Each year as winter approaches and the nights get chilly, I start craving masala tea to warm me up. I learned to make it in Afura’s house in Zanzibar, doing a cooking course in the packed earth courtyard of her home, over a charcoal brazier.
The refreshing taste of hot Masala tea in a hot climate.
Masala tea in Zanzibar is similar to spicy chai teas worldwide, with a few differences. It is drunk both hot and cold, and is always drunk black, no milk. Even cold, the taste of spices creates heat in the mouth and a lingering aftertaste. It’s become a winter staple for me, and is very easy to make.
Start with a litre of boiling water in a saucepan on the stove top and add:
half a cup of lemongrass chopped into rough lengths of 2-3 inches,
half a cup of roughly chopped fresh ginger,
3 cinnamon sticks, and
half a tablespoon each of crushed cardamon seeds and cloves from the mortar and pestle.
Let the pot boil for 10 – 20 minutes and then add a quarter cup (or 2-3 teabags) of black tea leaves on top of the boiling water. Boil for another 2 minutes maximum (the tea leaves can quickly taste bitter if boiled longer ) then take off the heat and pour through a fine strainer. The tea is now ready to drink, add sugar or honey to taste. I love how the cloves give it a nice peppery, slightly numb aftertaste.
Have you discovered a new favourite tea in your travels?
I’m not one to come over all maternal very often, but it was hard not to form an immediate bond with this shy and charming young girl in Magara, Tanzania. Fortunately she had a happy family life with a father and mother who also befriended us, so I didn’t get to come over too Angelina. As a family, they represented everything we came to love about this village while we worked on renovating the local school.
Photos of the faces of people I come across in my travels take me right back to that time and place.
Cradling my camera carefully as we bounce along the corrugated dirt track, wishing I’d worn a serious sports bra, getting painful bruises under my arms where I am standing up and clinging to bits of the open roof of the 4-wheel drive, coated in a potent mix of suntan lotion, dust and sweat, and grinning maniacally as we lurch to a stop, we spot a family of elephants just emerging to our left. Tanzania is a world-class spot for seriously impressive animal spotting, which is why we are all standing upright and clinging on for hours on end in the heat – we don’t want to risk missing a second by sitting down.
On my previous visit to Tanzania in 1992 I traveled through the Serengeti, Ngorongoro, and Mikumi national parks. This time I am visiting Tarangire, Ngorongoro and Lake Manyara, and it strikes me that animal numbers in the national parks appear to have increased dramatically in the intervening years, which is very encouraging. We have quickly determined a pecking order of what gets our attention. We have seen so many monkeys, antelope and wildebeest that we barely stop any more – it’s the elephants and giraffes and any big cat, hippos and rhinos that get us excited now. Here are a few of my favourite moments.
The Hippo Pool at Lake Manyara. We are pinning our hopes on the promisingly named Hippo Pool in Lake Manyara, and boy does it deliver. Dozens upon dozens of hippos resting into a series of shallow pools, climbing in and out of the pools, lolling around in the mud, with a backdrop of hills and zebras and great colonies of storks. And then one right in front of me does a huge yawn and I am as happy as a hippo watcher can be.
The large herds of Elephants in Tarangire. We are awestruck watching a column of elephants come towards us through the tree line, 50 or 60 in number, about a third of them young ones, striding three or four abreast. They tower over us as they cross the track just in front of us, ignoring us. Over the next hour we see at least three more herds of similar size, all within a few km of each other. One herd is running, stampeding (luckily not in our direction), and we watch them steer and protect their babies as they thunder by.
Spotting a Leopard in Tarangire. Just on dusk, on our first evening drive in Tarangire, Peter pulls up and points to a large acacia tree, two or three hundred metres away, and says “leopard” . At first we can’t see a thing in the waning light, but as I extend my zoom lens and follow his direction – up to the first large horizontal branch sticking out to the left, pan along it, suddenly it comes into view. Magnificent, stretched out along the branch. We joke that it’s a stuffed toy planted by the guides to fool us, as the leopard hasn’t moved. Right on cue, it stands up, stretches, moves a couple of metres further out on the branch, and lies down again. It’s a small spot in the distance, but as we assess the size of the tree and the relative size of the leopard, we start to realise it is indeed big, it has to be at least two metres in length, and we stay there and stare at it till it is just too dark to see any more.
