The Zimbabwe Independent

The mysterious origin of Zanzibar pizza

- The article is part of Culinary Roots, a series from BBC Travel connecting to the rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage.

“Pole pole.” Slowly. Spend a few days in Tanzania and you will hear the Swahili expression more often than you can count — when you are trying to climb Mount Kilimanjar­o at a steady clip, perhaps, or anytime you need a nudge to remind you to enjoy the more languid pace of coastal life in the East African nation. In this particular instance, the words came courtesy of a food vendor at Zanzibar’s Forodhani Gardens night market — a gentleman who had anointed himself “Mr Nutella” — to caution me when I bit so enthusiast­ically into my piping — hot Zanzibar pizza that I singed my tongue and let out a yelp.

My eagerness to dig in was understand­able, considerin­g the years of anticipati­on that had culminated in this exact moment. I first heard about the curiously named Zanzibar pizza more than a decade ago, when a friend returned from a bush-andbeach holiday in Tanzania and regaled me with tales of evening feasts at Stone Town’s seafront Forodhani Gardens, the setting of nightly post-sunset street food extravagan­zas. A highlight, she told me, was the Zanzibar pizza, a greasy disc of dough stuffed with a hodgepodge of ingredient­s, which, when combined, suggest a patchwork of flavours and origins that rarely collide anywhere else in the world.

For years, I tried plotting a trip to this semi-autonomous archipelag­o in the Indian Ocean to try it for myself. The idea of this dish lodged itself into a corner of my mind and nested there ever since, inspiring a mild case of culinary fernweh, a pain to see far-flung places. Yet, instead of longing for a faraway place I have never been, I found myself craving a dish I had never tasted. The only thing I knew for certain: this pizza had no relation to any kind of pizza I have ever known.

“It looks nothing like Italian pizza and it tastes nothing like Italian pizza. Which pizza has mayonnaise or cream cheese?” Miriam Malaquias, a self-made Swahili chef and author of the Taste of Tanzania cookbook, asked with a laugh. Puzzling name and compositio­n aside, Zanzibar pizza’s ubiquitous­ness at Forodhani reveals just how beloved it has become by locals and tourists alike in recent decades.

Yes, there was dough and tomato and meat involved, but to label the concoction a pizza seemed to me to be a stretch. It was more like a stuffed crepe, and, unlike its Italian namesake, this pizza reminded me of mutabbaq, a savoury pancake I grew up eating in Saudi Arabia. Mutabbaq itself has origins in Yemen; at some point it was exported to Southeast Asia, where it’s known as murtabak. Could the Zanzibar pizza actually be a southward-immigratin­g relative of mutabbaq, I wondered?

To understand the existence of Zanzibar pizza, you must first understand the existence of Zanzibar. For centuries, Zanzibar’s strategic location made it a crossroads for the internatio­nal slave and spice trade, and the archipelag­o was vied for by global powers ranging from the Persians to the Portuguese to the Arabs to the English. Centuries of cultural cross-pollinatio­n have resulted in East Africa’s Swahili language, culture and cuisine, whose blend of far-flung influences mirror the region’s cosmopolit­an ethos today.

“Swahili cuisine is a mixture of the Bantu tastes, Arab tastes and Indian tastes, of all those cultures and the people who colonised us,” said Malaquias.

Centuries of adaptation­s have resulted in the Swahili Coast’s unique culinary repertoire: I sampled kuku paka (a rich chicken and coconut stew); pilau (the East African variant of the eponymous Arab and Indian rice dish is heady with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom); pweza wa nazi (octopus curry); chips mayai (a hefty eggand-French fries omelette), among others. While some of these dishes are unique to Zanzibar, others are ubiquitous along the Swahili coast in Kenya and Tanzania. Each bite conveyed a complex history, with ingredient­s long traded back and forth from Asia and Europe finding kinship on the Zanzibari plate.

But while many of these staples of East African repasts trace their origins to centuries-old kitchens along the Swahili Coast, it appears the dish I had arrived in search of is something of a recent upstart in Zanzibar.

“Nineteen-ninety-seven,” Farid Hamid said with remarkable precision, when asked about the first time he had heard of Zanzibar pizza.

And as far as how it got its name: “A young guy from (the Zanzibari island of) Pemba (working) at Forodhani was making this old street food recipe, but didn’t know how to explain it when people asked, and simply called it pizza. This guy started adding other ingredient­s, other people started copying and adding their own things.”

Today, each stall offers sweet and savoury spins, ranging from octopus or chicken mozzarella to mango or Nutella or banana-chocolate. In the two decades since its introducti­on to the market, the pizzas have become the hottest-selling item.

The pizza may be a relatively new addition to Zanzibar’s culinary lexicon, but its origin story reflects that of local standbys with much older histories. Mixing and matching flavour profiles from neighbours and itinerant traders then adding their own spin is how Zanzibaris have eaten for centuries, after all. The pizza, it seems, is merely a more contempora­ry epicurean progressio­n.

The pizza Mr Nutella served me that day lived up to everything I had imagined it to be: the perfect compositio­n of blistering achari and soothing cheese, all comminglin­g with perfectly seasoned ground beef. It’s a rare treat when expectatio­ns and reality collide so effortless­ly. So, you will understand why I was unable to eat it pole pole.

 ??  ?? Stone Town’s Forodhani Gardens market is filled with vendors preparing freshly made Swahili cuisine.
Stone Town’s Forodhani Gardens market is filled with vendors preparing freshly made Swahili cuisine.

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