The Spice Island is the fitting nickname of Zanzibar, which invokes intoxicating, exotic aromas and rich, stirring flavours. Zanzibar is one of the most unique destinations on the global culinary map thanks to its wide range of spices. Another fitting nickname would be nature’s supermarket. Read an learn about Zanzibar Spices.
Why is Zanzibar known as the Spice Island?
Because the islands produce plenty of nutmegs, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, lemongrass, saffron, and more, it is sometimes referred to as “Spice Islands”, which is a term borrowed from Indonesia’s the Maluku Islands. While all these spices are known physically as well as through their taste, it is hard to recognize them when they are still on the farm or in wild nature, and that is why there is Zanzibar Spice Tour. visit there is one of the must things to do in Zanzibar.
But things were not this spicy in Zanzibar, so how did it all start?
The History of Spice in Zanzibar
The spices in Zanzibar were brought in by sea merchants operating across the Indian Ocean route. It began with the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Egyptians before the Chinese, Indians, and Persians came to the island. Later, the Arabs, Portuguese and British also visited Zanzibar. All these settlers brought to the island various plants from their home countries. But it was the Portuguese who had a major impact on Zanzibar becoming a Spice Island. When Vasco da Gama and his troupes arrived on the island, their only battle cry was “For Christ and spices!”
The fertile soil and tropical climate of the island also made it easier for the spices to thrive. In 1832, Seyyid Said, the Omani Sultan, transferred the capital of his empire from Muscat to Stone Town in order to cultivate cloves, which at the time was as valuable as gold. Besides, the use of spices in food was seen as a symbol of wealth since they could only be obtained from unknown lands far away and not everyone could access them. Also, spices such as cloves were used in curing and preserving meats before the refrigerator was invented.
As time passed, the value of spices continued to surge. They were being presented as gifts of state and even willed along with other valuables.
The demand for spices in Europe became rife, leading to stiff competition between leading trading powers to take control of the shipping routes that brought spices from overseas. But the Europeans were more powerful in terms of wealth and technology, so it wasn’t long before they wrestled the domination of spice trade from the Arabs, who at the time had already pitched their tents in Zanzibar. And the main trade on the island, slavery, was abolished; the spice trade became the centerpiece of international trade.
Is Zanzibar a country?
Though Zanzibari Island is not an independent state, it is partly self-governing. In the beginning, Zanzibar and Tanganyika were two separate states but came together to form the United Republic of Tanzania, but Zanzibar remained semi-autonomous within this union.
Spices from Zanzibar
Spice farm tours are important for the tourism sector on the island. The tour usually involves a group of tourists being guided through a plantation and examining one plant after another, tasting berries and seeds, and learning about their histories. But before we delve deeper into spice tours in Zanzibar, here are some of the most common spices from the island.
Vanilla is the only fruit-bearing plant in the orchid family. It is a delicious and sweet spice that is grown in farms and provided with supporting frames. The spice came from Mexico to the Zanzibar and in ancient times, the Aztecs used it in their dishes and drinks.
Vanilla requires a lot of maintenance during cultivation, and as a result, it was hard for it to spread to other countries that did not have the know-how of producing it.
Before, only one genus of bee living in Mexico would pollinate the vanilla flower, which usually opens for only 24 hours. But in 1841, farmers invented a way to pollinate the plant, allowing for it to be cultivated in other countries. But still, vanilla is the most expensive spice in the world after saffron. Due to its high prices, the flavour is also artificially produced to mimic the original taste; however, it is never as delicious as real vanilla.
Nutmeg, despite the ‘nut’ in the name, is not actually from a nut family. It is a seed of Myristica fragrance tree and an Asian native.
The spice supports digestion and insomnia when used in small quantities, but in large amounts, it has intoxicating impacts, thus was used as a drug in ancient times. This spice also has hallucinogens, which is responsible for the intoxicating effects. An overdose of nutmeg can lead to unconsciousness and death. As a result, the spice is not recommended for pregnant women and children.
Cinnamon is extracted from the bark of the Ceylon cinnamon tree. The branches of the tree are the most common areas where the spice is obtained.
The branches are cut then soaked for up to 2 days. Then the outer bark is peeled out until the inner section is left. The inner bark is then cut into small slices that are curled into rolls and dried. The medicinal effect of cinnamon includes helping with the digestive system and speeding up metabolism. It is also used in calorie-reducing diets. Leaves, roots, and flowers of the plant are also manufactured into cinnamon syrup or oil.
This spice is also grown on the island of Zanzibar and is one of the most popular in the local dishes. Cardamom is usually chewed to help with breathe freshening and can also be smoked. There are two types of cardamom spices – green and black. Green cardamom is among the most expensive spices by weight.
Pepper has plenty of health benefits if used in small quantities. It is believed to contain aphrodisiac effects, thus why the churches were against it during the pre-historic times.
The berries are usually of different colors despite coming from the same tree.
- white pepper – the berries are gathered, the red skin is removed, and then the berries are dried.
- green pepper – the berries are collected before they are ripe, and then marinated or dried for a short amount of time.
- red pepper – the berries are left to fully ripe, collected, and then marinated
- black pepper – the berries are collected before they are ripe, and then they are dried for longer periods.
Lemon Grass originated from South India and Sri Lanka. The stalks of the plant are common ingredients in Zanzibar’s cuisines though it can also be brewed into tea. This spice has a wide range of health benefits, including good for digestion, enhances metabolism, regulates blood pressure, and heals flu and cold.
Saffron is known best as the world’s most expensive spice by weight. It is so expensive because of the cost of producing it. Saffron is good when used in seafood dishes like paella and bouillabaisse, though it can also be used in rice and risotto. In terms of taste, saffron is quite subtle – some say it tastes like honey others say flora, while some say pungent.
Clove is perhaps the most famous and readily available spice in Zanzibar thanks to the earlier works of Seyyid Said on the island. In fact, Zanzibar used to be the largest exporter of clove in the world before it was peeped by Indonesia. It is commonly known as the King of Spices and has unique oil called eugenol that has preservative effects. When it comes to health benefits, clove is anti-inflammatory and antiseptic.
Fruits from Zanzibar
Zanzibar is also known for its exotic fruits. The most popular ones you are likely to come across in the streets include:
- Jackfruit is a fruit of jack tree – a plant species in the fig, breadfruit, and mulberry family. The fruit was brought to the island by Indian and Malaysian merchants. The fruit has a unique taste, but it is sweet. It helps with constipation, diabetes, high blood pressure, and ulcers, among other benefits.
- Breadfruit looks like jackfruit. It came to Zanzibar from the Philippines, Maluku Islands, and New Guinea. The fruit can be cooked when unripe or eaten raw when ripe.
- Pineapples don’t really need much introduction, but they have an assortment of health benefits, including relieving the symptoms of arthritis, speed up the recovery process after surgery, and many more.
- Passion fruit is another common fruit that also doesn’t need any introduction. The fruits do well in the Island due to the tropical climate and fertile soil of the island. Passion fruit is packed with Vitamin C, alpha-carotene, and beta-kryptoxanthin.
- Durian – There are 30 currently known species of Durio. The fruits were brought to Zanzibar from Malaysia and Thailand in the height of the Indian Ocean sea trade. The smell though may make you think twice before putting durian in your mouth.
- Aloe Vera has been used in medicine for centuries thanks to its natural ingredients of vitamin C, which can block plaque. Other fruits in Zanzibar include bananas, papaya, and coconuts.
- Coconuts are used in almost every dish on the island and are rich in MCTs and fiber.
What food do they eat in Zanzibar?
Thankfully for its past cultural mix, Zanzibar cuisine reflects a range of diverse influences including Bantu, Portuguese, Arab, British, Indian, and Chinese.
The most common Zanzibari dishes include:
- Sorpotel – This food is a Portuguese-Indian influenced dish comprising an assortment of boiled meat – tongue, liver, and heart, cooked with masala and vinegar and tamarind.
- Boko-Boko – This a stew meat cooked in ginger, maize, cumin, tomato, chilli, and onion.
- Spice cake – This is the most common snack on the island and is made of a pie with a mixture of clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and chocolate.
- Pilau meat – Pilau originated from the Middle East and India and is basically rice that is cooked with a variety of spices. Meat is then added to form pilau meat. The meat can be goose, cow, or calf.
- Pweza wa nazi – Pweza wa nazi means “octopus and coconut” and is just what it sounds. Octopus is cooked in coconut milk with cinnamon, curry, garlic, cardamom, and lime juice.
Zanzibar spice tours
Spice tours on the island involve plantations located outside the capital Stone Town. Some of the plants and herbs are grown in kitchen gardens while others are in the wild. Spice tours also offer you a great chance to explore the countryside away from the busy Stone Town and meet and interact with locals. A trip to the island is not complete with going on a spice tour, and it should be something you look forward to.
There are plenty of tour operators in Zanzibar and it is pretty easy to find someone to take you through the journey into the aromatic world of native and international spices. Most spice tours will also take you to some of the ancient Persian baths and stop at either Mangapwani Beaches or Fuji.
How much does it cost to go on a spice tour in Zanzibar?
Spice tour on the island is not that expensive, with most providers charging on average USD 20. Children under seven years old are free of charge.
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