Street Eats on the Spice Island

Written by  Rachel MacNeill August 1, 2012

During the holy month of Ramadan in Tanzania, food is hard to come by—until night falls.

Zanzibar is known as the spice island—a good indication that you’re going to be able to get some excellent food. I was as excited about the exotic food and spices as I was about the white beaches and history of Stone Town, the archipelago’s historic capital.

The winding streets of Stone Town are frenetic, loud and claustrophobic. A missed turn can take you into a labyrinth that seems lost in time—until a headscarf-clad schoolgirl starts shouting Lady Gaga. Young girls in headscarves and boys in white kanzus play under yellowing revolutionary posters and crumbling ancient walls.

Unfortunately for my food loving tendencies, I arrived during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month during which devotees fast from sunrise to sunup. I had heard tales of delicious street carts full of spiced kebabs and Swahili flatbreads, but Zanzibar’s legendary street eats were nowhere to be seen or smelled. Even more difficult, it is considered extremely impolite to eat or drink in public during. The only open restaurants were Western, serving limp fries and soulless pasta.

I expressed my frustration to a waiter, before realizing that he was serving us food and water during his holy fast. He dismissed my ashamed apology, saying: “Wait until the waterfront at night. It will be good.”

Late afternoon, we headed to the waterfront as instructed. Forodhani Gardens, Stone Town’s public meeting place, is a stunning place to watch the sunset. Hundreds of boys leapt fearlessly from the stone retaining walls into the water, showing off for spectators. The sunset was so enrapturing that it was twilight when I turned and saw hundreds of vendors setting up. Within minutes, the waterfront was lit by cooking fires and portable lamps illuminating tables laden with local food. Sizzling filled the air; my olfactory glands worked overtime as I strolled between tables, taking in the bounty before me.

Barbecued octopus, squid, skewers of fresh red snapper—the seafood alone was overwhelming. Beef and goat mishkaki (spiced meat skewers), traditional chappati or coconut bread, and samosas rounded out the buffet. Zanzibar pizzas—a modern local hybrid between an omelet and a pizza—are a calorie-counter’s nightmare but were absolute heaven in my mouth. Urojo, a thick, mango-ginger soup full of dumplings, is a bit strange but worth a try. Ice-cold sugarcane juice, squeezed before your eyes, was the perfect palate cleanser between courses of Zanzibar’s delicacies. Locals, having broken their fast with the traditional three dates at home, strolled down to the waterfront to fill their bellies.

After, I sat back and enjoyed the celebratory atmosphere. Fasting, one of the pillars of Islam, is meant to cleanse the spirit and encourage self-control and empathy with those less fortunate. Iftar, the fast-breaking, brings people together in the most simple of ways—to enjoy sharing a meal and each other’s company.

Street food brings people together who might otherwise not interact. It’s an equalizer, necessitating banter, smiles and cross-cultural sharing. No matter your culture, that’s something we can all enjoy.

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