island is covered with coconut palms, tropical fruit trees, rich vegetation, patches of forest, grass-covered flat clay plains, and lots of fertile soil for gardening and plantations. It is the coconut palms, tropical fruit, fertile soil, and ocean location that led to a food culture that is inviting; warm; and makes you think of the beach, sun, and comradery.
Zanzibar, called the Spice Island, was an important hub on the Indian Ocean trade route for Arabs by the year 800, providing access to the East African mainland. It was Muslim Arabs who introduced citrus fruits, spicy rice (pilau) and meat dishes (biryani). In return, Zanzibar natives introduced coconut oil.
The Portuguese took control of trade routes in 1498 and were in charge until the Arabs regained control in 1698. The Portuguese introduced cassava and peanuts, and the Zanzibar inhabitants introduced oranges to treat scurvy.
East African slaves were brought to the island to cultivate cloves, but slavery was abolished in 1873. After that, the British and Germans battled to take control of Tanzania, but while doing so, introduced more food items. The British introduced boiled vegetables and tea, and the Germans established cotton and coffee plantations.
In 1961, Tanzania became an independent nation, but its varied past lives on in the food.
The Bigger the Pot
"The bigger the pot, the more rice will stick to it," says a Zanzibar proverb. To this day, rice is a staple food, but not just plain rice. Spices are always generously used. The array of spices include cloves, cumin, curry, cinnamon, vanilla, black pepper, coriander and hot peppers, many of which were introduced by the Arab sultans. Today, you can even take a "spice tour" of a local spice farm.
Though a staple food, rice is used in a variety of ways. Vitumbua are small sweet fried breads made with rice. Wali wa nazi is rice cooked in coconut milk.
Biryani ya Zanzibar is rice prepared with a rice variety of spices that include cumin, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves to create a distinctly Indian-Arabian food. It is then mixed with a meat or fish curry to create a culinary delight called biryani. How could your taste buds not jump for joy?
Wali na maharage is red beans and rice cooked with coconut milk and served with seasoned fish, meat, or vegetables.
Zanzibaris eat a diet that is naturally healthy because it is loaded with fruits (matunda) and vegetables. Matunda include plantains, bananas, pawpaws, coconuts, mango, oranges, breadfruit, and so much more.
Fresh fruit drinks combine fruits and spices, like mango juice with ginger. Juices are mixed together, too, like mango, orange and lemon juice.
In an honest confession, fried bananas and plantains are popular. The fruit is peeled, cut into quarters, dipped in lemon juice and fried in butter. Top the fruit with nutmeg or a spice of your liking, and you have ndizi. In Tanzania, the ndizi (fried bananas or plantains) are normally not cooked or topped with sugar.
Vegetables are abundant in the Zanzibari diet. They include beans, cassava, eggplants, maize, potatoes, and spinach, to name a few, but Zanzibaris also eat plenty of fish, chicken and meat.
When walking around and stopping for a pizza sold by a street vendor, you should get a pocket of dough filled with fish or meat, onions, cheese, peppers, and raw eggs and mayonnaise. The concoction is fried in oil and served with chili or tomato sauce.
Meat dishes use beef, goat, lamb or chicken. A street food called mishkaki is BBQ'd spiced meat on a stick. Combining Portugal and India flavours is sorpotel, a curry of boiled liver and tongue, spices, and vinegar. You can go decadent and add wali na maharage, a dish of rice cooked in coconut milk combined with red beans cooked until very soft, and of course, seasoned with numerous spices.
Seafood, as would be expected of an island, is the centre of many recipes, but Zanzibaris have created tempting unique recipes reflecting the ocean location. Take mchuzi wa pweza, for example. It is octopus cooked with coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, and cardamom and simmered in coconut gravy. The Tanzanian version of fish and chips is fried octopus and cassava. You will find the diet includes an enormous variety of seafood, including calamari, lobster, tuna, prawns, marlin, kingfish, barracuda and snapper.
Go Further out to Step Back in Time
Stone Town of Zanzibar is a UNESCO World Heritage site and offers many places to enjoy the cultural foods as one explores a culturally harmonized coastal trading town that has remained intact from at least the 1700s.
For a true food culture adventure, make a trip to the Alfeneseni Village (10 miles from Stone Town) where time has almost stood still. Here you can witness food prepared as it has been for hundreds of years. Coconut is grated by hand on a wooden grater and used to make sticky rice (wali wa nazi). It is also used in chicken curry (kuku wa nazi) and in coconut sauce served with a dish made of green bananas cooked with onions, peppers and garlic. There is fresh-pressed sugar-cane juice and deep-fried pastries (kachoris). Spices are used in red bean stew, coconut in potatoes and yellow lentils, and fish is fried.