A Taste Of The Cuisine Of Zanzibar And Tanzania

By: Ian Williamson

A question often asked is, "what type of traditional food should we expect when we get to Zanzibar?" Below is a small selection of what you may be offered. These examples of local dishes are eaten by the local people of both Zanzibar and Tanzania.

The original inhabitants of the Zanzibar Islands were African fishermen, who lived in villages scattered throughout the fifty or so Islands that make up the archipelago of Zanzibar. They survived on a diet mainly consisting of fresh seafood gleaned from the warm waters of the Indian Ocean surrounding these islands.

The diet of the local people went through a fundamental change in the ninth century with the arrival of the Persian and Arab traders. These traders built settlements along the coast of Tanzania and on the Zanzibar islands. In time these settlers integrated themselves into the African societies and left a wonderful legacy with their food. These settlers brought coconut palms, mango trees, citrus fruits, rice and all the spices we now associate with Zanzibar. Spiced pilau rice, one of the island's most common and delicious dishes cooked with coconut, nuts, and spices, is of Arab origin.

Pilau rice is the most traditional dish in Zanzibar which I have eaten at weddings, funerals and holidays. Sometimes when I have ordered this dish at a local restaurant I am told the order must be placed by how many kilos of rice I wanted them to cook. This spicy rice comes in a giant copper hour-glass shaped pilau pan. The best way to enjoy this dish is to sit in a circle around a large platter piled high with pilau, remembering, always, to use the right hand, and eat communally from the pot. This togetherness makes the meal even more of a social occasion, since not only do you get to spend time with friends gossiping and eating, but no one has to wash up.

My favorite accompaniment with this dish is a salad of slice onions placed in a shallow dish and marinated, for at least one hour, in lime juice, sliced chilies and sugar. This is served with thinly sliced tomato and cucumber and topped with chopped, fresh coriander.

The stiff porridge made from maze flour has many names throughout Africa and here in Zanzibar it is named Ugali. The maze flour is cooked with water into a stiff porridge, which is hard work. This is a staple diet for many Tanzanian's. It is eaten with your right hand and squashed into a ball, then pushing your thumb into the middle of the ball you make a spoon of the ugali ball and eat it along with the food scooped into the hole. This is especially nice with Mchicha. (see below)

Another favorite dish is sorpotel. The first time I tried sorpotel the chef refused to tell me what it was until after I had eaten it. This is because it is a stew of beef tongue, heart, liver and pork. The meat was so tender it melted in my mouth. It has a spicy kick to it but also a complex flavor that is unique from any curry or masala. If you are ever in Zanzibar, be sure to stop in CHIT CHAT and order the Sorpotel

Chips-my-eye, [Chips ], is a traditional dish here in Tanzania. It is egg and chips, but not your north of England two fried eggs and a side order of chips. It is a chip omelet. Chips are placed into a shallow frying pan and as they sizzle away two beaten eggs are poured over the top. This is then cooked into a solid omelet, stuffed with chips, and very nice it is too. It is not so healthy but give it a try when you visit Tanzania. It is far nicer than it sounds.

Mchicha is the champagne of the many Tanzanian types of spinach. Some of them require a little longer to cook than the western varieties but they all have an excellent taste ranging from the very bitter to the sweet. Mchicha is one of the most popular spinaches and has small oval leaves and thin stems that are very good with Ugali.

Most hotels are now serving a selection of traditional dishes. However, if you find yourself on the coast of Tanzania or in Zanzibar - speak to the local people and see where they eat.

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