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.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Manchester City's Etihad Stadium
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
  • Get to the point
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

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own