Trekking through windswept islands with the heady aromas of nutmeg, mace, saffron and cloves lingering in every crook and whispering crevice is the stuff of dreams and National Geographic features. But is it really out of reach for today’s travelers? Truth be told, it’s easier than ever to create meaningful travel experiences in faraway lands. Here’s a look at the famous Spice Islands of Zanzibar and how you can bring these delicate treasures into your travels, life, home, and cooking.
Trekking Through Spice Islands
Zanzibar is the island of red-tiled rooftops, twisting tropical lanes, and Swahili culture thriving for generations in the Tanzanian archipelago off the coast of East Africa. It’s also the world of cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, cumin, coriander, lemongrass, and vanilla. These crops sustain Zanzibarian families and draw agri-tourists from near and far who traipse through tangled tropical farms and groves of ginger, turmeric, and tamarind growing unfettered on fertile island plantations.
The Stone Town of Zanzibar, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, is a marvelous clash of cultures dating back to times when Persian traders launched voyages around the globe. Bringing back secrets, fruits, and exotic spices from the Middle East, India, Africa, and Europe, the islanders tumbled them together over centuries of planting and growing, creating a huge melting pot of cuisine that is today uniquely Tanzanian.
Touch, Taste and Smell
After arriving on Zanzibar Island, start your exploration of these prized tropical earth-offerings by trekking in the dirt itself. Many hotels will hook you up with locals who know the spice plantations like the backs of their hands and can take you on walking tours through the small villages and farms of Kizimbani or Kindichi. You’ll meet workers dangling from trees, stripping bark, and picking, plucking, or digging up colorful herbs, fruits, and spices.
Touch, taste, and smell your way through the fields as workers practice ancient skills of drying, soaking, and prepping the freshly picked crops. Most outings include traditional Swahili meals and lemongrass cakes prepared by the farmers. Often, there are baskets of juicy mangos, jackfruit, papayas, pineapples, and passion, star, or custard fruits. On the spice farms, known locally as shambas, you can also buy the freshest spices ever to take home and transform your own kitchen.
Back in Stone Town, traditional wooden dhow fishing boats still bob in the harbor, while ancient architectural structures now open their enormous Portuguesa wood-carved doors as hotels for visitors. Picturesque teahouse and restaurant balconies fire up their ovens for sizzling seafood dishes such as lemongrass calamari and grilled mango prawns, always served with myriad spiced sauces. The House of Spices eatery, once the home of a spice trader, now offers a charming guesthouse, wine bar and terrace dining.
The village bustles with bazaars and “duka” squares overflowing with lively markets and Zanzibar handicrafts that incorporate spices into daily life. Sweet-smelling cloves dry in the hot sun on kitchen-garden racks, and brilliantly hued spices are crushed to powder for dyes, cosmetics, and bridal hennas. They also provide cures for everyday ailments.
Trek over to Darajani Market, the island’s main trading spot, spilling over with everything from fresh fish to live chickens, vividly hued textiles and – of course – spices galore. Help support the rural economy by purchasing gifts from Moto & Dada, an island-wide artist cooperative selling ukili palm-woven rings, bracelets, hats, bags, toys, and flower-filled baskets.
A big plus when trekking through the co-op is that you can ask to join locals for a Dada cooking class in the village of Matemwe. You’ll learn to make jam from baobab trees growing on the Matemwe Ridge, along with traditional Zanzibar sauces from cassava leaves and fresh grated coconuts.
Spice Up Your Space
You may be surprised at how the fresh versions of these exotic spices change the way you cook and eat – and how you start to crave them day and night when you slowly crush and crumble your way through the hoard you spirited home from the islands. Hakuna Matata, as they say over and over on Zanzibar Island: No Worries. You can buy the dried spices, seeds, herbs and starter kits online from the Zanzibar Clove Spice Market, and use their handy spice guides and recipes in your own kitchen.
Pick up recipe books such as Taste of Tanzania by local author Miriam Rose Kinunda to recreate traditional Swahili dishes such as Kachumbari, Futari ya Mbaazi, and Makande. Her website features helpful videos as well. A great way to start your own collection of older island recipes is to purchase previously owned cookbooks such as Zanzibar Style Recipes and A Taste of Zanzibar.
And if you ever need a real refresher course, remember: the locals will always welcome you back to the hot and spicy, seasoned and sensual Spice Islands of Zanzibar.