So if you know me, you know I love everything about food: the smell, restaurants, cooking, and especially eating. I know that once I come back from Zanzibar, after friends and family tell me how tan I’m getting (which is pretty tan if I must say so myself), they’ll ask me about what I learned to cook. Meals in Zanzibar are different than anywhere else I have visited, so I thought it would be cool to, instead of just saying the food I’m eating, to take you all through the steps of a Zanzibari meal.
Firstly, you are invited to a friend’s home for dinner. Dinner is eaten pretty late here, anywhere between 7 and 10 pm (that’s 1 and 4 usiku in Swahili time), so you show up around seven thirty because Swahili time is never on-time. The most important thing is that you take your shoes off when you enter – in Islam, shoes are considered dirty and shouldn’t be worn in the house. Also, if this is a formal occasion, you should dress for it. That means full headscarf and makeup (and for the mzungus, makeup to make you look Arabic). For Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday celebrating the end of hajj (the pilgrimmage to Mecca), I had my makeup (over)done by my host mom. See below.
Anyway, back to the meal. You need to greet your host with a handshake (people use the “limp fish” handshake technique or just a low high-five basically) and you hold on until you’ve finished multiple rounds of greetings. There’s no appetizers set out, no glass of wine (Muslims don’t drink alcohol), just a floor mat and pillows or if you’re lucky, a couch. Eventually, you hear “Chakula tayari!” (food’s ready!) and you head for the dining room. You’d expect a dining room like at home with miscellaneous paintings on the walls and a table and chairs in the middle. Wrong. There’s an eating mat spread out on the floor with some plastic on top for food spillage, which will definitely happen. No chairs, no table; you sit on the floor cross-legged around all your friends and family.
The food spread out before you is like nothing you’ve ever seen: breads, beans, some veggie things, something that looks like a fat pyramid, mounds and mounds of rice, potatoes (the potatoes here are incredibly sweet), fruits, and that one thing you know you love – chapatti. Chapatti is a wonderful food, it’s a flat bread that’s buttery and flaky and I almost don’t want to know how it’s made because I know it’s going to be extremely unhealthy. You do a second count of the people in the room and look at the amount of food for those people and think that there’s no way that double the amount of people could finish the meal in front of you. Wrong again.
Those breads: chapatti, coconut bread, and boflo (bread loaves)
Beans: I hated beans before I came here, now I love them. Still have no idea how to make them.
Veggies: peas in a curry coconut sauce, pilau which is a soup with potatoes, meats, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and whatever else you want basically
Fat Pyramids: they’re called samosas and they’re incredible. They’re usually come in beef or veggie form, and they’re basically the meat and veggies wrapped up in filo dough, similar to what they use to make baklava in Greek recipes
Rice: a staple of a Zanzibari diet.
One of the first things I learned in Zanzibar was to always serve yourself, don’t let a Zanzibari do it because you will get your dinner plate covered in rice with the top of the mound rising about six inches off the plate (and that’s no exaggeration), and then you get pilau and other stuff on top of it.
Oh, and did I mention that Zanzibaris don’t use silverware? It is common and accepted to eat with your hands. It is both a cultural and religious belief – that Mungu (God) made us to eat with our hands and he gave our hands something that makes the food taste sweet that you lose if you use silverware. My first time eating with my hands was an absolute disaster, there was rice everywhere but in my belly. I’ve picked up on some of the techniques now though, and I can almost finish a plate like a Zanzibari.
So you’ve been eating with your hands all these foods you’ve never seen before, and are ready to birth your food baby when your host grabs your plate and you think you’re finished. Haha, NOPE. An equally huge portion of rice, pilau, meats, and everything else gets piled back on your plate. Your expression just drops as you realize that you might actually throw up if you keep eating. A helpful phrase is “nimeshiba”, meaning “I am full”, but that actually means nothing to Zanzibaris and you have to eat more food anyway. And once you’re actually done and there’s no more food to be piled on your plate, it’s time for chai! Chai (communal name for all tea in Kiswahili) here is delicious and spicy and served extremely hot, which is great on super hot and humid days!
And by the way, cooking is done on the floor as well. So hope your leg muscles are ready for a bunch of squats!
Anyway, once you’re finished with absolutely everything, it’s time to head back home, so you thank your host with goodbyes that are longer than the greetings, put your shoes back on, and pass out on your bed from all the food you ate. Time to do it again tomorrow night!
Asante sana kwa kusoma!
Kim, DUSA Blogger