With Swahili, Omani, Persian, European, and Indian influences, Zanzibar remains a testament to the colonial powers that infused its culture with a distinctive blend. Melissa Moubarak tastes the flavours of the Spice Islands.
“She is a famous actress in Dubai and London, but is visiting Zanzibar anonymously, so please, we would appreciate some privacy” I hear Daniela tell the barman. But of course, that only caused his ears to prickle and he then became intently curious about this mysterious actress, trying to guess her identity, asking about her movies, and whether she will take off her glasses after sunset. To which Daniela responds with a “No Comment”. This is all part of an elaborate charade we have concocted together. The actress in question is yours truly. On our first night out in Zanzibar, I had decided to dress in a silky sarong I picked up on a trip to Srilanka. Rich in tones of turquoise and gold, matched with a golden bandana and oversized sunglasses; it looked quite glamorous for the narrow labyrinths of Stone-Town’s alleys. Our hotel receptionist asked Daniela in hushed tones whether I was a celebrity – some of them have been known to grace the island’s shores – and we spontaneously got in on the game.
Personally, I felt more like a Sultana from 1001 Nights than a movie actress, seated on large, colourful floor cushions, behind knee-high tables. The Emerson on Hurumzi hotel, where we came for dinner, is a former merchant’s home, built in Omani-inspired architecture; its terrace is arranged in an Arabic style diwan. Each of the rooms we visited on our way up the steep steps conjure images of Arabian tales, forbidden romances, and lush lives. Stained-glass windows and wooden latticework throw mysterious patterns over marbled bathtubs and oriental rugs, while vast mosquito nets are draped over carved four-poster beds. At 6:30pm, the sun is setting, like clockwork, every day of the year, since we are so close to the equator. Its shadow turning the reddish hues of Stone Town’s distinctive coral stone, to a deep brown. The motley roofs are a fascinating sight as we sip Dawa cocktails made with honey, lime and Konyagi, a molasses-flavoured Tanzanian spirit. In the background, the calls for Maghrib prayer intensify our Arabian Nights fantasy.
In fact, until the 19th century, Zanzibar was part of the Sultanate of Oman, later being re-branded as the Sultanate of Zanzibar. It fell under English colonial rule in the early 20th century and became a semi-autonomous region as part of Tanzania as recently as 1964. Its location meant it was an entrepot to the African interior for Indians, Persians and Arabs, all of which left influences in Stone Town’s architecture, especially its waterfront buildings. But my mind was wandering and I returned to reality when our host for the night, dressed in a long pattern-covered robe, asked if he could pour rose water on my hands to wash them before dinner was served.
Course after course, the meal was served, convivial and relaxed. From the menu names you could already tell we were on track for a culinary and sensorial journey. The dishes drew from Zanzibar’s rich and fresh seafood, but then the fusions began. Zanzibari cuisine deconstructs the essences of African, Indian, Persian and Arabic dishes, then re-constructs them as one. So for starters, we were having a crab Badia with coconut chutney and Baba Ghanouj. The coconut milkiness lifted the crab’s light meat, while the Baba Ghanouj added a satisfying thickness to each bite.
Zanzibar is one of the world’s foremost producers of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper; earning the title of Spice Island. Our tour of a spice farm during the day had introduced us to some interesting facts about these prized and flavourful treasures. Such as the use of nutmeg as a female aphrodisiac, or cloves being chewed as toothpaste. It brought a new perspective to our meal, as we thought of the roots, literal and figurative, of the spices seasoning our food. Their aromas tinged the night air, pilau mixes jostled for the palate’s attention, while sprinkled saffron elevated the entire taste, the ginger waiting until the end to kick in.
To truly transport us into the lands of fables and legends, we were serenaded by a troupe of Swahili Tarab singers. This mellifluous sung poetry originated in the Arab world but was introduced to Zanzibar in the 19th century, whereupon it was swiftly adopted and adapted. I could barely contain my surprise at hearing a familiar tune, but instead sung in Swahili and accompanied by a sitar.
Entranced, we made our way back down the alleys of Stone town, passing by curio shops filled to the brim with bric-a-bracs of wooden gadgets. Our hands stroking the relief of elaborately carved wooden doors; engraved in mahogany and teak, or adorned with brass handles. A short stroll later, we reach the coast again, debouching at the Forodhani Gardens, a waterfront public park where the food market is set up each evening. In contrast with Hurumzi’s refined elegance, the stalls are an assault to the senses. Raw fish and meat are proudly displayed on the stalls, patiently waiting to be chosen then grilled or fried on the spot. This is where you’ll get grilled cassava sprinkled with chilli, beef kebabs (mishikaki) topped by mango slices and coriander, or honeyed dough balls. I couldn’t eat another bite though, so instead, I opted to wash down my dinner with freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, spiced with a hint of ginger.
I am not one to exaggerate, and I can say I’ve had my fair share of exotic meals in places far far away, but nothing comes close to Zanzibar’s legendary cuisine. And like a character in 1001 nights, I would gladly cross valleys, climb mountains, and swim oceans to have another bite of that pilau rice stuffed, saffron sprinkled aubergine.
Tanzania’s dry season is from June to October, expect temperatures in the mid-30s with high humidity.
Emirates Airlines flies to Zanzibar via Dar Es Salaam starting AED 2,500.
Emerson on Hurumzi 236 Hurumzi, | P.O Box 3417, Stone Town, Zanzibar City, Tanzania