‘Spice: a cur­rency worth more than gold’

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

ow spicy do you like it? Add more, al­ways more. OK, enough!” said Bakari, our tour guide and cook, as I added a freshly ground mix of car­damom, cin­na­mon, black pep­per and turmeric to the cook­ing pot siz­zling on open coals. A wave of com­plex and taste bud-tin­gling fra­grances and aro­mas washed over me. I knew I had ar­rived in Zanz­ibar, the is­land of spices.

I couldn’t wait to tuck into this fish curry dish, with fresh in­gre­di­ents mea­sured not by the cup but by in­tu­ition. “Care­ful of your eyes,” Bakari said as he ex­pertly showed me how to make a paste from gin­ger, gar­lic and chilli in a wooden pes­tle and mor­tar. I closed my eyes and held the top of the pot shut while pound­ing the mix­ture, in or­der to avoid the hot sting of chilli.

This spice-filled cui­sine spoke to me, as I love us­ing these flavours cook­ing at home. Like Tim­buktu or Casablanca, Zanz­ibar was a name I had heard in my child­hood. It con­jured up vi­sions of mys­tery and ad­ven­ture where spices were a cur­rency worth more than gold.

Fast for­ward 30 years and there I was in the ru­ins of a sul­tan’s palace that looked like the set of an In­di­ana Jones movie, cook­ing up a Swahili storm on three coal burn­ers on a sandy floor with a bucket of wa­ter for a tap, a cou­ple of blunt knives and some metal cook­ing pots with han­dle­less lids, mean­ing as­bestos fin­gers were needed.

Apart from a large wooden cook­ing spoon and a knife for chop­ping veg­eta­bles and peel­ing pota­toes, our hands did all the work with­out need for kitchen tools. I won over my hosts by get­ting stuck in. My train­ing comes from my mother’s Filipino kitchen, where we never owned a sharp knife.

My teach­ers for the af­ter­noon – all of whom were in fits of gig­gles as I strad­dled the tra­di­tional seated co­conut grater in­stead of sit­ting more el­e­gantly side-sad­dle – in­cluded two lo­cal Swahili women, Salha and Mwana, who were head­ing up the class. As is al­ways the case with home cook­ing, my two Swahili male tour guides couldn’t help chip­ping in and giv­ing me their twopence (or should I say Tan­za­nian shillings) on cook­ing tech­niques.

Even “Mr Ru­ins”, the guardian of the Mtoni Palace ru­ins (the name means “place by the river”), got in­volved. He ex­plained that we were cook­ing in the burnt-out grounds of what was the old­est palace in Zanz­ibar, built as his pri­vate home by Sul­tan Said – an in­fa­mous his­tor­i­cal fig­ure who built his palace on the site of the for­mer home of an Arab trader be­lieved to have im­ported the first cloves to the coun­try. Sul­tan Said went on to build acres of clove plan­ta­tions in Zanz­ibar and the neigh­bour­ing is­land of Pemba, turn­ing the is­land into the big­gest ex­porter of “the king of spices”. It re­mains near the top of the league to­day, al­though Mada­gas­car and Sri Lanka have over­taken it.

Af­ter a fun-filled cou­ple of hours in­clud­ing try­ing to dress my part­ner, Nick, and I in the lo­cal kanga, or sarong, to match the ladies’ out­fits, the food was ready. We got down to the main event of eat­ing our Swahili feast – and it was divine. As our group tucked in with their hands, they told us how much bet­ter the food tasted with­out cut­lery.

The main dish – tuna curry – was served with del­i­cately spiced pi­lau rice mixed with slices of slow-cooked potato. We had bought tuna, veg­eta­bles and spices from a bustling and some­what over­whelm­ing mar­ket in Stone Town, the an­cient heart of Zanz­ibar City with its re­minders of the is­land’s slave trade his­tory. Un­like in Western cook­ing, which favours short cook­ing times, the tuna was boiled with the veg­eta­bles for al­most an hour, doused with co­conut milk and light­ened by squeezes of juice from the sweet­est limes I have ever tasted.

The rich curry was tem­pered by a re­fresh­ing kachum­bari salad of salted sliced toma­toes, red onion and lime eaten like a rel­ish. As side or­ders we had made deep-fried turmer­ic­bat­tered chilli potato balls ( urojo) as well as egg-wash fried potato and tuna “cut­lets” (fried pat­ties shaped like large cro­quettes, called ka­tles or katlesi), all mopped up with fluffy pil­lows of pan-baked sesame bread.

Oc­cu­pied in turn by Ira­ni­ans, Por­tuguese and Arabs (be­fore the Bri­tish stepped in and over­threw Sul­tan Said’s suc­ces­sor, in the short­est war ever – 38 min­utes), Zanz­ibar re­flects all these cul­tures plus a clear In­dian in­flu­ence from the spice trade. The spices that were once im­ported are now grown here on the is­land, from the Per­sian favourite cumin to the Thai clas­sic, lemon grass, not to men­tion the black pep­per favoured by Ital­ians.

The is­lands gained in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain in De­cem­ber 1963 and to­day thrive culturally, po­lit­i­cally and spir­i­tu­ally. There is a true sense of com­mu­nity in Zanz­ibar, where peo­ple greet each other on the street and life is slow-paced. There may be a beach club where you can cre­ate your own gin-and-spice cock­tails, plus a cou­ple of big ho­tel chains, but the towns and sur­round­ing vil­lages re­tain a feel­ing of old-world au­then­tic­ity.

