- Seth Zurer
I posted a while back soliciting chow suggestions for East African specialities (see link). I'm back from my monthlong Tanzanian odyssey and have much to report!
The trip included but was not limited to an abortive trek up Mt Kilimanjaro, Several days of Safari in the northern game park circuit, a week long stay on the Island of Zanzibar, and two or three days of hanging around in Dar es Salaam.
There's not a ton of terrific food on the mainland. Nyama choma (grilled meat, usually goat) and ugali (a sort of polenta-like corn or cassava meal paste, which you roll up in your fingers and dip in gravy) form the staples of both street and restaurant food in the towns at the base of Mt Kilimanjaro and at the focus of the safari circuit. I was a little disheartened at the outset of the trip when I went out to dinner with a friend who had just completed his first year in the peace corps in Zambia, and referred to our meal of extra salty (sorta stringy) grilled goat as the culinary highlight of his year in Africa. I was afraid that I would have to lower my expectations. Luckily, meals I subsequently ate on Zanzibar and on the coast blew this meal out of the water!
The No. 1 Highlight Meal of the Trip took place on Mitu's Spice Tour out of Stone Town (a thousand year old spice trade hub) on Zanzibar. After a walk through an operating spice plantation, and samples of fresh cacao, cardamom, papaya, cinnamon, pepper, cloves, quinine, nutmeg, mace, etc and mini discourses on medicinal properties thereof, Mr. Mitu and company sit you down on a wicker mat and present a meal(Quoth Mitu in his sales pitch "A meal like this, you could not order in a restaurant...or if you did, it would be very expensive!) of saffron rice with cardamom and other spices, fish served in a Zanzibari coconut curry, Cassava leaves prepared like spinach (a more bitter collard green), freshly prepared chapatis and naan, plus cardamom tea for dessert. The food was very good, but to be honest, we had more delicious greens and fresher chapatis at other restaurants. Desite this ( and i know this may seem like Chowhound heresy), but this was one (of very few) instances of a time when the surroundings ( and the fact of our just having sampled all of these spices out in the field ) added so much pleasure to the meal that the quality of the experience rose to a level higher than the food alone could have achieved. The experience was unbeatable!
Also in Stone Town we ate at an outdoor market which every night features stalls of food vendors and wood carvers. The food is good--fresh grilled octopus and tuna, shrimps on kebabs, sambusas (the east african take on samosas), more grilled goat, various types of indian flatbread.
Another highlight came on Zanzibar's east coast, a mostly abandoned, gorgeous stretch of uninterrupted surf dotted with beach hotels of varying levels of luxury. We stayed at a small spartan hotel ( the Paradise Beach Bungalows in Paje) whose sign announces Japanese Home Cooking--it is owned by a Japanese woman (who prepares some japanese specialties) and her Zanzibari husband Haji. The hotel with no electricity, hot water, or phone. The way it works at these hotel restaurants (and restaurant is not really the right word) is that the owner of the hotel tells you what he's got for lunch and you tell him whether or not you want to eat it. They welcome special requests, and will make sashimi or tempura if you ask nicely. We ate just-caught whole fried snapper with green beans, tempura-fried seaweed, rice with peas, fantastic cold calamari salad, and as a farewell meal, Huge rock lobsters, the tail meat chopped up, boiled in coconut milk and re-inserted into the shell. It was incredible--simply prepared, cooked for exactly the right amount of time, on a par with Maine for succulent freshness.
In Dar Es Salaam we had several good meals at the Chef's Pride Restaurant. Fried fillets of fresh flounder featured prominently, they also had good biryani and incredible fresh chapatis--the best of our whole trip--served within three seconds of being removed from the griddle: flatbread par excellence! Also in Dar, we had terrific whole fish in coconut curry at a place called the Blue Marlin near the ferry port.
So, those considering a trip to East Africa, take heart--the coast holds chowhound pleasures irreproducible in the western world.
I hate to seem greedy, seeing as how you've just posted one of the more entertaining and evocative messages ever, but if you have a moment at some point to go into even further detail on the trip (particularly the chow), I for one would be grateful to read more. I was sorry to see your message end!
As Jim says, it's a big Internet, you needn't fear filling it up!