The very self satisfied teenage lions in Ngorongoro Crater. The epitome of self assured adolescence – nine or ten teenage lions and lionesses having an afternoon seista on a sunny hillside. One male sits to the side as a very casual guard, the remaining males are all flat on their backs, limbs spread akimbo, baring their contented bellies to the sun. The lionesses are similarly napping, albeit in a slightly more conservative pose. We get the very strong message that these lions don’t have too many worries at all.
The sole Rhino sighting in Ngorongoro. I can’t help wondering is it is still the same rhino that I saw in the same place eighteen years ago, I like the idea that it might be. Last time I saw it a lot closer as it charged our jeep (which had stalled). This time it doesn’t charge anyone, and while I tell myself that is a good thing, I am secretly a little bit disappointed.
The black and white beauty of the zebra. We see what seems like thousands of zebra. We also see what seems like thousands of wildebeest and quickly get bored with them, but the zebras remain fascinating. Even though they tend to turn away from us when they hear us approaching, so we end up seeing a lot of zebra arses. Its the contrast between their funny donkey-like shape and the graphic beauty of the black and white markings, no two ever the same.
The soda lake pink flamingos and the soaring storks. I’ve never been a bird watcher when I travel, but even I am impressed when there are huge flocks of birds. A solid pink carpet of flamingoes in a lake in Ngorongoro, or vast flight of storks forming intricate synchronous flying patterns, soaring around in aerial displays by Lake Manyara.
The teenage giraffe argy bargy. It is so hard not to endow animals with human behaviours and motivations. As we do when we see three male teenage giraffes, two of them engaged in a bit of friendly pushing and shoving, for all the world looking like a couple of footy players trying to establish a pecking order, the third giraffe looking like the try-hard hanger-oner
The Masaai village. It’s easy to imagine the Masaai get really annoyed with us for treating them like just another animal sighting – pointing our cameras at them, wanting to capture their ‘colour’, wanting to look into their life’s. Imagine if a horde of tourists descended into your house and workplace every day doing the same to you. Near Ngorongoro, in the Serengeti, there are a number of Masaai villages which have been built specifically for tourists to visit, for a fee. Here we get welcomed with traditional dances, get shown into traditional Masaai huts, visit a school room, and have the opportunity to buy some of their intricately beaded jewellery. And we are allowed, indeed encouraged to take photos of everyone and anyone. That’s because these are ‘theme’ villages, the Masaai only work there during the day, and go home to their real villages in the evening. This is a job for them, and they get paid for it. Some tourists object to paying an entrance fee, object to it not being a real live village. I wonder when we decided we have the right to invade peoples lives and expect them to perform on demand for us for free, in their own homes. Good on them for setting up a cultural performance, of finding a way to manage the interest in them and earn an income off it, while putting a boundary around their real lives.
The monkey that tried to steal my lunch. Sometimes I get a good reminder that I can be a dumb tourist. This was one of those days. After an early start and a full morning in Tarangire I am looking forward to our packed lunch. We’ve stopped in an official picnic spot, sitting at the tables under the trees, a river valley teeming with zebra, wildebeest and giraffe below us. A few cute little monkeys playing on the fence yonder, one a mum with the tiniest baby monkey clinging on to her under her belly. I start pulling out items from my lunch box – sandwich, samosa, juice, chocolate bar – with a big loud “yum”. One of my fellow travellers yells “watch out”, and out of the corner of my eye I see the mother monkey with baby still attached doing a giant leap through the air from fence towards my unpacked lunch box. My brain flashed ” oh no, you’re not getting my lunch” and I somehow managed to sweep all the contents into the plastic lunchbox and slam the lid on in a split second, just as the monkey’s claw grabbed one corner of the box, about 2 mm from my hand, and yanked hard. I yanked back and pulled it out of her grasp, the plastic breaking off into her claw as it went – she sat back and snarled at me, looked like she was considering attacking me, and then turned and retreated back to her fence. Only then did I remember that I’d decided I wouldn’t need a rabies shot before I came on this trip, that her claws had been only 2mm from me and strong enough to rip a plastic lunchbox and that any sane person would’ve just let her take the sandwich.
Make no mistake, Stonetown, Zanzibar, is exotic. When I was here 18 years ago I fell for the atmosphere, the unique look and feel of the place, because there really wasn’t much else to do here but wander and soak up the atmosphere. Now there are so many things to do, while still preserving that marvellous feeling of having stumbled into a truly timeless place. Here are some of my favourite things about Stonetown today.!
