Spicing Things Up in Zanzibar

Timbuktu. Bora-Bora. Darjeeling. Balikpapan. Kathmandu. Zanzibar.

I’ve been intrigued by these places my whole life, even though I didn’t know anything about them beyond their melodious and exotic-sounding names.

Home to humans for more than 20,000 years, Zanzibar was ruled by the British and Portuguese from 1498 until 1964. The Zanzibari had finally had enough of outsiders taking their spices and other exports, not to mention a long history of enslavement, and they staged a successful revolution in 1964 that earned them status as an semi-autonomous, independent country within the British Commonwealth. They merged with neighboring Tanganyika on the African mainland, and the combined names created modern-day Tanzania.

We flew into Zanzibar Town and drove our rental car across the island to Pwani Mchangani, where we’d booked a week at the oceanfront Coral Reef Garden Bungalows. The incredibly charming MariAnn welcomed us at the front desk, and she made sure our every need was met during the entire stay.

After settling in, we meandered through the palm trees to the poolside bar, where we ordered frozen cocktails. When in paradise, one does frivolous things, right?

While we sat sipping in the shade, Othman came by to introduce himself. He was the resort’s equivalent of a cruise director, eager to ensure that we had plenty of fun activities planned for our weeklong stay. “Do you like food?” he inquired.

Do we like food. Without a doubt, Othman, we love food.

“You’ll love the spice tour, then,” he assured us. “Zanzibar is Spice Island, you know.”

Famous for its superb cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper, the archipelago used to produce more than 80 percent of the world’s spices. Other countries have since overtaken Zanzibar’s sales, but spices are still the largest contributor to the country’s economy.

We booked our tour for the following day and eagerly awaited the trek through a jungle farm.

Our guides, Omar and Omar, greeted us as we stepped out of the van. “Do you like food?” one of them asked. Yes, gentlemen. Spread the word.

There were several other small tour groups in the vicinity of our first stop, but the crowd quickly thinned until we felt as if we were the only ones in the forest.

The first few plants were fairly easy to identify. Glossy green vanilla pods. Spiky baby pineapples. Ripening red coffee beans.

Then we came to something lumpy and bumpy and very exotic-looking.

“Do you know what this is?” asked one of the Omars.

“It’s certainly not something we see at our local farmers market,” I confessed.

It was jackfruit, the product of a tree that’s in the same family as figs. Fully mature, the fruit can weigh as much as 120 pounds (55 kg), and each tree can produce up to three tons of fruit.

“Interesting,” said Mike as he sampled the mango-colored flesh, which was similar to the texture of dried apples. By interesting, he usually means that he isn’t sure if he likes it or not.

The Omars explained that jackfruit is eaten plain and used in lots of different African and Asian dishes. It’s a key ingredient in halo-halo in the Philippines, and some regions of India use it to make jackfruit dosas, mixing the flesh into the batter. Freeze-dried jackfruit chips are also a popular snack.

Chilies, cardamom, ginger, coriander, garlic, turmeric, curry leaves, lemongrass, red onions, starfruit, durian. As we touched, smelled, and sampled one after the other of the edible spices and fruit, we also learned about their many medicinal and cosmetic uses. The most amusing of these was lipstick plant, which an assistant guide grinningly modeled.

Seeing how nutmeg grows was fascinating. This staple of Thanksgiving and Christmas recipes grows in what looks like an underripe nectarine. When the fruit is opened, the center stone is surrounded by a glossy magenta aril, which is dried and sold whole as a garnish for desserts or ground into the spice known as mace. The ground nutmeg seed itself is a key ingredient in béchamel sauce, eggnog, and other sweet and savory dishes.

Our minds overflowing with information, we arrived at the pepper patch. First up was peppercorns, still lime green as they ripened to red on the stem. We tasted the slightly spicy fruit as the Omars explained that there is only one peppercorn. “It’s sold as white pepper and black pepper, but it’s all the same fruit from the same plant,” one said. “The only difference is in the way it’s processed,” added the other.

Black peppercorns are dried and then sold whole or ground, while white pepper comes from dried black peppercorns that are painstakingly peeled before grinding.

Our mouths still tingling a bit, we rounded the path to the chilies. “Now we’re talking!” exclaimed Mike.

“Surely you aren’t going to eat these?” one of the Omars asked incredulously. Oh, yes, Omar, he is. Brace yourself.

The tiny peppers were similar to the variety used in the chili vinegar beloved by Southerners in the United States. They shake it on collard greens, black-eyed peas, and fried okra, never content for a dish to want for a condiment.

While Mike eats none of those things, he loves spicy food. We’re talking Thai hot. And he bit into the baby pepper with glee as the Omars anxiously looked on.

“Well?” I asked.

“There’s some heat,” he said, as he wiped a tear from the corner of his eye, much to the amusement of his onlookers.

Thankfully, they had a freshly-opened coconut waiting to cool his burning tongue, but not until he donned the festive hat and tie they’d made for him from forest leaves and flowers.

Once he’d stopped burning and we’d all stopped laughing, we were introduced to a group of local ladies who were cooking a fresh lunch for us over an open fire. Greens with garlic, coconut milk rice, and roasted chicken were under way, all generously spiced with the plants we’d just seen.

As we waited for the food, we watched a local man scale a coconut palm with his bare feet while singing “Hakuna Matata,” the Swahili phrase meaning “no worries” that became a worldwide mantra thanks to The Lion King. 

And after this fun day of food and new friends, we were worry-free indeed.