How would you like your meal, sir? Reclining on a cushion and gazing over the rooftops of the ancient Stone Town? Bobbing gently on the deck of an ocean-going dhow as the sun sets behind the sultan’s palace? Or perhaps stretched out in the shade of a palm tree, watching the fishermen dragging their catch up the beach?
From scraps of cassava roasted over charcoal, to cauldrons full of aromatic pilau rice served up at lavish weddings, food is consumed with gusto everywhere in Zanzibar and her sister island, Pemba. The islands’ famous spices combine with hundreds of fruit varieties and a wealth of fish and seafood to create a uniquely delicious and distinctive cuisine little known in the rest of the world.
It should come as no surprise that Zanzibar’s cuisine offers a bewildering array of tastes, flavours and textures. The island’s position on the edge of the Indian Ocean has brought visitors from other lands since time immemorial – Persians, Chinese, Arabs, Indians and many more have all sailed their vessels into Zanzibar’s harbour over the centuries, bent on trade and sometimes plunder. And with these strange visitors came new ways of eating – heaps of glass noodles from China, sweetmeats from Arabia, spices from India. Zanzibar’s cuisine, like its language, is a mix of ingredients from all over the world.
But Zanzibar doesn’t owe its magnificent culinary heritage just to visitors from overseas. Situated just a few degrees south of the equator, it luxuriates in a tropical climate and soils so fertile that, as the locals say ‘you can plant a stick in the ground and next day you’ll have a forest’. The different fruits, vegetables and spices introduced by merchants and traders all flourished in this rich, fecund environment and were soon incorporated into Zanzibar’s agricultural life. Clove trees, for example, were introduced from Mauritius by the Omani sultans in the eighteenth century, and have since flourished to become Zanzibar’s main crop. Their rich, perfumed taste pervades many of the pilaus and biryanis found on the menus of Zanzibar’s hotels and restaurants.
The Portuguese, too, introduced food crops gathered on their earlier voyages of conquest and discovery – maize, cassava, cashew and jojoba trees, avocado, guava and pineapple, whose Swahili name, nanasi, shows its origin in the Portuguese ananas. Another vital ingredient in Zanzibari cooking is the coconut. Since it takes up to 10 years for a coconut palm to mature, it makes sense that nothing is wasted and every part of the tree is used. Young, green coconuts are sold on the streets from the front of bicycles, slashed open on the spot by the vendor’s machete so that the sweet, infinitely refreshing juice inside can be drunk at once. The white inner flesh is scraped and pounded with a special wooden implement, then squeezed through muslin with water to create the rich, sumptuous coconut milk so vital in all Zanzibar’s curries and rice dishes.