Forodhani Night Market. As sunset arrives every night, the tables and bbqs appear, the breeze carries mouth watering smells, and locals and tourists alike descend on Forodhani Park on the waterfront for the night food markets. There is a massive range of seafood, just listening to the sales patter of each stall as they reel off the long list of seafood options is half the fun. I am a fan of the stall juicing fresh sugar cane on the spot. But my absolute favourite – the “Zanzibar pizza” – is more like a roti folded around your choice of filling and fried on the hot plate. The beef pizza filling is minced beef, onions, chillies, spices, cheese, mayonnaise and a raw egg – and there’s a divine banana/chocolate mix for dessert. They are very moreish, and very cheap, I keep coming back every night. The first night’s dinner is a beef pizza, the second night is a banana pizza for dessert first, before I headed out to a restaurant for dinner, and on the third night a group of us have beef pizzas as an entree between cocktails and a restaurant.
Sunset Dhow Cruise. I am a bit wary of sunset cruises as a traveller – my expectation is usually an overpriced crowded boat with a tiny portion of cheap bubbles and stale cheddar cheese. But Zanzibar is known for its sunsets, so i risk it, and it is well worth it. There are four of us on the dhow, with three crew, and seating for at least ten on the deck. A quick climb up the ladder and I find a cushion covered rooftop that can comfortably fit another dozen, we have plenty of space to spread out. We are offered a choice of juice, beer or wine, all very drinkable, and accompanied by a mini feast with a strong Italian flavour – handmade hard Italian cheeses, tomatoes stuffed with soft cheese and olives, herb cheese ravioli, sweet chilli squid and cassava chips, all well matched with my beer. Managing to serve deliciously soft, non-chewy squid in such an environment is a sign of just how good the nibbles (and the cook) are. Its a couple of chilled out hours watching nothing more than the coast line, other dhows, working fishing boats and expensive cruise boats gliding past. On this night there is a light cloud cover so we don’t even get the blood red sunset, but its so relaxing, it doesn’t matter.
Darajani markets. When do I not love a market? This is a large sprawling produce market for the locals, not tourists (except for a few spice stalls) -there are halls of fruit, veges, spices and the more confronting meat, poultry and fish halls. Watching the auctions in the fish markets are a real highlight.
Clove Hotel. I love this type of hotel – small boutique, well designed & renovated, full of character and excellent value. It is in the old town, a block from Forodhani Square, a block from Hurumzi St (the main shopping street). Be warned, it is only suitable for active guests, it’s in the pedestrian part of town so you’ll need to carry your bag the final block or so, and then up to reception on the 1st floor and then up to your room on the 2nd to 4th floors, as there is no lift. The highlight is the roof terrace on the 4th floor, perfect for breakfast, or sunset drinks, or relaxing in a breeze in the middle of a hot day – reclining on one of the couches and uploading all your photos to the web on the free wifi! There is an honesty bar for the guests. My room is beautifully furnished in a modern zanzibari style, with a very modern polished concrete bathroom attached. I sleep very soundly each night in the huge four poster bed swathed in romantic mosquito netting, although I don’t have any problems with mosquitos during my stay anyway.
Eating. In spite of eating at the night markets every night, I also manage to sample a fair number of other eateries as well, so no risk of me going hungry. Silk Route is a great spot for a group to have a spicy indian feast; Archipelago has a lot of light, healthy fish dishes, my favourite is a very tasty sweet chilli baby squid plate. And the “garden bar” in the sand in front of Livingstone is perfect for lunch or simply a cold beer stop. I am amazed to find one restaurant that I ate at 18 years ago, the Dolphin, is still in existence now, although I discover this too late to try it again this time.
Spa Treatments. These definitely didn’t exist 18 years ago but now there are many to choose from, I am recommended Mrembo, just past the Catholic Church on Cathedral Street. After a couple of weeks of sleeping on a mat and shaking over corrugated dirt roads in Tanzania, I am ready for a bit of pampering. All the treatments involve local flowers, herbs and spices, so it smells beautiful as soon as I walk in. I start with two treatments at the same time – at one end I am having a pedicure which includes a sand, cardamon, and aloe vera scrub. At the other end I get the “scalp treatment and steaming”. Warm olive oil is applied to my scalp, followed by a cream hair mask – the mask smells and feels like a spicy wet xmas cake mix on my head – I wonder if this is going to set permanently in my hair but as soon as they start the 20 minutes of finger tip pressure head massage, I stop thinking at all and doze off. After washing it all off, i have the softest, thickest, shiniest hair I’ve had in years. Now it’s time for the rest of the body – the hot “mbarika” leaf massage involves being massaged with Mbrika leaves which have been soaked in hot water, followed by an aromatherapy massage, and not surprisingly I nod off again. That’s a very successfully relaxing two hours.
