The island paradise of Zanzibar is known for its eclectic Swahili cuisine, a fusion of Bantu, Arab and Indian dishes and styles. The food is as diverse as its people, who are also a mix of Bantu, Omani, Indian, and to some extent, British and Chinese ethnicities as well.
I spent two weeks in this small, but densely populated melting-pot, mostly relaxing on its postcard beaches. One of the best things I did though, was take a vegan Swahili cooking class. Swahili food is not particularly meat-focused so there are many ‘normal’ dishes that are already vegan-friendly — additionally, dairy is not very popular here.
I booked my class from the Old Fort with a $5 deposit, and two days later returned to meet my teacher.
We walked through the Darjani area, crossing the busy Mkapa road, into the ‘real’ Zanzibar, the endless marketplace where most locals work and shop.
In the market, we picked up a few things they didn’t have at home– bean flour, noodles, some fresh spices— and I curiously tried a red banana. Spoiler: they taste exactly the same as the yellow ones.
A few blocks further, and we arrived to his home, an open apartment without rooms, for maximum air circulation. There were two designated seating areas, demarcating by the two large woven mats on the floor. In one corner, his aunt and 4 nieces watched Japanese television dubbed in English, while his sister greeted me and showed me to the kitchen.
The kitchen consisted of a sink, and a propane-tank single-burner— that’s ALL you need to make the magic happen.
Coconut milk is the glue that holds many Swahili dishes together, so of course there is a specific traditional way to shave the coconut!
It may be difficult to tell, but essentially, after cracking it open with that metal pestle, you sit on this low stool, which is equipped with a sharp spoon-like blade on a stick. This gives you two hands to firmly grasp the coconut and move it in circular motions to shave it finely.
We then separated it into two bowls– milk with and without ‘meat’– the milk would later be used in EVERY main dish, while the pulpy meat was used to make a dipping sauce or chutney.
We started with badia (similar to Indian bhajia) which are deep-fried vegetable dough-balls, served with coconut chutney.
First, we cut the onions, spinach, carrots and peppers into thin but long pieces. Feel free to improvise and put in anything you’d like!
Then we mixed the bean flour with a generous pinch salt and vegetables in a bowl. After, we added sunflower oil and water to make the dough, and mixed it with our hands until it was even. Meanwhile, the oil began to boil on the burner.
We took turns pinching off pieces of the dough, rolling it into roughly 2 inch balls and popping it into the oil.
After a few minutes, they began a crispy golden brown! The chutney was simple— freshly shaved coconut, a squirt of lime, salt, and chili oil to taste.
These served as a great appetizer while we cooked up the rest of the feast— and they didn’t last long.
We prepared two vegetable dishes, eggplant or mbilingani, and spinach, or mchicha. Mchicha is a very popular dish you can find in any swahili restaurant, and it was one of my staple dishes while traveling through the mainland (which is a little less veg-friendly).
First, we sliced up the veggies. (We made both dishes at the same time since they have the same steps). Then, we smashed in the garlic with the mortar and pestle before adding it to each bowl.
Mbilingani: Eggplant, carrots, tomatos, peppers, onions, garlic
Mchicha: Spinach, onions, red peppers, green peppers, garlic
Then, we put 1/3 of the remaining coconut milk into each bowl, and let them each stew on the stove for roughly 15 minutes, until the vegetables were melt-in-your-mouth soft. The coconut really helps speed that process along, I was impressed how quickly we were able to replicated that ‘slow cooked’ taste and texture.
To go with the stews, we made chapati and ugali. Chapati is an Indian bread that has been adopted all along the Swahili coast, while Ugali is a Bantu white-corn mash.
Chapati was really simple to make– just flour, salt and oil. There’s an intricate step however to make it the right consistency.
Mix flour, water, salt and oil in a bowl (I wish I could tell you HOW much– these cooks don’t measure anything!), knead into dough.
Then, roll flat on a table, into a circle. We then… It’s difficult to explain, so watch this, fast forward to ‘type 6’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARzBvXvsqCg
There’s no wrong way to do it, but the way you cut it and fold it affects the amount of air that gets in. We drizzle a little oil every step of the way, just to be sure.
Pour a little oil on the pan, put on the chapati and watch in amazement as your dough becomes delicious flaky bread in less than a minute.
The ugali is even easier– simply mix cornflour with water, add a pinch of salt, and mix until thick and even. It is eaten with the hands. Tear of a piece, scoop up some mchicha, and enjoy!
We made two typical sweet snacks as well, tambi and ndizi.
For the tambi simply boil the noodles in coconut milk with sugar, and enjoy. In Palestine, I had a similar dish.
For the ndizi, soak the plantains, then cut them in half in both directions, into large pieces. Add coconut milk, whole cardamom pod, and cinnamon bark. Put on the fire until soft– and enjoy! (Would be great with ice cream)
After roughly 4 hours, we had made 5 dishes, chapati, ugali, chutney and Zanzibar spiced tea (cardamom, cinnamon and ginger) — enough food for the whole family! We sat in the living room on a hand-woven mat, and enjoyed the feast we had prepared.
The entire experience cost roughly $22 (USD), or 50,000 Tanzanian Shillings. If you’d like to sign up for an authentic Swahili cooking class (they offer non-vegan as well, but it might be slightly more expensive), simply visit the Old Fort and inquire.
My next post will be about dining in Tanzania, so stay tuned!
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