Fed & Bougie Travels: 7 Spices I learned About in Zanzibar
Note: This is part one in a series about my travels to East and South Africa in December 2018
I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to visit Cape Town, South Africa twice in my life, but my husband had been wanting to visit for a couple of years. So, I made a deal with him. For our honeymoon last December, we could go to Cape Town but I wanted to go somewhere else on the continent that I had never been to. Thanks to the ‘gram and the images of glowing melanin bodies posing on beaches with white sand and clear turquoise waters, I made up my mind that our second location had to be Zanzibar. But there was more that I was interested in Zanzibar for outside of the sun and beach. After doing some research, I learned that Zanzibar offers spice farm tours.
Known as the Spice Islands, Zanzibar became a major producer of spices in the 18th century when the Omani Arabs developed an economy of trade and cash crops. The Omani Sultan, Seyyid Said, mandated that clove plantations be established on public and private lands, and forced Zanzibar’s slave population to grow and harvest the crops. This is how Zanzibar became the world’s largest clove producer.
But even before then, it’s believed that spices from Asia arrived in Zanzibar due to the island’s position along the trade route in the Indian Ocean. When Portuguese traders arrived in the 16th century, they also brought various spices from their colonies in South America and India.
In the last four decades, Zanzibar’s spice trade has declined sharply. It’s now more of a tourist resort – and one of main attractions is the spice plantation/farm tours.
There are so many tourist companies that you can use to book a spice tour. I booked ours through a site that also offers a cooking class after the tour. From Stone Town, Zanzibar’s main city, my husband and I traveled about 30 minutes to the countryside where the spice farms were located. We met our guide for the tour when we arrived at the farm. For a little over an hour, our guide walked us through the farm. He would find a plant, get a spice or leaf, and have us smell it and/or taste it, and try to figure out what it was. Our guide told us how certain spices grow and how they are used in cooking and/or for medicinal purposes. Some can even be used in cosmetics, like the Annatto seed that comes from the Achiote tree and is used as a spice and even lipstick!
We also got to see some tropical fruit, like star fruit and pineapple.
Star fruit - can be used to make jam or juice.
Pineapple - Takes about four months until its fully grown.
Here are 7 spices that we saw and learned about on the tour:
Clove – Zanzibar’s claim to fame. According to our guide, clove is used in Zanzibar in meals like chicken masala and pilaf rice. It’s also an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, and can help soothe muscular pain like toothaches and is good for making soap.
Nutmeg – Nutmeg changes color from green to orange to multicolor before it’s ready to be dried and grinded into a spice.
Cardamom - Outside of cooking, cardamom can be used as a breath freshener, and green cardamom can be used to make soap.
Vanilla – Our guide verified that vanilla is very expensive and takes a long time to grow, up to 5 years.
Pepper – Though pepper comes from one plant, you can get green pepper, white pepper, red pepper, yellow pepper, and black pepper. Besides cooking, pepper can also be used in tea to ease stomach gas.
Cinnamon – Cinnamon is one of my favorite spices. I was confused at first when our guide handed me a sliver cut from a tree. Come to find out it was cinnamon. He said there’s a different smell from each part of the tree, and the leaves can be used in liquids, especially during Ramadan season, like tea, coffee and chai. It’s also used in porridge. Our guide also said that cinnamon is useful in different dishes like pilaf rice and cakes, and in combination with other spices like black pepper.
Ginger - A great medicine for the stomach. Our guide told us that mixing ginger and clove for tea, and drinking one cup a day will help heal the stomach. Also great for ginger beer.
At the end of the tour, we were taken to a spice stall and had the option to buy fresh packaged spices to take home.
The tour (and lunch after) was definitely a highlight of our time in Zanzibar, and I’m so happy we did it. If you have the chance to visit Zanzibar (and I highly recommend it), check out a spice farm while you’re there. There’s nothing like it.