Globe-trotting gastronomy: Sampling Zanzibar's culture melting pot of dishes

 

When I was last in Zanzibar, it was both just as I remembered it as a child and not at all. Today the old spice island is a hip holiday destination with posh hotels along its scenic coast. But I knew it when it was assuredly itself, not having to wheedle moneyed foreign visitors, who fly in and out and soon forget. Thankfully, underneath the tarty make-up, old Zanzibar is still there, just. With so many layers of occupation, it's a wonder it hasn't sunk to the bottom of the sea.

The Bantu were the first settlers; then, in the 9th century, Arabs and Persians turned up. The Arabs started clove-farming using black slave labour. The isle has seen bleak times. The Portuguese arrived next and fought winning and losing wars with the Arabs, until finally skulking off. Indian merchants sailed over, Chinese travellers dropped in. The British took charge after slavery was abolished and German rule cowed the place for a short while.

Each nationality left its mark. Coconut palms were introduced by Hindus; the Portuguese brought avocados, chillis and cashew-nut plants from Brazil. Ancient travelogues describe Zanzibari rice, ghee, groundnuts, cassava, wild fowls, pulses. In 1505, a Portuguese sailor noted that besides honey, maize and meat "Zanzibar produces sweet oranges, lemons, pomegranates and sugar cane". Quite a bounty.

My mum was sensual, loved food and perfumes, films and music, and Zanzibar, the place of fabulous food, scents and secret delights. She saved up all year and took me there so often that its sea, smell, sounds and culture got embedded deep in my psyche. I speak the local language, Swahili, and as soon as I land, I feel as if I've not been away.

We used to take a ferry over from Dar es Salaam. First the shoreline came into view, white houses with carved Arabian balconies, then smells wafted over. We stayed at a holiday hostel for widows and other needy women and their children. The sea air was considered a necessity for good health. Each family got one room and several mattresses. Food was delivered by local women from the mosque, who cooked in their kitchens every day and then sold it to holiday-makers. Tiffins were brought over by the servants and we paid hardly anything for the most extraordinary grub. You can still get these tiffins. I ordered one when I was last there. On the beach my very British daughter scoffed 'pek bateta – boiled new potatoes halved, sandwiched with a hot red paste and fried in batter, eaten with date ketchup – and masala fish eaten with bread, ending with jugu cake made with flour and unpeeled groundnuts, an exoticised Victorian sponge.

Some posh hotels do serve authentic Zanzibari food. In one I ordered ndizi na kastad, a favourite when I was a chubby young child: bananas in soft yellow custard with cinnamon and nutmeg. At the Serena Hotel in old Stone Town, as the sun sets they have local musicians playing their instruments and singing Swahili laments while fabulous snacks are served – lentil fritters, fried cassava, small mince patties served with coconut and coriander chutney, spring rolls and halva. Paradise would be dull in comparison.

All these goodies and more are also made and sold in Forodhani Square, the bustling, noisy evening meeting place for locals. Though intensely Muslim, Zanzibar has not yet been Saudi Arabised and so men and women mingle here, modestly attired of course. Mishkaki – skewers of small pieces of barbecued mutton – are still as good as decades back, only now instead of chipped enamel bowls, they are served on paper plates. Addictive cassava crisps are fried in great big vats of hot oil, sprinkled with salt and chilli. Sometimes you find corn-on-the cob with a thick peanut sauce, which you must suck fast if you don't want it to drip over your clothes. Then there is the famous Zanzibari "mix", a tangy soupy sauce with lentil dumplings and other stuff eaten with a spoon; it looks like dishwater and leftovers – until you taste it and are blown away.

I have left the best till last. If ever you are there, find a place, not fancy, which serves Zanzibari kuku paka and meat pilau. The first is chicken cooked in coconut; the second, rice, potatoes and meat cooked in a single pot eaten with kachumber – finely chopped onions and tomatoes and fresh chillies. The rice dish was first described by Ibn Battuta, the global explorer, back in 1324 and should never be eaten with cutlery. When I die, I hope my family makes a huge vat and serves it to mourners, a homage to the loveliest of islands where I spent the happiest of days.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor