- Beth Ellis & Bryan Santos
Dinner in Zanzibar
Zanzibar City is famous for its street food, and Forodhani Gardens in Stone Town is home to a bustling night market where you can feast on all sorts of fried food and barbecued meats. Perhaps the most famous street food is the Zanzibar pizza; while the food is not totally unrelated to what we think of as pizza, it’s a bit like calling a Nutella crêpe a “Parisian pizza”, or equating aloo paratha to “Indian pizza.” In fact, the story of its name is simply that when one street vendor was trying to explain the dish, he said it was, “like a pizza,” and the name just stuck. Puzzling nomenclature aside, it’s a delicious food, and by far the most popular food at Forodhani Gardens. It is emblematic of Zanzibar itself - an amalgam of ingredients and spices from far-flung places, all cooked up in one deliciously famous package. The stuffing in the pizzas is limited only by the imagination of the cook (one tourist was positively rapturous about the combination of Laughing Cow cheese and coriander with minced beef), but if there is a traditional version, it is the one we’ve made here - spiced minced beef, fresh chopped tomatoes and peppers, a dollop of mayo, a cube of cream cheese, and an egg. All of this is piled and scrambled atop a flaky paratha dough which gets tucked (much like a galette), the whole thing is fried on both sides, and… voilà - the Zanzibari pizza! (Contains gluten, egg, dairy, soy.)
Pilau (Spiced Coconut Rice)
Pilau is another quintessential Zanzibari dish, capturing the essence of Zanzibari cooking - inexpensive ingredients flavored with coconut and spices. Coconut milk is an ingredient in the vast majority of Zanzibari cuisine - its mild sweetness and creamy texture are a signature feature of many dishes. Polow originated in Persia (modern day Iran) in 330 BCE, and now shows up in various iterations in Greek, Arab, Armenian, Indian, Caribbean, and Eastern European cuisines. (See our write up on peanut chicken perloo and the Gullah Geechee people of South Carolina!) It’s likely that the concept was brought to Zanzibar with the Arabs, and the addition of coconut milk and spices made it the truly Zanzibari dish we’ve cooked for you here. The spice mixture (masala) can vary a bit, but it always includes at least cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves - the spices for which Zanzibar is famous. Pilau is always served with kachumbari, so definitely try these together! (Contains dairy; vegetarian, no gluten.)
Mchuzi wa Kuku wa Nazi (Coconut Chicken Curry)
This stew is a traditional Zanzibari dish, and the Indian (and notably Gujarati) influence is impossible to ignore. In fact, the same can be said about Swahili food in general - from biryanis, to chutneys, to samosas (and music - Zanzibaris are keeping old Bollywood alive!). The chicken is braised with not one, but two typically Indian masalas - garam masala and tandoori masala - that include coriander, cumin, cloves, mace, fenugreek, black pepper, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, and nutmeg. In typical Swahili fashion, it is finished in a rich tomato and coconut cream sauce with caramelized onions, and the end result is a curry much like a north Indian shorba, but with the Zanzibari coconut milk flavor and texture. (Contains soy; no gluten.)
Mchicha wa Nazi (Spinach with Coconut Cream)
There is a long list of greens that are prepared with stews and curries along the Swahili coast. Often, the greens are swaddled in banana leaves and cooked directly on top of the simmering stew, relating the two dishes in a brilliant way. The greens are generally prepared in one of three ways - with tomato and onion, with peanut butter, or with coconut milk. The deceptively simple preparation we’ve made here combines spinach with tomato, onion, rich coconut cream, mild serrano chilis, and a hint of cumin. If you’ve never been a fan of cooked spinach, this dish might just change your mind! Mchicha actually refers to amaranth, which is difficult to come by in the US, but is related to spinach, which is wonderfully easy to procure here! (Vegan, no gluten.)
