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.
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