Designer shops. 18 years ago there were no tourist shops to speak of, that has well and truly changed now, with dozens of streets and alleys lined with a huge variety of shops filled with all sorts of traditional arts and crafts along with the usual tourist t-shirts and back packer clothing. What I particularly like are the handful of “designer” shops, where local designers and seamstresses are selling clothing, bags, jewellry, and home furnishings, mixing traditional fabrics and styles with a more modern design aesthetic. Most are scattered along Hurumzi or just off it in smaller alleyways so they are not hard to find . For really interesting dresses and tops check out Indaco & Mago, and for t-shirts I’d recommend One Way, where all t-shirts are made from locally grown organic cotton.
Sunset drinks on the rooftop bar at Africa House. This is one of the few things that has remained the same from my visit 18 years ago to this one – except this time I am drinking expensive cocktails instead of cheap beers.
Cooking Class. This is one of the eclectic range of activities that the staff at Clove hotel have sourced for their guests to try, and it is a very stimulating, personal, hands-on half day in the basic house of a local family being taught by the mother of the house.
Architecture. Given the mix of nationalities that have visited, ruled and traded in Zanzibar over the centuries, it’s no surprise that the architecture is pretty varied as well. From the Portuguese fort to the Omani Palaces, the renovated to the dilapidated, I spend a lot of time peering upwards; and then there are also the traditional solid carved doors on the Zanzibari houses, some very ornate, some very old ones telling stories through their carvings.
I walk into a light, bright, white wooden building, sunfilled with soaring ceilings, in Stonetown, Zanzibar. It is now seemingly an art market for tourists, but was previously a hostel and orphanage.
However a quick walk down the steps into the cellar and a different history emerges. Here is one of the few remaining pieces of physical evidence of the slave trade that prospered in Zanzibar, particularly in the 1800’s. Although the building is more recent, these cellars were reputed to be used as holding pens for slaves on ‘market day'; from here they could be quickly dragged up into the slave market directly overhead and sold. The cellars are low, dark and claustrophobic, and contain examples of the chains that were used to tether the slaves.
The slave trade was reputedly started by the Portuguese and then grew further when Zanzibar came under the control of the Sultanate of Oman in 1698. Initially slaves were captured or purchased from deep in the African mainland, chained together and forced to carry ivory to the coast, and then those that survived were transferred to Zanzibar to be either put to work in the spice plantations or sold. From Zanzibar most slaves were shipped to the Middle East, with some also going to the former french colonies of Reunion, Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar, or to North America.
In the words of Unesco, Zanzibar has great symbolic importance in the suppression of slavery, since it was one of the main slave-trading ports in East Africa and also the base from which its opponents, such as the renowned explorer David Livingstone, conducted their campaign against slavery. By the mid 1800s, the European influence was returning to the region and it was Livingstone, who based himself in Zanzibar between expeditions, who led the campaign. Another key opponent was Edward Steere, third bishop of Zanzibar (1874-82). Slavery was finally outlawed in 1877, although it continued illegally for some decades afterwards. To celebrate, the Anglican Bishop Steere built a cathedral (completed 1887) on what used to be the island’s largest slave market, apparently positioning the altar over the exact location of the whipping post. The Cathedral also has a timber cross carved from a branch of the tree that once hung over Livingstone’s heart, where it is buried at Chitambo, Zambia.
In the Cathedral courtyard there is now a graphic modern sculpture, by the Scandinavian artist Clara Sornas, of five slaves with chains around their necks, standing in a pit in the ground. Slightly larger than life, the slaves’ expressions convey a sense of sadness and futility. In a strange way I found this sculpture more moving and more confronting than the actual records of slavery, probably because there is so little physical evidence of the slave trade remaining in Zanzibar. I asked my guide Mohammed what he thought of his city forefathers being involved in the slave trade and he answered “its OK, it was a different time, it has nothing to do with us today. On Zanzibar we did not supply the slaves, we just supplied the market place.”
Doesn’t Swahili has the best animal names of any language ? Twiga for giraffe, Simba for lion, Tembo for elephant – to me these swahili words sound exactly like the animals look! Especially ‘Twiga’, which somehow manages to convey the tallness, the awkwardness and the beauty of a giraffe in one short punchy word.
