I was very fortunate a couple of years ago to be invited on a trip to Zanzibar, or ‘Spice Island’ as many visitors call it. As a food writer and journalist, you take every opportunity to expand your knowledge of what food, exotic spices, and culinary wonders that any country can offer you.
Zanzibar is part of the Tanzanian Archipelago, and as such, its gastronomy is a mix of African and Indian, but there is a smattering of European influence, particularly Italian. The capital is Stone Town, a vibrant market town where shops and street traders have an amazing array of spices, vegetables and fruit – some of which I was new to. There is also a plentiful supply of game fish, some so large you wouldn’t believe your eyes! You can avail yourself of bonito, swordfish, marlin, but you won’t find anything that relates to old fashioned fish and chips!
Residents are mainly of the Islamic religion, so cuisine tends to be heavily based on vegetarian foods, but the addition of spices really brings the dishes to life. ‘Spice for Life’ is my motto!
My favourite spices
For the best selection, you need to go to Stone Town where the array is far larger than some of the smaller markets dotted around the island. Spices were originally introduced into Zanzibar by Portuguese traders who had ventured to India and the Americas, intrepidly increasing their market. They can now be found widely grown on the island, and you can visit ‘shambas’ (spice farms) to really see, taste and smell the depth of the produce found.
Expect to experience spices such as pepper, cardamom, vanilla, turmeric, cumin, nutmeg, lemongrass, cinnamon and coriander – coupled with fruits such as papaya, coconut, jackfruit (great for a vegetarian burger), cassava and the ever-present oranges. If you take an official tour, you will be treated to a delicious lunch and a taste experience of how to use the different spices. It’s well worthwhile and delicious at the same time.
But the best experience of all, and totally unforgettable, was taking a cookery class with two delightful Zanzibar ‘housewives’ – personally, having always cooked both professionally and at home using loads and loads of spices, a revelation occurred during the class!
Does turmeric whet your appetite?
Cooking with the ‘wives’
The first thing that springs to mind is how spoilt we are in the Western world. Most of us are able to afford labour-saving kitchen gadgets to make our lives easier. Not so here – I must have lost pounds in weight with the effort of making everything by hand! But, I have to say, if you make that effort, the flavours really sing and can be a lot more potent than putting them in a blender or spice grinder. You release so much more flavour from the oils contained.
Our venue was the Mtoni Palace ruins, one of the historical sites on the island. There was no real ‘kitchen’, we cooked in the grounds of the ruin – a startingly new experience for me. No cooker as such, just some charcoal burners placed on the floor. We ground cumin, coriander seeds and crushed lemongrass and turmeric, enough to feed everyone there – and there must have been around 15 people including giggling Swahili watchers and guides. They seemed to find me amusing!
We made a huge pot of Coconut, Sweet Potato and Lemongrass soup and a Fish Curry (The fish was somewhat indiscernible…). Everything seemed to start with onions and garlic, but that’s ok, I love them both. What I couldn’t quite understand was the length of time everything was cooked for – must have been a couple of hours. Behind us, was a huge basket of fresh limes, which were used to finish off both dishes.
Despite the absence of modern equipment – the flavour of the dishes was absolutely incredible. Our hosts made the accompanying sesame bread. I found myself mopping up the soup and the curry sauce until I thought my tummy would explode!
The next day my hands and wrists were aching from the effort, so a leisurely stroll through the market to buy souvenirs and sit down for another Zanzibar lunch that I didn’t have to cook, was most enjoyable.
Zanzibar and its people taught me that using whole spices and making an effort to grind them down, was infinitely better than powdered, packaged spice. I am sure that once you get used to it, your hands do stop aching.