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Zanzibari Cuisine

The diverse cuisine of Zanzibar is characterized by its origins as a flourishing spice island and the fusion of colonial influences from Arabs and Persians in the 9th century to the 20th century relationship with China that established soy sauce as a surprisingly commonplace ingredient.  

Spice plantations have become less a business of trade and more a source of popular tourism on the island, but Zanzibar was once known as a major exporter of cloves, vanilla, nutmeg and cardamom across the world. The spices were brought over from Asia and South America and flourished in the tropical climes where they remain a flavorful staple of the Zanzibari diet today.  Depending on the season, you can find anything from cinnamon, turmeric, lemon grass, cloves, ylang ylang, cumin, garlic, ginger, coriander, pepper, allspice, tamarind, chilli, oregano and more. 

Bantus from the African mainland were the first inhabitants of Zanzibar.  As fishers, their diet relied heavily on seafood, such as tuna, mackerel, lobster, squid, octopus and oysters, most of which remains common in seafood dishes today.

Much of Zanzibari cuisine also reflects the tastes of the foreign powers that claimed the island as their own, beginning with the Arabs and Persians who brought coconut, mango, citrus, rice and pilau (or pilaf).  The Portuguese brought manioc, maize and pineapple before they were displaced by the Omani sultanate, who introduced Indian recipes such as chutney, masala, biryani, curry and samosas. 

Some of the most common Zanzibari dishes include:

  • Sorpotel: a recipe of Portuguese-Indian (Goan) origin, consisting in a mix of boiled meat; in Zanzibar this includes tongue, heart and liver. It is cooked with masala (a mix of spices similar to curry), as well as tamarind and vinegar.
  • Spice cake: the most typical dessert in zanzibari cuisine. It is made of a pastry with a mix of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and chocolate.
  • Boku-boku: meat cooked in maize, ginger, cumin, chili, tomato and onion.
  • Bread prepared with hazelnuts and dates, as well as eggs and vanilla, is the most traditional food to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
  • Pilau: pilaf usually prepared with goose (sometimes calf or cow) meat cooked with potatoes, onions, spices, coconut milk and rice.
  • Shark: one of the most traditional types of zanzibari seafood; it is prepared with pepper and other spices.
  • Pweza wa nazi ( "octopus and coconut" in Swahili): octupus boiled in coconut milk, curry, cinnamon, cardamom, garlic and lime juice

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