When Caity and I moved to Zanzibar, as vegetarians we were worried about what we would be able to eat. As it turns out, as a mixing point for Indian, Arabian and East African cultures as well as a thriving tourist hub, we should not have worried too much. Zanzibar town has a wide variety of international food from Ethiopian to Syrian and a significant Italian influence with one restaurant even importing an oven from Italy for its pizza and another serving fresh-made gelato!
A little harder to find however, is traditional Zanzibari food. As it is more often found in homes rather than restaurants, in the month since we have arrived, we have not had the chance to really taste local cuisine–until today, when we went to the Makunduchi food festival.
We were invited by our landlord, who just so happens to be the father of the host family that Caity stayed with during her first two trips to Zanzibar. His family is from a small town on the southern coast of Zanzibar called Makunduchi, which has recently started hosting an annual traditional food festival to revive local foods from a time before the advent of processed foods or imported ingredients.
When we arrived at Makunduchi we were led into a large open courtyard when 40-50 women were spread about in small groups surrounding a series of large metal pots set atop wood-burning fires. Our host walked us from group to group explaining each of the different dishes. The first was a Manda patty made from a mix of coconut and wheat flower and fried on banana leaves, which our host compared to an American getting a donut at Dunkin’ Donuts to start their day. We then moved from one huge pot to another, stirred with ladles make from halved coconut shells and filled with curries, black fermented cassava, thick porridges and tiny hand-rolled balls of cassava flower called vidodoo.
There were also a few traditional tools that have since been replaced by blenders and industrial machines. Perhaps the most interesting one was a chair specifically designed to help the sitter shred coconuts. A wooden rod tipped with a metal scrapper extends our from the short folding seat helping the seated woman expertly and rapidly turn coconut meat inside a shell to a pile of sweet shavings. You know that coconuts are an important part of your cooking when you invent a piece of furniture specifically to help with its preparation!
Before we could eat however, we had to watch the festivities that culminated in the food frenzy. With the combination of not speaking Swahili and a microphone that would continuously cut out, it was hard to follow exactly what was going on, but there were a few definite highlights. The first was a pair of women in high pitched voices singing through the menu of traditional foods, describing and acting out the process of how each one was made.
After a few other routines came the main act. Caity and I had sat down when we heard a pretty incredible guitar riff coming out of the speakers. We get up to see what is going on and find a five-man band dressed in bring white shirts, dress pants and suspenders playing a song from a famous Makunduchi band from the 1970s. Upon closer examination however, it turned out that the two guitar players were not hooked up to any cords and the “trumpet” player was in fact holding a silver flute that he just played like a trumpet! Despite not actually playing the music, they were totally rocking out! The “trumpet” player took a solo and energetically moving around the crowd, with his cheeks puffed out theatrically and the guitar player took his solo to the next level by “playing” the guitar upside-down above his head! And the crowd loved it! People were continually running up to the bank and stuffing Tanzanian shilling notes in their shirt pockets, in a jar up front or even tucking them into the suspender straps of the lead “singer”!
This hilarious act closed out the presentations and let us get to our food! Although we still had to pass up a few dishes, like octopus soup, we still got quite a good sampling of traditional Zanzibari cuisine. One of the family members with us even said that he had not eaten one of the dishes for over 50 years!