When I was last in Zanzibar, it was both just as I remembered it as a child and not at all. Today the old spice island is a hip holiday destination with posh hotels along its scenic coast. But I knew it when it was assuredly itself, not having to impress or wheedle moneyed foreign visitors, who fly in and out and soon forget. Thankfully underneath the tarty makeup and false smiles, old Zanzibar is still there, just. With so many layers of conquest and occupation, it’s a wonder it hasn’t sunk to the bottom of the sea.
The Bantu were the first settlers, then, in the 9th century Arabs and Persian turned up. Arabs started clove farming using black slave labour. The isle has seen bleak times. The Portuguese arrived next and fought winning and losing wars with the Arabs, until finally skulking off. Indian merchants sailed over, Chinese travellers dropped in. The British took charge after slavery was abolished and German rule cowed the place for a short while.
Each nationality left its mark, particularly on language and food. Coconut palms were introduced by Hindus; the Portuguese brought avocados, chillies and cashew nut plants from Brazil. Ancient travelogues describe Zanzibari rice, ghee, groundnuts, cassava, wild fowls, pulses. In 1505, a Portuguese sailor noted that besides honey, maize and meat ‘… Zanzibar produces sweet oranges, lemons, pomegranates and sugar cane’. It was a cornucopia.
My father was cerebral, unreliable and joyless but my mum, in spite of all her tribulations, loved life. She was sensual, loved food and perfumes, films and music, and Zanzibar, the place of fabulous food, scents and secret delights. She saved up all year and took me there so often, Zanzibar’s sea, smell, sounds mixed culture got embedded deep in my psyche. I speak the local language Swahili and as soon as I land I feel as if I haven’t been away.
We used to take a ferry over from Dares salaam. First the shoreline came into view, white houses with carved Arabian balconies, and then smells wafted over. We stayed at a holiday hostel for widows and other needy women and their children. The sea air was considered a necessity for good health. Each family got one room and several mattresses. Food was delivered by local women from the mosque who cooked in their kitchens everyday and then sold it to holiday makers. Tiffins were brought over by the servants and we paid hardly anything for the most extraordinary grub on earth. You can still get these tiffins. I ordered one when I was there five years ago. On the beach my very British daughter scoffed ‘pek bateta, boiled new potatoes, halved, sandwiched with a hot red paste and fried in batter, eaten with date ketchup and masala fish eaten with bread, ending with jugu cake made with flour and unpeeled groundnuts, an exoticised Victorian sponge.
Some posh hotels do serve authentic Zanzibari food. In one I ordered ndizi na kastad, a favourite when I was a chubby young child, bananas in soft yellow custard with cinnamon and nutmeg! At the Sarena Hotel in old Stone Town, as the sun sets over the sea, they have local musicians playing their instruments and singing Swahili laments while fabulous snacks are served- lentil fritters, fried cassava, small mince patties served with coconut and coriander chutney, spring rolls and halva. Paradise would be dull in comparison.
All these goodies and more are also made and sold in Farodhani Square the bustling, noisy evening meeting place for locals. Though intensely Muslim, Zanzibar has not yet been Saudi Arabised and so men and women mingle here, modestly attired of course. Mishkaki, skewers of small pieces of barbequed mutton are still as good as decades back, only now instead of chipped enamel bowls they use paper plates. Addictive cassava crisps are fried in great big vats of hot oil, sprinkled with salt and chilli. Sometimes you find corn-on-the cob served with a thick peanut sauce, which you must suck fast if you don’t want it to drip over your clothes. Then there is the famous Zanzibari ‘mix’, a tangy soupy sauce with lentil dumplings and other stuff eaten with a spoon, a dish that looks like dishwater and leftovers until you taste it and are blown away.
I have left the best to last. Find a place, not fancy which serves Zanzibari kuku paka and meat pilau. The first is chicken cooked in coconut and the second rice, potatoes and meat cooked in a single pot eaten with kachumber, finely chopped onions and tomatoes and fresh chillies. The rice dish was described by Ibn Batuta the global traveller back in 1324 and should never be eaten with cutlery. When I die I hope my family makes a huge vat and serves it to mourners to eat with their fingers, a homage to the loveliest of islands where I spent the happiest of days.
Published in Independent on Sunday Magazine