Sunday, May 6, 2012

Swahili Curry on Zanzibar

For over 1,000 years, Zanzibar has been a cultural melting pot. Its historic center, Stone Town, has a captivating blend of African, Arabic, Asian, and European architecture, and there’s a rich mix of languages and cultures among its inhabitants. Zanzibari dishes are equally cosmopolitan, such as mnazi, a tangy, coconut-milk curry that seamlessly blends Indian, Arabic, and homegrown elements.

The very name “Zanzibar” drips with exoticism; most visitors agree that the Spice Island, which lies in the Indian Ocean off Tanzania’s Swahili coast, is one of those travel destinations that truly matches expectations. Around the coast, mysterious ruins recall a millennium of maritime trade with Arabia.
The pristine swaths of palm-lined white sand give way to a sea that offers magical diving and snorkeling, and the opportunity to swim with dolphins.
Zanzibar’s cultural heart is historic Stone Town: a labyrinthine knot of narrow alleys, ostentatious Omani palaces, and multistory Swahili homesteads emanating from a medieval harbor with an imposing 17th-century Omani fort. The town’s prosperity peaked in the mid-19th century, when it served as a capital for the Sultan of Oman and formed the main trade conduit for slaves captured on the African mainland. One of the most symbolically resonant landmarks on the island is the Anglican Cathedral, built on the site of the town’s notorious slave market.
Today, the giddying smell of spiced Swahili kahawa (coffee) permeates Stone Town, punctuated by tantalizing wafts of home cooking. There are stands piled with aromatic foodstuffs; fresh and dried spices vie with the heady scents of juicy fresh fruits.
Zanzibari cuisine has been influenced by centuries of trade with Arabia and Asia, and its most popular dish is Swahili coconut curry. Made with chicken, fish, or seafood – and sometimes even beef – it incorporates the golden-brown Zanzibari masala, a superb mix of ground cinnamon, roasted coriander, cumin and fennel seeds, chili pepper, and cilantro. This imparts a spicy tang that blends with fresh coconut milk to produce a curry with a deep, creamy texture and rich aftertaste. Accompanied by wali na nazi (rice boiled in coconut milk), chapatis, and spinach-like sukuma wiki, Swahili curry – mnazi –is the culinary embodiment of the glorious Spice Island and its cosmopolitan past.
It’s arguably best eaten from the overflowing dinner stands of the waterfront Forodhani Gardens, which emerge mysteriously by the shore as the sun sets over the Indian Ocean, offering a unique sensory treat.

Mnazi wa kamba (shrimp curry), bathed in the golden-brown sauce made from masala and coconut milk

The legendary food stands of Forodhani Gardens fire up their grills at sunset

Zanzibar’s uncrowded beaches are interspersed by small fishing villages

The Best Places to Eat Swahili Curry

Monsoon Restaurant

The ultimate Zanzibari night out is provided by this well-established traditional restaurant, especially if you time your visit to coincide with the live taarab (classical Swahili music) performances on Wednesday and Friday nights. The terrace is ideal for an early evening drink, allowing you to watch the sun set over Forodhani Gardens while sailing dhows billow romantically across the Indian Ocean. Inside, the restaurant is divided into two areas. The homey bar is the place to relax over a fresh cocktail or ginger-spiced coffee, accompanied perhaps by a sweet kashata (nutty cookie). The main culinary action takes place next door, in a large open area decorated in the Swahili way, with mikeka matting spread across the floor and ground-level seating on brightly colored cushions set around knee-high tables, their tops adorned with fragrant fresh jasmine. An imaginative à la carte menu combines traditional Zanzibari favorites – Swahili chicken curry, kingfish in coconut sauce, shrimp marinated in garlic, ginger, and lime – with fusion fare that incorporates influences from all corners of the Mediterranean. There’s a four-course dinner for diners with adventurous palates.
Hurumzi St., Stone Town, Zanzibar; open 10 AM– midnight daily; Also on Zanzibar
Situated on the ground floor of the historic “House of Tea” hotel on Kelele Square, Beyt al Chai Restaurant (; expensive) might not look like anything special in daylight, but the food is arguably the finest on Zanzibar, and it’s complemented by a lovely candlelit ambience at dinner. The cuisine can be categorized broadly as Swahili fusion, with keynote dishes including a Zanzibar casserole of seafood poached in coconut and lemongrass broth, and there is an excellent wine list.
Also in Africa
Traditional Swahili cuisine is poorly represented at restaurants in Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania and former capital, but Sweet Eazy Restaurant & Lounge (; moderate–expensive) is a notable exception, serving an imaginative menu of traditional and fusion dishes including a superb seafood coconut curry. The arched decor evokes traditional Swahili architecture and there’s live music on weekends. On Shela Beach, on the outskirts of the time-warped Kenyan port of Lamu, the stylish “barefoot luxury” Peponi Hotel (; expensive) is renowned for its fresh seafood, whether you like it sushi-style, grilled plain, or curried in the traditional Swahili manner.
Three Days on Zanzibar
Though Stone Town boasts several striking architectural landmarks to head for, it is also conducive to whimsical exploration, routinely throwing up fantastic sights, sounds, and smells – and it’s not so large that you could truly get lost.
DAY ONE : Dedicate the day to Stone Town. Start at the Palace Museum, then follow the waterfront south to the House of Wonders, Forodhani Gardens, and the Old Arab Fort, a great spot for lunch. In the afternoon, browse the shops on Kenyatta, Gizenga, and Hurumzi Streets, or venture north into the tangle of alleys at the heart of Stone Town. Have a drink at the historic Africa House Hotel.
DAY TWO : An organized Spice Tour will combine a visit to a local shamba (subsistence farm) with stops at several ruined 19th-century palaces and baths north of town.
DAY THREE : Drive south to Kizimkani for a dhow trip and swimming with dolphins. Return via Jozani Forest to seek out the Zanzibar red colobus, a spectacularly coiffed monkey unique to this island.
Getting to Zanzibar
Zanzibar International Airport has flights from Ethiopia and Kenya; there’s a larger airport at Dar es Salaam, a short trip away by plane or ferry. The town is easily explored on foot.
Where to stay in Zanzibar
Hotel Kiponda (inexpensive) is a long-serving budget favorite that’s centrally located with some period character.
236 Hurumzi (moderate–expensive) has an unbeatable atmosphere; it’s a three-story, 19th-century mansion lavishly furnished in period style.
Zanzibar Serena Inn (expensive) is a more conventional and overtly luxurious hotel on the waterfront.

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