Zanzibar: Conscious Eating in Spice Island

Story and Photos by Rebekah Davis

“Chapati!” the kids scream as we snap their photo. Just like back at home, where I would say “cheese” and smile, these locals use a food word to make their lips turn up for a picture.

I am currently spending the Spring semester abroad in Zanzibar, Tanzania for a nonprofit management co-op with African Impact. I have the opportunity to get to know the locals while teaching free English classes to adults, doing ethical boat driver training workshops and sewing with widows. I love the slowness of the culture here, the beauty of the ocean and of course, the food.

Zanzibar has long been known as “Spice Island”, a name it owes to its historic abundance of crops. Agriculture is Tanzania’s top industry, thanks in part to its tropical climate and fertile soil. I had the opportunity to visit a Spice Farm and see the origins of all the local spices in my time here. The tour guide showed us three types of avocados with different colors and flavors, huge red flowers that hang down from bunches of bananas from a vine and green vanilla bean pods, the “queen of the spices,” that will be worth more than gold one day. He crumbled up a leaf from a flower, and we inhaled the sweet scent of lemongrass, which has always reminded me of Fruit Loops. We reveled in the scent of cinnamon as he shaved off a piece of bark. We were told of the healing properties of the turmeric plant, how it can be infused in tea to cure morning sickness and balm to soothe inflammation. The tips of my fingers were stained bright orange after grasping the plant to inhale its aroma. We saw cloves, the “king of the spices,” so desired around the world that Portuguese conquerors came to this island centuries ago so they could claim the spoils this lush nation offers. As we concluded the tour, we tasted a variety of fruits that grow on the plantation. The mango here is bright orange (I always think it’s papaya) and so incredibly sweet. The jackfruit tastes like bubblegum and leaves your hands sticky for ages. We enjoyed watermelon, oranges (which were yellow), pineapple, rambutan, red bananas and something called a custard apple which tasted like a liquid pear.

This tour showed me where the food I eat regularly originates. Every Wednesday evening, the volunteers and staff go to a local nursery teacher’s home, where she, along with her friends and family, cook us a lavish meal. This generates additional income for these women and gives us a taste of both local life and cuisine. We walk through the village just after sunset, which is challenging due to the lack of streetlamps and unpaved dirt paths. When we finally approach a stone house, we greet the teachers with an enthusiastic “Jambo!”. As we enter, we remove our shoes and sit cross-legged on a brightly covered mat on the floor. A woman will come around and pour water to clean our hands before eating. Then, we pass around cups of lemongrass tea. With no silverware in sight, we are mindful to only eat with our right hand, as is the custom here. I fill my plate to the top with sautéed spinach, coconut rice, bean stew and vegetable curry. We enjoy local dishes like viazi (potatoes in a tomato sauce), (cabbage salad), pilau (brown rice flavored with cardamom) and, my favorite, chapati, the prevailing bread here which is like naan but more flakey. We finish our meal with desserts like sikio (flakey sugary pastries), mandazi (fried bread triangles) and fruits like fresh watermelon and mini-bananas. Every week, we visit the home of a different woman with her own specialty dish.  Teacher Riziki makes delicious falafel made of potatoes, Teacher Miriam specializes in kachori (fried potato balls) and Teacher Muanaiddi makes decadent fried honey dough balls called Kalimati for a sweet treat. We sit in a circle in the dimly lit room, always exclaiming how full we are and how lovely the meal was. We rinse our hands with water once more and thank the women profusely for their hard work.

It has definitely been difficult adjusting to the cuisine here. I miss my cold brew coffee and almond butter, but I have never lived somewhere so truly “farm to table.” I avoid getting in the way of chickens who wander the streets that will lay the eggs for breakfast the next morning. We pass by the gardens and see the farmers picking the eggplant that will be made into curry for dinner, no pesticides in sight. It’s been weird not seeing a Starbucks on every corner, but I love the local living and the local eating here in Zanzibar. I don’t often check the labels on my mangoes to see where they were grown, and I buy plenty of food that comes in a neat, plastic package. Living here, so close to the origins of my meals has given me a new appreciation for the term “slow food” and all the time and effort that goes in to each delicious morsel.

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