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?
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.”
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.
An ancient, crumbling, Arabian nights fairytale island, surrounded by the brightest turquoise water I have ever seen. Once a major trade capital for spices, silks, slaves and more, it’s the original melting pot, mixing ancient Africa, Arabia and India, with the Chinese and then the Portuguese following in later centuries. It’s a very visceral history that you can see, smell and feel in the air around you.
And 18 years ago, while doing an overland through east Africa, I arrived in Zanzibar and fell for its many charms. In three weeks time I will finally return, and I am wondering how much it has changed or not? Here’s my memories from the first time.
Getting to Zanzibar.
Catching the ferry, the morning one has broken down, wait a few hours and catch the mid afternoon one , take four and a half hours to get there, sitting on our packs on the deck, in the bow of a very full boat, towels over our heads to ward off the intense sun. The mad scramble to get off the ferry, through immigration and pound the streets to find a room – $15 a night for four to share, with very dodgy mosquito nets. My notes at the time said “the Sambusa, down an alley, past the rubbish dump – nice little room though.”
We took a dhow out to Prison Island, a tiny island with a little sand bar beach, just a few meters wide, extending out into the true blue water. There’s remnants of an old prison, and a small population of very old, very huge giant tortoises, who in spite of being very wrinkly, are very adorable. We sunbath in the hot sun and cool off in the water until the wind comes up and starts scouring our skin with sand. We head back to Zanzibar in a choppy sea and get drenched in very salty sea spray, and need a very good warm shower on our return.
We explored the Byzantian alleyways, the old fort, the sultan’s palace – the architecture was amazing, but most building were run down, worn out, peeling and in need of some renovation. We spent more time wandering the streets and alleyways than we did on the beaches, it was just so fascinating. We dined cheaply but well. Beers at Africa House, fresh coconuts on the beach, calamari for dinner at The Dolphin, and back for omelettes for breakfast. Freshly cooked seafood straight off the stalls in the marketplace, and calamari stew at the Floating Restaurant next to the market. Fish coconut curries and banana milkshakes at Caymur’s. I wonder if any of these places still exist? – apart from the markets, probably not!
The Beach, Zanzibar.
We grabbed a ride in a jeep to Jambiani, a popular beach a two hour drive to the opposite side of the island to StoneTown. On the way we stopped off to see the endangered red colobus monkeys. What is surprising is that we didn’t also do a spice tour, to one of the spice plantations, given Zanzibar’s fame as a spice island – having grown up on farms in NZ we didn’t see anything interesting about visiting a farm. The beach was stunning – when we arrived the tide was out about 500m, and by late afternoon it was right back up the beach lapping our toes. The local kids were busy selling us papaya and coconuts, and were just gorgeous to watch.
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