As a member of the travelling party, I thought I would add my own observations, and fill in a little more detail...
Just to add to Seth's note, the Spice tour was in fact a highlight, and the food which ended it was great. I was not as won over as my brother apparently, but the concluding meal did mark a highlight. I just looked at his original note, and will interject at this point that we did find a fabulous gelateria in Africa - See below for more info.
I had the same experience upon arrival as my brother - After the first few meals I prepared myself to abandon expectations of food being a critical part of my experience in Africa, as it usually is when I travel to other parts of the world, and to a marginally lesser extent, as it is in my daily life. I don't mean to belabour the point, but vacation for me often revolves around family holidays, or destinations which are equally food-centric, so I thought I would have to make something of an adjustment. The group even discussed briefly whether or not it was fair to make sweeping generalizations like "the food in Italy is better than the food in Tanzania." I will still maintain that this assertion in correct, and not horribly culturally obtuse, but it was quite shortsighted, I was thrilled to find out, and once we left the interior, gastronomy made its way back to a central position of concern. I never tried to have a meal that rivaled a night out at a high-end US restaurant, but the day-to-day fare for lunch and dinner compared very favorably with the low-key day-to-day meals.
While the first couple of weeks were pretty devoid of thrills, there were some spots of interest. My first meal was just as Seth has described, but after we got off the mountain I ate a whole fried fish that I wopuld not hesitate to reccomend, and I enjoyed the grilled chicken at the Luther Hostel in Moshi. Not just passable, but good grilled chicken. On the mountain was another story, where the idea was to simply get calories in, despite internal queeziness caused by exercise and altitude. Even so, it wasn't awful, just run of the mill camping-level cuisine, with some excursions above and below that standard.
Leaving the interior after a few days of Safari, we took a bus to Dar Es Salaam on the coast, and actually midway, we stopped a rest stop of sorts, where we had what may have been the best samosa of the trip - Fresh, crispy, complexly spiced. Samosas had already started to work their way into our diet, and once we were in Dar, they became omnipresent. Still, the real highlights were a bit on the horizon. After the somewat grueling bus ride, seven hours packed together in the African heat, with some candy bars bought in Moshi and warm water bought or filtered that morning, we made it to Dar. With some assistance from a "tout" who had come on the same bus, we got to the seaport and took an hour and a half ferry ride to Zanzibar. Upon arriving and going through immigration (Zanzibar considers itself somewhat independent of Tanzania, I think the situation with Taiwan and the mainland is analagous), we found a note from our friends, and arranged a taxi ride to the Northern town of Nungwi. Our Lonely Planet guide warned us that it was overidden with tourists, and after another hour or so in transit, we found that to be correct. Much to my surprise and no small amount of disapointment, we found ourselves dining at bar that was out of the movie Cocktail, except the bartenders were local instead of Tom Cruise. The food started to get better, though, and from this moment on, only improved with each passing day. For the next couple of nights, I ate mostly grilled king-fish, clearly caught only hours before, and generally sauced in local spices... We spent a night and part of a day in Zanzibar Town, the main city we had sped away from upon arriving on the island. It was fantastic - reminiscent of some of the more rundown ancient towns of Italy. The evening we spent wandering about the old town, and ended up at a gelateria called Amore Mio. My brother can proably come up with some details abot the itialana who ran the place, but I can tell you that the gelato itself was really good, better than any American attempts at the frozen treat. The next day was the spice tour, and then we left for the deserted east coast town of Page.
A moment to digress about breakfat - Throughout the trip, we ate fresh fruit and eggs for breakfast. If you like papaya, you would be thrilled, but most of us never developed the taste for it. And the eggs were always a bit odd - The yolk never seemed to make much impact on the flavor, and we speculated that in a few cases it may have been removed before scrambling. We finally had some fried, sunny side up, and the lack of flavor in that situation convinced me that the cooks had not been absconding with the yolks, its just the chickens are not eating very well. Breakfast in Dar would be a bit of an improvement, but not much. But I will return to that point shortly. On to the beach...
