When we came to Zanzibar, I heard people call it an “Island of Spice”. At any market that you visit your nose will inevitably encounter a symphony of smells coming from small stalls filled with plastic bags containing dozens of different multicolored powders. These bags it turns out, are a symbol for Zanzibar’s past as the epicenter of the global spice market.
A significant stage of this tasty history began in the mid 1800s when the Omani Sultan (who had recently moved his capital from Oman to Zanzibar) introduced cloves to the islands. It turns out they grow quite well here and Zanzibar eventually came to produce the vast majority of the world’s cloves, a veritable spice juggernaut! Even in recent history, when spice exports have dropped, clove alone brought in 70% of Zanzibar’s export earnings until 1994! I had no idea that the little pods I stuck in oranges, and drank in chai tea, were the foundation for a spice empire on the other side of the world.
With this history in mind, a number of spice farms have sprung up all over the island as a popular tourist destination where you can see the origin of all the incredible spices that we almost exclusively encounter in powdered form on supermarket shelves.
I recently visited one of these spice farms along with my cousins Gwen and John who were visiting as part of a long tradition of gathering every year to bike long distances in costume together (it’s a long story…). So this meant we could not just visit a spice farm, we had to bike there.
Our trip began by hoisting up our bikes on top of a “dala dala”, Zanzibar’s fleet of modified trucks, vans and busses that transport people all over the island squished together in crowded (but cheap) compartments that always seem to fit one more person, just when you thought that there was no physical way another body could be crammed onto the bench.
Please note, much of the following blog post was written in conjunction with Gwen, a PhD in Conservation Biology, so please forgive any overly scientific language and overzealous plant descriptions :P
We got off near the Guwakamole botanical garden, a 8 acre site directly adjacent to the government agricultural research station KATI. It turns out that the father of our guide Haji had worked for the research station and had been growing a wild menagerie of tropical fruits and spices on this site for decades. Our guide had been leading tours here since 1986. We set off on a slow excursion through the site, stopping every few meters to taste some new and wonderful fruit or plant part and learn about the exotic species that grew here. This was our kind of tour!
As soon as we entered the garden we were intrigued by a weird looking bush with red flowers and spiky black seed pods. We only had wild guesses as to what it was, even when our guide opened up a pod and showed us the small red seeds inside. He gave us a few more clues by rubbing the seeds and revealing a bright red dye and telling us that it was commonly used in food. Because we were still stumped, he finally gave in and told us it was Annatto, the bright red coloring agent. This is one of those ingredients that you often skim over at the end of the ingredients list and we had no idea that it was from seeds. Our guide demonstrated the potency of the dye by painting the lips of one of our biking companions. We subsequently painted our own faces in solidarity so she was not the only ridiculous looking person in the group :)
We then stopped by a small tree with bright shiny leaves and were handed some of them and told to chew on the stem and guess what the tree was. Wild guesses of what it might be revolved around cinnamon (nope, but we did see that tree later and correctly guessed it then) but a cheating look at the tree itself revealed it to be cloves. The clove-shaped green and pink things under the flowers were the dead giveaway. These large floral structures are hypanthia which are hand picked by skilled workers who climb the trees and pluck them from the upper branches and then dry them to produce the little brown cloves that we are familiar with from stores.
The next quiz was to identify a small tree that had large pods and flowers hanging off the main trunk. This one we correctly guessed to be Cacao, although none of us had ever seen it in person before. As the source of chocolate, we of course were all big fans of this plant to start with, but we discovered that chocolate was not the only tasty part of this fruit if you can believe that! Our guide split open one of the pods and demonstrated how to remove the individual seeds and suck off the sweet encasings. Delicious!
We then encountered a jackfruit, the tropical fruit that we were familiar with from asian candy but had never actually seen as a fresh fruit, never mind one growing on the tree. These fruit are huge, some even watermelon sized, and they too were growing directly from the trunk of the tree! When cut open, the smooth white fruit inside tasted a bit like bubble gum.
During this two hour tour of the garden we tasted dozens of fruits, looked at more spice plants than we could possibly remember, and had such a great time that we decided that running away and living on a spice farm in Zanzibar could be a valid backup life plan. However, because this blog post is getting overly long, we will only talk about one more of the many spices and fruits we saw.
It turns out that nutmeg also grows on a medium sized tree, hidden inside green fruits that were about the size of an egg. If you cut them open, the valuable seed is revealed, surrounded by a pink seed coat that looks strangely alien like. This spice is revered for its taste and medicinal qualities, but apparently also was historically thought to be an aphrodisiac. We didn’t test that part.
After a large and expertly spiced meal, we realized that we had to bike home.
When we signed up on the bike tour, it mentioned there was “some off road biking” but it turns out that this was a serious understatement. Our guide had us pedaling up a trail that looked more like a ravine than a road, through a national forest filled with red colobus monkeys, randomly placed cassava fields and two women carrying 50 lbs of firewood on their heads like it was no heavier than a sun hat. We eventually made it out of the forest and onto the paved road, which was perhaps an even greater challenge. Although bikes are quite common in Zanzibar, there are certainly not bike lanes (or sometimes car lanes for that matter) and we definitely had one scare from a minibus that screeched into the middle of the other lane due to the driver texting.
But, even with some near misses, it was certainly worth the delicious and fragrant journey into the famed origins of this Island of Spice.