Kachumbari (Tomato and Avocado Salad)
While this ubiquitous Zanzibari dish is called a salad, to Westerners, it more resembles a relish or a salsa. No matter what you call it, it’s delicious, and it adds a bright and fresh component to this meal. It’s the only dish on the menu that does not contain a complex mix of spices, and it’s perfect that way! There are several variations on this salad, but at its most basic, it contains tomatoes, cucumber, onion, and lime; in this version, we’ve also included avocado (parachichi), which is often treated as a fruit in Zanzibar and included in regular fruit salads. We’ve talked about the origins of the tomato, the coconut, the cucumber, and the avocado before, and this salad, while devoid of spice, is an encapsulation of Zanzibar’s geographic location on global trade routes. These fruits and vegetables all originated elsewhere, but traveled the globe on the ships of explorers, merchants, and colonizers. Eventually, they have become staple ingredients in the cuisine, though they may be prepared differently than in their country of origin. (Vegan, no gluten.)
Pilipili ya Embe (Mango Chutney)
Pilipili is “pepper”, and embe is “mango”, so literally, this condiment is called “peppers with mango.” It’s part of a group of condiments in Zanzibar called achali, or chutneys. Almost every meal is served with one or a variety of achali; some are sweet, some are savory, and some are just fiery hot! This mango chutney bears absolutely zero resemblance to the perhaps-familiar Major Grey’s mango chutney, the salty-sweet, chunky, jam-like condiment often paired with beef in Britain. This mango chutney is smooth, sweet, bright (in flavor and in color!), and spicy - it’s made with ripe mangoes, habanero peppers, vinegar, and lime. Mango trees are indigenous to India, but quickly travelled around the ports of the Indian Ocean, and now grow all over coastal Tanzania. (Vegan, no gluten.)
Kashata za Njugu (Cardamom Peanut Squares)
Though a plate of fresh fruit is the most common way to finish a meal, sweets are served as snacks at any time of day in Zanzibar; should you decide to try this during the day (or if you’re feeling especially reckless!), have it with a cup of dark black coffee. Kashata is a favorite sweet in Zanzibar, and often made to celebrate Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan. It is a sibling to the Indian treat called burfi, which is much like fudge - there are infinite variations of a sweet and syrupy liquid, pressed into a tray to cool, and then cut into squares to enjoy. Swahili kashata uses milk powder in lieu of the condensed milk in burfi (and in fudge, for that matter), and it is lightly flavored with cardamom. Peanut kashata is but one of the many variations. Peanuts originated in South America, but took a world tour with Spanish explorers, and eventually ended up becoming a staple ingredient in many African food cultures. (Contains peanuts, dairy; vegetarian, no gluten.)
With an abundance of local fruits, it’s no surprise that freshly squeezed juices are ubiquitous throughout Zanzibar and the Swahili coast. Mangoes, bunga, passion fruit, avocado, guava are just a few, but our absolute favorite is tamarind juice - the refreshingly cold drink is perfect for a hot summer day and the sweet and sour nature of tamarind is a perfect complement to the richness of the coconut sauces. Tamarind is native to sub-Saharan Africa, grown from Cameroon and Nigeria in West Africa to Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa. From here it was shipped all over the world and now the Indian Subcontinent is the main producer of the fruit. You can find tamarind juice in Latin American or Indian grocers throughout Ann Arbor (such as Tienda la Libertad and Patel Brothers) or try making your own. Just soak either whole tamarind pods (de-shelled) or tamarind paste in water (½ lb of tamarind per quart of water), boil, strain and add sugar to taste. Make sure you drink it ice cold!
