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?
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:
I move slightly from one butt cheek to the other, as subtly as I can, hoping my face does not reveal my deep discomfort. I’ve been sitting on a solid wood stool only six inches high for the last two hours. It is the best seat in the house, and as the guest getting a one-on-one cooking lesson from cook Afura, matriach of the household, I don’t want to look rude. Sweat breaks out on my forehead and trickles down my backbone in this midday heat. Afura’s home is in a very basic village on the outskirts of Stonetown, and we are cooking on a charcoal brazier in the packed earth internal courtyard, between the three small concrete-block rooms which form the house.
I get to choose four african dishes from a list, and I select curry, chapatis, samosa and masala tea – and if that sounds more Indian than African then welcome to the island which has been a trading post for Arabs, Indians, Asians, Africans and Portuguese for over 1000 years. We have already made the curry and are about to start on the chapatis. Daughter Sophia brings Afura a flat round tin tray with about 5 cups of flour on it, in a ring with a hole in the middle. We dissolve a couple of tsp of rock salt in a cup of water, and I add it drip by drip to the flour as Afura starts mixing and kneading it with her fingers. I stop adding water while it stills looks like a flaky dry mixture, and Afura adds about 100gms of soft butter, and kneads through thoroughly, using her thumbs for power, until the dough is very smooth and elastic. We separate it into five apple sized balls and knead each again until smooth.
More flour is sprinkled onto the flat wooden board and Afura rolls out the first globe of pastry until about twelve centimetres in diameter, and then rubs a tbsp of oil across the top to keep it soft. She folds it over and over into a strip about 2cm wide, tugging it gently longer as she does. After resting the dough for a few minutes, she stretches it gently again until it is about 25 cms long, double its original length. Lying it on the board, she rolls both ends into the middle, and when the two coils meet, she folds one on top of the other , like a double decker cinnamon roll, and then rolls it flat yet again. Finally it is thrown onto the hot oiled pan on the charcoal and cooked to brown flaky perfection.
In the meantime, my legs and rear have gone numb, making me unsteady as I try to rise to my feet for a stretch, giving the family a good laugh. Today is going to be delicious, but not so comfortable.