Spice Island

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Zanzibar spice nursery

Fresh from a rare side sojourn to Zanzibar—pinch me, Zanzibar!—after a work trip to Tanzania, I can still almost feel the hot East African sun on my face and taste the delectable Swahili delicacies that I could not try fast enough when I was there. Oh, but for more hours in the day—or for the wisdom to take vacation time when I travel.

Still, I did have the presence of mind to sign up for a tour of one of the spice plantations just outside of Stone Town. And I skedaddled home with a glorious trove of ingredients to recreate my Africa experience as well as energize some of the dishes on regular rotation here.

Over the coming weeks, I will be pulling out the stops with fresh nutmeg, cinnamon bark, lemon grass, curry blends, saffron and other lovely flavors as I channel inspiration from one of the world’s original fusion cuisines: Swahili. (First up: prawn curry.) But for now, here’s a little visual tour.

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The Spice Trader

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Let it never be said that we aren’t serious about gathering the freshest ingredients possible. Guest blogger Amelia Peltz returns with a report from the real-life Spice Island. We’re not sure how she got a suitcase full of spices and freshly roasted coffee through customs, but are grateful for the vanilla beans so fresh you can tie them in a knot.

Spice Buying Adventures on Zanzibar

cinnamon bark and ginger

No, this is not just an exotic blog entry title: I actually got to go shopping for spices in the central market in Stone Town, Zanzibar!  Believe it or not, I was there on a work-related trip (ahem).  Zanzibar for work?  Why yes, if the majority of your work happens to be on mainland Tanzania and you manage to find reasons to get to the semi-autonomous Zanzibar for some relevant meetings. 

Anyway, back to the spices, which represent one of the island’s main industries. I was determined not to leave without acquiring some of my favorites, a task that turned out to be not quite as easy as it seemed.  My colleague—a fellow food aficionado—and I asked around and were directed to the shops of Stone Town.  We wandered the alleyways, but the only shops we found were the kind that cater to tourists, selling endless tchotkes and tiny gift packets of spices that were so old they had accumulated a fine layer of dust.  It was nowhere near what we had in mind. 

Feeling slightly dejected, we sat in a coffee shop, drinking local coffee with fresh vanilla syrup and trying to figure out our next move.  We needed local knowledge and fast, since we only had a little under two hours before our flight back to Dar es Salaam.  Fortunately, we found a friendly local taxi driver who, after hearing our predicament, knew exactly where to take us: the central market, where all manner of meat, fish, fruits, vegetables and spices are sold to local residents. 

spice remants, all that we left

Perfect!  Off we went to the market and soon came upon a small shop with crates of the most fragrant spices imaginable.  We bought kilos of white and black pepper, cinnamon (whole bark and ground), ginger, curry powder, saffron, cumin, star anise, vanilla, whole nutmeg, and sesame.  We were the only tourists for miles, and our exuberant enthusiasm for buying up the store was a source of great amusement for the locals.  It was a wonderful adventure, full of the sights and smells that make us aspiring cooks daydream about all of the possibilities such treasures can coax out of our kitchens.

—Amelia Peltz