My trip was made up of beau­ti­ful faces and char­ac­ters and gen­uine en­coun­ters – both at the Essque Zalu Ho­tel, where we were staying, and the places I vis­ited. I re­marked to our tour guide, Ra­madan (born dur­ing Ra­madan 30 years ago, and in­tent on telling us how hun­gry he was through­out the 90-minute cook­ing ses­sion) how safe and friendly the vibe was as we walked the streets of Stone Town or the vol­canic, rock-lined beaches. “You know ev­ery­one here,” we joked, as he nod­ded, shook hands and shouted “Mambo” (slang for “What’s up?” or lit­er­ally “is­sues” – as in, have you got any?) or an­swered “Poa” (cool) or “Freshi” (fresh, but with that Swahili-es­que “i” on the end).

“Well, I’ve been do­ing this for years,” he smiled as we walked along, “and I also teach English to all the lo­cal kids on week­nights.” This ex­plained why he had scrib­bled down with rel­ish my “Yummy, in my tummy” show of ap­pre­ci­a­tion dur­ing our ear­lier meal.

Yes, the trin­ket sell­ers and crafts­men in Stone Town bartered hard and were not afraid to ap­proach us with a sing-song “Jambo! (“Hi” or again “is­sues/How are you?”), “Karibu” (“Wel­come”) or “Look­ing is for free!” Equally pop­u­lar is the catch-all phrase that ev­ery­one loves from The Lion King: “Hakuna matata” (“No wor­ries”). The Maa­sai se­cu­rity guards we saw in tra­di­tional cos­tume, with their long staffs, seemed in­tim­i­dat­ing – but peo­ple were friendly to­wards each other and to tourists.

This meant I ended up buy­ing as sou­venirs great swathes of kitenge (the African cot­ton fab­ric in show-stop­ping colours and pat­terns) and kanga, which means “guinea hen”, on whose plumage the pat­tern of the orig­i­nal kanga cloths were based. Nor could I re­sist the wo­ven mats, bowls and bas­kets – and, of course, pack­ets of spices.

Our home for the week, the Essque Turquoise Hol­i­days (01494 678400; turquoise­hol­i­days.co.uk) is of­fer­ing seven-night stay at Essque Zalu from £1,995 per per­son, based on two peo­ple shar­ing. The price in­cludes half-board ac­com­mo­da­tion in a Gar­den Suite, a cook­ing class at the Mosha Cook­ery Stu­dio, a half-day Swahili food sa­fari (com­pris­ing a morn­ing visit to Stone Town’s mar­ket to buy in­gre­di­ents, fol­lowed by a cook­ery ses­sion with two fe­male Zanz­ibari cooks), re­turn in­ter­na­tional flights and pri­vate trans­fers.

Zalu Ho­tel, boasts the high­est and most im­pres­sive thatched makuti roof on the is­land. There I took an­other cook­ing les­son – this time with Rose Mosha, a tall, softly spo­ken Swahili lady who had ap­plied to work in the kitchens when the ho­tel first opened eight years ago. She had be­come so pop­u­lar with visi­tors that the ho­tel’s pre­vi­ous gen­eral man­ager cre­ated a cook­ing school on the prop­erty in her hon­our, call­ing it Mosha.

Head chef Anurag is her big­gest fan – he is from Mau­ri­tius but was fas­ci­nated by Zanz­ibar­ian cook­ing. His father had worked on sev­eral ayurvedic doc­u­men­taries and, in­spired by those and the spices en­coun­tered in his own home and on his trav­els, he has ex­panded his spice cel­lar to 90 va­ri­eties and is aim­ing for the world record of 500, all housed in the Mosha cook­ing school hut on the ho­tel prop­erty.

Rose was dressed in typ­i­cal “hospi­tal­ity kitchen” cos­tume of black trousers, black Crocs, a white chef ’s jacket and a bib apron. Ev­ery recipe started with two ta­ble­spoons of sun­flower oil, two of chopped red onions, one of chopped gar­lic, half a tea­spoon of turmeric and five ta­ble­spoons of chopped toma­toes as stan­dard. “Do the kids eat up all their veg­eta­bles?” I asked Rose. “Yes,” she said, “al­ways – but not green pep­pers. Well, they are quite bit­ter…”

The veg­eta­bles used in Swahili cook­ing in­clude lots of starchy tu­bers such as pota­toes and yams, as well as pump­kin, dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of aubergine, car­rots, toma­toes, green pep­per, green ba­nana and var­i­ous leafy greens. “Do they like chilli?” I asked. “Oh no, but they do like raw red onion.”

Don’t be put off by the word curry in Africa – just spec­ify that you don’t like too much chilli and you’re in for a com­plex, mouth­wa­ter­ing treat. This time we cooked up beef samosas, oc­to­pus boiled in fresh co­conut milk, spinach in co­conut milk, badeer, or “snack” – a kind of pakora or bhaji of deep-fried veg­eta­bles en­folded in a lentil bat­ter. To freshen it all up, there was that kachum­bari salad again, to­gether with some fresh co­conut chut­ney.

But the stand­out dish, for me, was green ba­nana curry. Less of a curry than you’d imag­ine, and more like a stew, it was sub­lime in its sim­plic­ity: green ba­nanas cooked in the “starter” sauté of gar­lic, onion and tomato, then aug­mented with co­conut milk. Here, old-fash­ioned over­cook­ing is de rigueur. Un­ripe ba­nana is ad­mit­tedly pretty tough,

Hem­s­ley, right; Essque Zalu Ho­tel, be­low

A street in Stone Town, above; a van of ba­nanas, right

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.