As has been famously noted (and often repeated) about the city across the bay from where I live now, so too it is with Page - There is no there there. But there are coconut trees, cowri shells, and about 2/3 of a mile of tidal movement, twice a day. And also there is Haji, a sweetheart of a host, who runs the Paradise Beach Bungalows with a Japanese woman who we think is his wife. We spent four nights there, ate mostly what they cooked for us, and simply relaxed. This was the highlight of the trip, I think for everyone involved. There were no stresses of transportation, haggling over costs, or schedules to keep. We woke, walked on the beach, collected items which met our whims of the moment, showered in luke-cold, and played cards and read by the light of a hand-pump kerosene lantern. I pondered the possible ways in which coconuts could be collected, as well as the laws which migh govern that activity - Haji later filled us in the details - And we even were able to borrow a travel Scrabble set from some travelling British. And they cooked almost all our meals, as Seth described. I would add only a couple things: The cardamom tea they served at breakfast was fantastic, heavy on milk and sugar; and I learned I do in fact like coconut, but only when fresh, and preferably, when personally involved in the harvest.
A sidebar about coconut retrieval - When asked how one gets a coconut, Haji said there were two ways: You can climb a cocnut tree, or you can sit under a coconut tree, read the Quran, and wait. There are at least three other ways - You can find them on the beach, pay Haji about 30 cents to get one for you, or knock a low hanging one out of a tree with rocks. It turns out that the last one is really coconut theft, as each tree on the island has an owner, who is not neccesarily the person who owns the land upon which the tree grows. Fallen fruit belongs to whoever picks it up first, but I must note that by the time this happens, the meat has become chewier and nuttier than the custardy consistency I prefer.
With heavy hearts, we left Zanzibar for the mainland, where we all had flights out of the airport at Dar. We did stop for pizzas at Pichy's, which had come reccomended. I would not rush here, however, unless like us, you just needed a place you could put down your bags and you don't want to pay the prices down the street at western-style Blues Restaurant.
Dar Es Salaam itself doesn't have much to reccomend for tourists, and as mine was the last flight out, I learned that the hard way. Each of the other travellers was leaving within a few days, but I stayed on for five or so... While not a disaster, I don't think I'll repeat an extended stay there.
The food, on the other hand is quite good. As had been the case on Zanzibar, the spice trade through this area (Something like 80% of all cloves on the market are produced on the Zanzibari island of Pemba), caused a good deal of cross-cultural pollination, as well as a local appreciation of the flavorful resources available. There is a strong Indian influence - samosas and chapati are everywhere - and the meat is kept fresh on the hoof, so the quality is often quite high.
Most of the hole-in-the-wall greasy spoons we went to provided us with delicious meals. Breakfast at Chef's Pride blew us away, although I missed the more rustic beef sausage from Moshi - Here you got hot dogs. And this was also where we made the aquaintance of the fresh chapatis. The Sunday breakfast impressed us so much, we retured for lunch the same day, and most days after. We hit a couple false notes - the samosas are sub-par, and the fried fish fillet wasn't nearly as good on monday as it had been on sunday. But biryani was delicious, fried chicken and chips outstanding... I can't recall any of the other dishes - They also had rotissirie grilled chicken, and their eggs, while not exactly good, were the best I had in Tanzania. Across the street is a place called Imram, which serves cheap, down-home Indian, and we also frequented a spot called Blue Marlin, which had the best coconut curries I've eaten, in no small part because the fish in them is fantasticly fresh. Pizzas were not up to par, but samosas were also great there, as was the fried chicken.
Did I mention how good the fresh chapatis were at Chef's Pride? Right.
One disapointment was City Garden restaurant, which was overpriced and under-good, although there was live music to entertain.
We also ate at an Indian place at the northern part of the peninsula outside of Dar at the complex around the Sea Cliff restaurant. It was very good, but prices aproached cheap Indian in the states (and therefore quite high for Tanzania), so I would not rush there, nor would I avoid it... The food was as good as the better places I've been in SF, however.
All of the restaurants in Dar were listed in the Lonely Planet guide, which actually served us very well for the entire trip, with the exception of sending us to the Ilali market in Dar, which it noted as a locals' favorite. In the couple years since the publication, the Kariakoo market has apprently eclipsed it in popularity...
There's my gastronomically focused report of a month in Africa - If I ever get around to writing one from a perspective of what I actually did, I'll post it to not about food...