We flew in a small plane from Dar es Salam, Tanzania, over the spectacular, aqua and turquoise, Indian Ocean. In a short 20 minutes, we arrived on the island of Zanzibar, aka, “The Spice Island.” Today, Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, however it wasn’t always that way.
The Portuguese arrived in the 16th century and brought in some spices and plants from South America and India, however they never used the island for much more that a military base. It was the Sultan Seyyid Said, the first Omani sultan to govern Zanzibar back in 1698, who quickly realized the potential of this acquisition. With its superb, tropical climate it was a perfect location for spice farming and was now part of the overseas holdings of Oman.
Although spices were clearly traded along these seafaring routes since ancient times, Zanzibar was not growing them on any large scale until the Omani Sultan issued a decree that all landowners had to plant two clove trees, for every coconut tree, on their land.
It did not take long before Zanzibar became a major producer of spices. This ended up being a very important income generator, especially after the slave trade ended in the late nineteenth century. It is only recently that tourism has surpassed clove sales as the number one economic contributor.
We arrived at our amazing hotel in Stonetown, called, the Dhow Palace Hotel. We were blessed to stay in the Presidential Suite of this mansion, which was built back in 1559 AD for Sheikh Mushin bin Mujbia. The hotel is filled with priceless antiques and was simply charming on every level. It was the hotel that made arrangements for our tour of a spice plantation.
We arrived at the spice plantation, after a 30 minute drive from town, where we met our guide, Mohammad. He was incredibly knowledgeable and had a great sense of humor. He spoke flawless English and always made sure he told us what the Swahili words were, as well. We would walk through the working plantation and Mohammad would find a plant, get a spice or leaf and have us smell it, or taste it and try to figure out what it was. Mohammad was so impressed with my knowledge of the spices (a talent I developed by cooking more than half the countries of the world.) I pretty much could decipher each and every one, although he kept trying to stump me.
Although I could tell what the spices were, I learned many things I did not know about them. He told us how certain spices grow and that many spices are used not just for cooking, but for medicinal and other purposes as well. Here are a few of those things I learned:
Annato seed comes from the Achiote tree is used as a spice as well as used in cosmetics. Mohammad showed us how it looks as lipstick!
Cinnamon is just the bark of the tree rolled up. The leaves are used to make green tea. The roots are used to make Vick’s Vapor Rub. You can boil the cinnamon root, mix it with coconut oil and inhale it, to clean out your sinuses.
A giant, 80 year old Acacia tree provided the shade necessary to grow cardamom pods and vanilla. Cardamom is used as an air freshener and a breath freshener, as it helps to remove the smell of any alcohol. Green cardamom is also used to make soap.
Vanilla grows in Zanzibar and also needs shade. However, in Zanzibar it must be hand pollinated, so it is quite labor intensive to grow.
The flowers of the Ylang ylang tree are used for making perfume, including the famous Chanel #5.
They grow two types of lemongrass; one from Thailand and one from Zanzibar. The lemongrass from Zanzibar had great flavor and was much smaller that the lemongrass from Thailand. Lemongrass is used to make soap and is great as an insect repellent as well as used in many dishes.
Pepper, comes from only one pepper plant, however from it you can get green pepper, white pepper, red pepper, yellow pepper, and black pepper. It just depends on when you pick it and how it is processed as to what color you get. Pepper of course is used as a common ingredient in cooking but is also used as a tea, to eliminate stomach gas and they make a drink to restore essential vitamins, after a woman gives birth.
Nutmeg and mace come from the same tree, and have similar uses in cooking. Nutmeg is purported to increase the sex drive in women. The red part is dried in the sun and then ground to produce the spice.
We walked through areas that had ginger, which is used to tenderize meat, used to cure sea sickness, and beloved in their ginger beer. Turmeric which is used as a spice for curry and has numerous medicinal properties is also grown there.
Cassava and pumpkin are also grown on the plantation and every part of these plants are used in the African cuisine.
Although we were on a spice tour, we noticed that fruit trees abounded. Soursop, a delicious sweet fruit, is believed to cure cancer and heart problems.
They grow green oranges there, not orange ones. It was funny because at breakfast they had a pitcher labeled orange juice, but it was green. I didn’t try it just then. The oranges are fully ripe when green and had I not gone on that tour, I probably would have missed out on orange juice for the rest of our stay. It turns out the green, orange juice is excellent.
Some of the other fruit trees we saw were bananas of all varieties, mangoes, and passion fruit, both red and yellow and something called a Zanzibar apple.
It is the clove however, that is known as the King of spice or Korafu in Swahili. It is the most famous spice of Zanzibar. It contains an oil, called eugenol, which acts as a food preservative. It’s an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, and known to cure toothaches and stomach aches. The tree is used, when dried for firewood; however in Zanzibar if one clove tree is cut down, five more must be planted. This is regulated by the government.
As we were walking along the tour, we came across a big Muslim celebration that was happening in the local village. There were scores of boys and girls of all ages, waiting to be served a feast. We were thrilled that they allowed us to photograph them while they were waiting. We learned that the vividly, colored veils that the girls were wearing, represented the village in which they live and the different designs on the hats that the boys were wearing, did the same. It always gives me hope to see beautiful, children, happy and going to school, especially in remote parts of the world. We felt like it was our lucky day.
Our tour ended with a tasting of fruits and an opportunity to buy various spices and soaps which we did, to support the community.
It was a fantastic tour that shed so much light on the importance of these crops to this island and how these flavors are ingrained in their daily lives and in the delicious foods they cook.
I leave you with a scrumptious calamari curry recipe that I discovered while cooking with Mr. Okala in Jambiani, Zanzibar. Just click on the link or picture below for the recipe.
Until next time,
Asante sana (that means thank you very much in Swahili)