Zanzibar, The Spice Island

Street Food By Marcus Samuelsson

Few places in the African continent show as strong an influence of the Indian Ocean and its historic spice routes as Zanzibar. This island, historically known as The Spice Island, shows not only historical immigration from the Persians and Shirazis, but also the Portuguese and Omani colonists and the Indian settlers that have occupied the island over centuries. It has traditionally grown cloves, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. The Persians used it as a trading centre between East Africa, The Middle East and India. So the food on the street, and at homes and even in the restaurants reflects centuries of global trade.

The best place to explore the evening street food eating scene is at the Forodhani Gardens in Stone Town, where stalls are set up as dusk falls and tourists and locals all gather for a feat. But you can also find things like coconut bread and samosa in almost any busy corner of town.

Walking by the harbor, on the street, I saw people selling a variety of fried fish, no surprise, considering Zanzibar's rich coastline. But I also saw something like the Arabic haleem, a thick porridge-like stew made with cracked wheat, cumin and other spices and melting soft chicken. Then there are kebabs, dozens of varieties cuts of meat, marinated in scores of spice mixes, skewered and grilled on open coal flames. Even if I had just one bite of each variety I saw, it would take many many meals to get a comprehensive sample. Octopus, lobster and squid are also served in similar preparations.

Under the gas lamp lit carts, they glisten with the many colors of their spice mixes, making it as much a treat for the eyes as for the palate. These are accompanied by starches: roasted cassava, banana and breadfruit. I also tried the Zanzibar "pizza" which is more like a the Indian stuffed, panfried bread called paratha. The flaky dough is stuffed with vegetables, meat and seafood and then fried on a large skillet. It's best to wash all of this down with some freshly pressed juice from one of the sugarcane stands.  Vendors add lime and ginger to it to make it especially refreshing and digestive. Then if you still have room for dessert, get a "chocolate banana pizza", essentially a crepe that is stuffed with fresh fruit and fudge-y chocolate sauce.

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