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On the spice trail: a taste of Zanzibar

“When you plant something in Zanzibar, it is the true test of the thing,” says our guide, Abdalla. “If it is sweet, it will become more sweet. If it is spicy, it will be more fiery.”

I’m here as a guest of Planhotel Hotels and Resorts and we’re en route to a spice farm to learn how the archipelago earned its reputation as the spice islands. Makeshift tables at the roadside stalls are loaded with ruby red tomatoes, mangoes, the strange knobbly durian fruit, and bananas in all shapes and sizes, from the small red ones to broad yellow plantains that people here call elephant tusks. Milk sellers whizz past on bicycles with aluminium milk pails gleaming on their backs and fish sellers wobble past on ancient bicycles, wide wicker baskets loaded with fish and ice.

The spice islands

We pull off the road at a sign that reads Big Body with Tatata Spice Farm. This is a small co-op where, unlike the vast government farms, a wide range of spices is grown in a small area. The unusual name, our guide explains, honours the impressive belly of the man in charge.

Abdalla introduces us to  cardamom in fresh form

Abdalla introduces us to cardamom in fresh form

As we wander through the jungly, humid undergrowth, our guide’s agile accomplice, Yusuf, plucks fruit and spices from seemingly ordinary bushes, shrubs and vines. There is bread fruit, which takes its name from its role as a staple in the Zanzibari diet: it is boiled in the morning as breakfast, cooked with coconut for lunch and fried up as chips in the evening. There is lipstick fruit, which yields a beautiful red cream that the local people smear on their lips. There is glorious nutmeg, which, when cut open, reveals a crimson sheath that covers the familiar seed.

Nutmeg in its bright red husk

Nutmeg in its bright red husk

The sheath is dried to make the spice mace and is also used by the local women “to get a hangover”; the spice contains myristicin, which can have hallucinogenic effects in large doses.

Habiba prepares pilau rice with cardamom, cinnamon bark and black pepper

Habiba prepares pilau rice with cardamom, cinnamon bark and black pepper

I’m fascinated to see red, green and black pepper growing on one vine – it changes colour as it ages – and beautiful smooth, green vanilla pods, which are hand-pollinated. “Guess what this is,” asks Abdalla, handing each of us a green and pink seed. The shape kind of gives it away, but the flavour is so sweet and fragrant it’s hard to reconcile this thing with the dried clove I cook with back home. When we return to the huts, our tongues are zinging with different flavours.

Waiting for us is one of the local women, Habiba, who prepares pilau rice using some of the beautiful spices we’ve just tasted on a small wood-burning fire on the earth beside the hut. Balancing a pot on bricks, she fries up onions in a deep pan of oil, before throwing in a huge bowl of spices that have been soaking, water and all. She doesn’t flinch as the oil spats. Frying them dry – the way I know – would ruin their flavour, explains our interpreter. The resulting rice is so fragrant and full of flavour it’s practically a meal in itself, although the boiled octopus and sweet tomato curry is beautiful, too.

A fish bowl

En route back to the resort, driver Abdullah Simai stops at the Mkokotoni fish market. Beneath a tin roof, rows of fishermen bend over their catch, gutting and scaling everything from long, thin eels with leopard spots and silver backs to red snapper and striking royal blue fish with pink markings, which I believe are parrot fish.

Parrot fish at the Mkokotoni Fish Market

Parrot fish at the Mkokotoni Fish Market

But the seafood is not merely pretty. Hotel chef Prabhakar Kumar prepares a lobster bisque for us that is so intensely flavoured that my dining companion, Anél Potgieter of Lifeisazoobiscuit.com, declares she could eat nothing else. That night, we see – or rather taste – even more of the fish in action. Thanks to the convenience of direct flights, Zanzibar’s biggest group of tourists comes from Italy, and my host, the Planhotel group, has brought out a string of Italian chefs for the season.

I’m lucky enough to be there while Puglian chef Leonardo Vescera, whose speciality happens to be fish, is in town. At the resort’s Sea Breeze restaurant, perched above the ocean on stilts, we taste a ‘veil’ of bream (thin, pinky slivers of fish); chunks of raw tuna served inside a caramelised red onion; and the red fish I admired earlier, the incredibly meaty red snapper.

The resort's restaurant and bar area on stilts.

The resort’s restaurant and bar area on stilts. Photograph by Roberto Patti.

Beneath the restaurant’s stilts, the water is lit up by underwater lights, and we watch in amazement as a lion fish, regal with his spotted wings, chases down a shoal of glinting silver fish who move like one, much larger, shape-shifting creature.

It’s an incredible experience, and I’m saddened to learn how Zanzibar’s oceanic bounty is under threat from dynamite fishing. Local projects, however, are aiming to protect Zanzibar’s seafood heritage by educating local fish sellers and discouraging them from selling fish caught using dynamite.

The Forodhani Market

The following day I go to Stone Town, visiting the former slave market – a harrowing but powerful experience ¬– and walking the winding, crumbling streets. After watching the sun set from the very colonial balcony of Africa House, we return to the port where the Forodhani night market is in full swing. Beneath glowing spotlights, the chefs at various stalls serve up every kind of fish skewer imaginable; cooked bread fruit; sweet, refreshing cane juice squeezed on the spot from sugar cane; sweetcorn, falafels, and bread fruit. I sample a skewer of oversized langoustines with tangy tamarind sauce, a rice ball, and a series of fried treats, which the local women eat “to get fat”, Sulieman, my guide, tells me. A fat woman is a proud woman – the women here aspire to a different standard of beauty – which sort of explains the name of the spice farm I visited yesterday.

raders prepare their stalls for the Forodhani Night Market in Stone Town

raders prepare their stalls for the Forodhani Night Market in Stone Town

Last of all, I visit the Zanzibari pizza stall. Here, balls of flour and water dough are rolled out and the resulting sheets are wrapped around everything from cheese and meat to fish and even Nutella. I finish off the evening with a Nutella and mango Zanzibari pizza. It’s more paratha than pizza: a crispy parcel fried in palm oil and oozing hot Nutella and some of the ripest, sweetest mango I’ve ever tasted.

Thinking of the mango – which shines through, even sweeter than the Nutella – I remember Abdalla’s words about Zanzibar testing the things that grow here. Me? I grew slightly more tanned, a little bit wiser, and just a little bit fatter.

The Forodhani Market in Stone Town

The Forodhani Market in Stone Town

Planning a trip?

I was hosted at the Planhotels group’s Diamonds La Gemma dell’Est in the north of Zanzibar island, a five-star hotel with 138 rooms, including deluxe sea view rooms, suites with living rooms and kitchenettes, villa club rooms with laundry and butler service, and a presidential suite with five bedrooms. The all-inclusive resort boasts four restaurants and three bars serving a vast array of local and international food, pools, a private beach, the Mvua African Rain Spa, a water sports centre and open air gym to work it all off.

Tours to the spice farm and Stone Town were organised by Zan Tours.

Mango offers direct flights from Joburg to Zanzibar.

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