Nearly all Zanzibaris practice Islam, so alcohol is not a common aspect of Swahili culture. That said, under British colonization cocktails such as gin and tonics were used to prevent malaria (the quinine in tonic is a natural anti-malarial native to the cinchona trees in Peru) and thus the concept of the “sundowner,” i.e. happy hour, became a daily ritual for colonialists, government officials, and traders. In fact, “dawa” means “medicine” in Kiswahili. The dawa cocktail we know today was actually invented at The Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi in 1980, modeled after the Brazilian caipirinha, but the cachaça was replaced with vodka and local honey. Fast forward to the massive tourism boom in recent years and it is the signature cocktail in Kenya and Tanzania, although most agree that the best are found in Zanzibar due to the quality of local limes. Check out our “Featured Recipe” section to make your own Dawa and put on our Dinner in Zanzibar playlist (or maybe some Queen - Freddie Mercury was born in Stone Town, Zanzibar!), since it’s best enjoyed with music and a sunset.
Twenty-two miles off the coast of Tanzania, in the Indian Ocean, lies the archipelago of Zanzibar, comprising several islands, only two of which are significantly populated. The biggest of the islands (Unguja) is usually referred to as Zanzibar, and its capital (Zanzibar City) is home to almost one quarter of Zanzibar’s population. While Zanzibar is part of the United Republic of Tanzania, it operates independently of the mainland, and its culture is quite different, due to a long history of foreign influence and the shifting sands of power.
The history of Zanzibar has been defined by the monsoons (monsoons being the seasonally reversing prevailing winds, rather than the deluge of water they can produce) that brought ships to and from India and Arab countries bordering the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Its location in the path of these trade winds, along with its cultivation of precious spices, historically meant that control of Zanzibar translated to great wealth. It has been a center of Indian Ocean trade since prehistoric times - there is evidence that merchants from Persia first arrived here at the beginning of the first millennium. The first permanent settlers from Africa (Bantu-speaking people from the region of what is now mainland Tanzania) arrived around 1000 CE, and the intermingling of Bantu and Arab culture is what defines the Swahili coast, which includes the coastal regions of Tanzania, Kenya, and Mozambique.
While the monsoons are what made Zanzibar a central trading location, Zanzibar’s history also has been indelibly shaped by the spice trade (Zanzibar is also known around the world as the Spice Islands); its cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper (among others) were all more valuable than gold at one time in history. While the spice trade sounds quite romantic, Zanzibar was also the main hub of the horrific East African slave trade, whereby Africans captured by Arabs on the mainland were traded and transported to North Africa and the Middle East. As the Arab spice plantations on Zanzibar grew larger, many slaves were also kept to work on Zanzibar (see the link in the resources below for more history of the East African slave trade).
A succession of colonial powers occupied Zanzibar for almost 500 years, from the Portuguese in 1503, to the Arabs in 1698, to the British in 1890. During Arab rule, Zanzibar became the seat of the Omani sultanate, and to this day, Oman wields great influence in Zanzibari culture and politics. A violent revolution in 1964 led to the overthrow of the sultanate, and Zanzibar incorporated with newly independent mainland Tanzania (then called Tanganyika) under the flag of the United Republic of Tanzania. A history with so much turbulence, though obviously not easy, has led to a rich and multilayered culture, and the people of Zanzibar are fiercely proud of their triumphs and struggles.
The food of Zanzibar is similarly multifaceted - indigenous ingredients, layered with combinations of spices, ingredients, and techniques that are clearly derived from cultures all around the Indian Ocean. Biryani, curries, chutneys, and samosa from India; spices, coconut, citrus, and rice from the Arabian Peninsula; salted fish, manioc, maize, and pineapple from Portugal. Tourism is a central (though fairly recent) industry in Zanzibar, and most tourism is centered around the white sand beaches, luxury resorts, and historic Stone Town. The food concept marketed to tourists is that of endless tables of seafood, lush tropical fruit, and savory street fare. While it’s true that these are important parts of Zanzibari cuisine, there is much complexity to the traditional food. Staple foods include rice, maize, beans, sweet potatoes, cassava, and plantains, while spice combinations are endless. Coconut, bananas, plantains, pineapple, and mango flourish in the tropical climate, so they are common ingredients as well. Since this is Muslim Africa (almost all Zanzibaris adhere to Islam, while only one third of mainland Tanzanians do), there is no pork, but meat otherwise eaten includes beef, chicken, goat, and duck. Ugali (a grain porridge that is shaped into a loaf) is eaten daily, though usually with lunch, while rice, plantains, and cassava are more common with dinner.