Twiga were in every park we went to in Tanzania, we saw plenty of them, and each one looked so individual – even before they started pulling faces! And they certainly have expressive faces, even slightly absurd faces, I could watch them all day.
We saw some interesting behaviour from three teenage male giraffes. Like any teenage boys, two of them were enjoying a bit of pushing and shoving, a bit of argy-bargy, and the third one was hanging back and looking like he wished that he got to play too – it was fascinating to watch – playground behaviour of the twiga.
This is a full immersion cooking class. I’m quashed into the back seat of the dala-dala(local minivan buses), escorted by the chatty Heelal and the quieter Sa’id, on my way to Afura’s house on the outskirts of Stonetown. Heelal is one of the people who have set up this network of mothers who take tourists directly into their homes and teach them staple Zanzibar dishes. It gives the family a new way to earn money and us a chance to experience a small slice of their life. I’m also marvelling at how a thirteen seater van can so easily accommodate twenty two passengers.
A curry cook-up
Travelling through Tanzania provides many opportunities to try the local curries. The Zanzibar version has no curry powder or tumeric at all, it focuses on the spices that grow on the island, and I’m here to learn to cook it. In a large pot over the charcoal brazier, we add a sliced onion into the hot oil. I struggle to peel and roughly chop three potatoes and a small eggplant with a blunt knife, at least it is easier to grind a generous amount of garlic and raw ginger with the mortar and pestle – using at least half a handful of each, more if I want a strong curry. A further wrestle with the knife as I peel and chop three tomatoes and it’s all added to the pot over the hot coals. After five minutes of cooking weadd a peeled and chopped mango – firm but not green. A couple more minutes and we add 5 tbsp of tomato paste and then mix in a cup of water to get the right consistency.
The final ingredient is four small fried fish. We use sardines, crispy fried, but any small strongly flavoured fish will do it’s similar to adding fish sauce in other parts of the world. It simmers until the potatoes are soft, and then we take it off the heat and let it settle while we prepare the other dishes, including the chapatis to mop it up with.
This is another dish adapted to Zanzibar’s plentiful spice supply, and easier to master than the chapatis. By this stage I have lost all feeling in my legs while sitting on a very low wooden stool. We peel four potatoes, chop into four pieces, boil till soft and then mash. Meanwhile we finely slice a red onion, and in the mortar we pound together two tbsp each of cardamon and cloves and two tsp of rock salt. All of these are added to the mash and set aside until the pastry is ready.
The dough is much easier to make than the chapati dough. Afura rubs 3 tbsp of soft butter into 2 cups of plain flour. We start adding about 1/2 a cup of water, bit by bit, kneading it in as we go until the dough is smooth, but not elastic like the chapati. We divide the dough into small golf ball sized balls. Each ball is rolled out into a rough rectangle about 10-12 inches long and 4 inches wide, and then cut into 3 rough squares. A spoonful of mash is placed in the centre of each square, and then the dough is folded in half diagonally over the mash, and the two unfolded sides are folded over again to seal the samosa. Now its time to cook in a deep pot of very hot oil – we test the heat by adding a small piece of spare dough first, if it puffs up and cooks immediately, the oil is hot enough. We cook in batches until golden brown on the outside, and stack on a plate to drain.
Eating the spoils of the cooking.
Lets face it, one of the best things about a cooking class is eating the dishes afterwards, and my mouth has been watering for a while over all these amazing spice smells we have been cooking up. So its time to rip off some chapati and use it to scoop up some curry, nibble on a samosa and wash it all down with cups of masala tea. Its all delicious, and luckily we’ve cooked large quantities which means the extended family all get to eat it as well. I sit cross legged on the floor with two of the men, Sa’id and one of Afura’s sons. I ask if Afura is joining us for the meal, and Sa’id tells me that she isn’t, as she is not hungry now. The penny drops and I ask if, as a Muslim household, the men and women always eat separately, and Sa’id tells me that they do. I ask then why am I eating with them, and they reply that it is OK for a female guest to eat with the men. I suspect they mean that they are prepared to ignore their customs when it is a paying guest, but it’s their house and their rules, so I tuck into my little feast, happy that half of each dish we have made has been taken to the next door room where the woman are eating. At least I get to pay the pre-agreed price directly to Afura, for her to split amongst the others involved, so I leave hoping that in spite of the eating arrangements, she has some real control over this business.
Cooking classes are still an embryonic business in Zanzibar, so if you are interested in doing a cooking course you may be able to arrange it through your hotel, or I can recommend you arrange it direct with Heelal: