Zanzibar: The spice of life

“Slow down,” Abdullah, one of the local touts, calls out. “You’re in Zanzibar now.” And he’s right. The whole island feels attuned to the gentle rhythm of the tides. I’m at Forodhani Park, watching the beachfront liven up as the sun goes down.

Youngsters dive off the promenade into the sea while the older locals catch up on the day’s events on cool concrete benches. Tables are set up, the day’s catch is neatly laid out, and the coals are lit. It’s dinnertime.

As dusk falls, the stalls light lanterns that make the open-air market glow. Golden light frames the historic House of Wonders (Beit-al-Ajaib) against a black sky. This rich and varied scenery is reflected in the number of seafood options on offer: local catches like king fish, red snapper and dorado are skewered alongside fresh prawns, calamari and scallops. Orange crab claws, blushing lobster and purple octopus tentacles add further colour to the spread of chapatti, cassava, fries and corn on the cob.

Every other stall has a white banner advertising Zanzibar pizzas. More like stuffed pancakes, these parcels are made from small balls of chapatti dough, expertly rolled into paper-thin crepes. A spoonful of diced fish, beef or chicken is topped with chopped tomatoes and onion, and mixed with a dollop of mayonnaise and an egg, just before being scooped onto the crepe. The edges are then folded over, fried until golden brown, and served with shredded spinach and lettuce. Zanzibar pizzas can be temptingly sweet too, with fillings like banana, mango and Nutella. Some say the misnomer is due to the number of Italian holidaymakers that frequent Zanzibar.

A cultural and culinary melting pot

It’s peak season now and they’re here in droves, along with many other nationalities. No matter where you’re from, it’s hard not to love Zanzibar. Abounding in seafood, fruit and spices, the country has had countless foreign influences. Arabic and Indian traders settled here, using it as a trading port with the African mainland for centuries before it was colonised by the Portuguese, Omanis and, lastly, the British. It is a multi-cultural melting pot that has stewed over centuries to form a distinctive culture with a Swahili flavour.

One of the best places to get a taste of this unique culture is Monsoon Restaurant. On Saturday nights a Taarab musical ensemble plays for the dinner guests on the vine-covered terrace. Said ibn Sultan Sayyid of Oman brought the Arabic style of music to Zanzibar in the 1800s, but today the soothing classical music is accompanied by drumming, vocals sung in Swahili, and a lilting Indian rhythm in the refrains. Guests lounge on the floor and dinner is served at low wooden carved tables. A spread of cushions allows you to really stretch out and settle in for an unhurried evening filled with music and aromatically spiced food. I opt for the three-course set menu—to make the evening last—and start with the grilled calamari with passion fruit sauce. My childhood self would’ve been thrilled at granadilla—the flavour of birthday cake icing and frozen lollies—combined so creatively with the seafood.

My king fish fillet arrives in a fragrant amber sauce of puréed coconut, tomatoes, onion, and turmeric, accompanied by Pilau rice with an infusion of cloves, cardamom and cinnamon. Indeed, The legacy of Said ibn Sultan Sayyid extends further than music: he started growing spices in Zanzibar hundreds of years ago, leaving his mark in the Swahili kitchen to this day. Dessert is three perfect cubes of sweetmeat, or haluwa. A relative of Turkish delight, the dark caramelised sugar, rosewater and sesame treat is beautifully rounded off with a black, spiced coffee.

When I step outside after dinner, it’s already late. The once-bustling market has been reduced to a mere smattering of tables being folded away, while the soft sea air settles down contentedly. Translated from the Arabic, Zahn al bahr, Zanzibar means ‘fair is this land’. Judging by the richly-spiced eclectic food I’ve tasted tonight, Zanzibar’s slow island style and the easy-going hospitality of the locals, I can say it is just that.

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