This meal is a perfect lens through which to consider the globalization of food, the embrace of new ingredients and spices and recipes, and how sometimes those recipes, ingredients, and spices might lose the context out of which they were born. The turmeric, cinnamon, and cloves that inhabit our spice cabinets? They were once more valuable by weight than gold (we said this above, but it’s worth repeating)! The shift from that not-so-long-ago time to today’s ease of purchase is incredible, and only possible through this history (good and bad) of merchant trading, colonization, migration, and wind patterns. So before you sit down to enjoy this delicious meal, take a moment to marvel at your spice cabinet - it is jam-packed with history. (And be thankful that we don’t have to plunk down a pile of gold bullion in the Meijer self-checkout line in order to buy vanilla for a birthday cake!)
Featured Recipe: Mchuzi wa Kuku wa Nazi
(Coconut Chicken Stew)
Makes 4 servings
2 lbs chicken (any cut of bone-in, skin-on chicken you prefer)
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tbsp garlic paste
1 tsp black pepper
1 tbsp tandoori masala (available at Patel Brothers)
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp garam masala
1.5 tsp salt
2 tbsp lime
4 tbsp canola oil, plus more to fry the onions
2 red onions
4 plum tomatoes, pureed
2 cups coconut cream
Lightly score the chicken so the spices can permeate. Add the ginger paste, garlic paste, the spices, salt, and lime. Let marinate for 3 hours.
Place the chicken and marinade in a dutch oven, set it over low heat, and cook the chicken. It will release its own broth, so no need to add water. Let it cook until the broth has nearly evaporated and the chicken juices run clear (about 185F on a meat thermometer when inserted close to the bone). This will take 30-45 minutes depending on the chicken. Reserve and set aside. Peel off the chicken skin if you prefer.
In a separate pot, heat about 2 inches of oil. Add the onions and cook until fully caramelized and brown (but not blackened). This will take about 30 minutes. Reserve and set aside on a paper-towel lined baking tray.
In another pot, add 4 tbsp oil and set it over medium heat. Add the pureed tomatoes. Cook the tomatoes until oil separates. Then add the thick coconut cream. Cook until the sauce thickens, about 10-15 minutes.
Add the cooked chicken to the sauce and a bit of the chicken stock, to taste, and cook for 5-10 minutes. The stock will be salty and spicy, so add a little at a time and taste after each addition. Right before serving, fold in the fried onions.
Featured Recipe: Dawa Cocktail
Makes 1 serving
1 tablespoon sugar
6 ice cubes
2 ounces vodka
Honey to taste
Cut the lime into quarters and place them inside a lowball glass. Add the tablespoon of sugar and muddle the mixture with a stick until the sugar is moist—but be gentle so you don’t extract too much bitterness from the peel of the lime.
Add at least 6 ice cubes to the glass. Pour two ounces of vodka over the ice. Dip the stirring stick in honey, then lightly stir it into the drink. Honey is a garnish in this cocktail. You don’t want the drink to become too sweet.
Recipes Inspired By:
The amazing cookbook meets travelogue In Bibi’s Kitchen has countless recipes from Eritrea down to Madagascar
Nessa is an expert on Swahili food who has written books, appeared on TV and now has an amazing blog with some truly spectacular recipes!
Not sure how I stumbled upon Lizzie Resta’s thesis, but her paper “Traditional Zanzibari Recipes” is fascinating
Finally, and most importantly, we want to shout out to all the Zanzibari Aunties on Youtube! Some particularly great channels are Zan Tasty, Rukia Laltia, Ika Malle!
An excellent article explaining how the monsoon winds shaped trade routes around the Indian Ocean.
Fantastic photos of the early monsoon dhows that merchants sailed around the Indian Ocean.
More information on the history of East African slave trading.