In the village of Alfeneseni, outside Zanzibar, an east African island popular with holidaymakers for its pristine white shores and soothingly warm turquoise water, I watch as Kazija Haji and her sister Bahati Omar prepare vegetables, rice and fresh coconut on an ancient-looking grater called an mbuzi. This, they add to the chicken curry (kuku wa nazi) for our lunch. The food is mildly spiced and fragrant – ginger, a hint of turmeric, black pepper, and, as with most meals, begins with a cup of sweet chai – cinnamon, ginger and cardamom spiked tea.
Much earlier in the day, in the city, we have small cups of kahawa, black coffee infused with cardamom and served with kashata – caramelised peanut snacks. While distinctly Zanzibari, in the broader context, food from the Swahili Coast that runs from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique and technically refers to a strip of the deep harbours in southeast Africa comprising littoral Kenya, Tanzania and the upper part of Mozambique, shares many commonalities. The warm water Indian Ocean islands of Zanzibar, Comores and Pate form part of this region too.
While Waswahili (“people of the coast”) refers to an ethnic and cultural group of people, like Kazija and Bahati, who reside in the Great African Lakes Districts, the language KiSwahili is a national language of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is spoken across several more regions too. With its roots in the Bantu language, Kiswahili took shape with the arrival of the Arab traders from around the 2nd century AD.
By the 11th century AD Swahili culture was defined, along with the rise of Islam. The Swahilis adhere to the Muslim faith and it’s entrenched in all aspects of life from architecture to dress code – woman wear modest, but colourful patterned kangas with headscarves in matching materials, music, art and of course, food. Consequently, pork and alcohol are taboo in Swahili culture.
Swahili cuisine reflects in some ways the long history of conquest and occupation along the east coast by the mighty seafaring nations of the time – the Portuguese, the Arabs and the British. Arabic and Indian influences, the latter from immigrants and traders who arrived on the coast, bear the strongest influence on Swahili food, though on the whole, food of the East coast of Africa is sometimes referred to as bland.
This certainly isn’t the case in Zanzibar, where Swahili culture is dominant. Once famed as the spice island, Zanzibari cookery contains dishes flavoured with cloves, ginger, pepper, some chilli and fresh coconut. While the spice plantations cultivated by the Arabs are largely defunct today, apart from a handful used in the tourism industry, these were once invaluable in the spice trade route and at a time, around 1812, even overtook Indonesia’s production when Zanzibar became the largest clove producer. Ginger, black pepper, lemongrass and cinnamon were also introduced by the Arabs and after the demise of the slave trade the spice plantations buoyed the island economically, for a while.
Coffee is referred to as kahawa, reflective of its Arabic roots: “gahwa”, similarly flavoured, is often served with dates in Arabic culture. Dates are reserved for the fast during Ramadan and being imported are too expensive for everyday consumption along the Swahili coast. Kashata is enjoyed with coffee instead. From the Hindu and Muslim Indians, a great many foods have made their way into Swahili daily life. Take kachoris, chapatis – though these are made with oil not ghee usually, sambusas (samosas), pilau rice and briyani beef or chicken and boiled eggs, and mild curries and stews using fresh coconut milk. Chinese Fish, chicken, goat and beef feature, though vegetables form the staple of most meals. The Goans, Yemenis, Chinese and Parsis have all made small indents in the food scene too.
Popular Foods to Try
Made in the African Great Lakes region and across southern Africa, ugali (it goes by many names) is a staple food made from maize meal, millet or sorghum flour, salt and hot water. It resembles a thick “dough”. It can also be made into a thinner consistency porridge with the addition of water or milk.
This refers to seasoned roasted meat on the barbeque or grill. Chicken and beef are popular.
A delicately spiced rice using cardamom, cumin seeds, cinnamon and cloves. Briyani with chicken, beef or goat is also popular and used as celebration or special occasion meals.
A thick triangular or circular pastry with Indian origins, filled with spiced potato, peas and other fillings, and deep-fried – a popular street snack.
Deep-fried triangular doughnuts served with milk and sugar.
Wali wa nazi
Rice cooked with fresh coconut milk and sometimes grated coconut flesh.
Mchuzi wa Samaki
Fish cooked in a delicate curry sauce or gravy with coconut.