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:
Heelal Tours & Safaris Ltd; Mr Denge, Manager; Mobile +255 7733 20121; email firstname.lastname@example.org