“Pole post. “Slowly. Spend a few days in Tanzania and you’ll hear the Swahili phrase more often than you can count – when trying to climb Mount Kilimanjaro at a steady pace, maybe, or whenever you need a nudge to remind you to enjoy the more languid pace of coastal life in this East African country. In this particular case the words came from a food vendor at the Forodhani Gardens Night Market from Zanzibar – a gentleman who had anointed himself “Mr. Nutella” – to warn me when I bit so enthusiastically into my scorching Zanzibar pizza that I sang my tongue and let out a cry.
The only thing I knew for sure: this pizza had nothing to do with any type of pizza I have ever known
My desire to dig was understandable, given the years of anticipation that had culminated in this precise moment. I first heard of the oddly named Zanzibar pizza over ten years ago, when a friend returned from a bush and beach vacation in Tanzania and regaled me with stories of the evening at the seafront of Stone Town Forodhani Gardens, the setting for the nocturnal afternoon. street food extravaganza at sunset. A highlight, she told me, was the Zanzibar pizza, a greasy disc of dough stuffed with a mishmash of ingredients, which, when combined, suggest a patchwork of flavor and flavor. origins that rarely collide elsewhere in the world.
For years, I have tried to plan a trip to this semi-autonomous archipelago in the Indian Ocean to try it out for myself. The idea for this dish lodged in a corner of my mind and has been woven into it ever since, inspiring a sweet culinary case. fern, a pain to see distant places. Yet instead of dreaming of a faraway place I’ve never been, I found myself craving a dish I had never tasted. The only thing I knew for sure: this pizza had nothing to do with any type of pizza I’ve ever known.
It is nothing like Italian pizza and it has nothing to do with Italian pizza
“It doesn’t look anything like Italian pizza and it doesn’t taste like Italian pizza. What pizza has mayonnaise or cream cheese?” Miriam Malaquias, a self-taught Swahili chef and author of the Taste of Tanzania cookbook, asked with a laugh. Confusing name and composition aside, the ubiquity of Zanzibar pizza in Forodhani reveals just how popular it has become with locals and tourists alike over the past decades.
I had arrived in Zanzibar at the start of its soggy rainy season, and my first attempt to fulfill that ten-year-old desire for dinner was a washout, as relentless storms brought me back to the confines of my hotel. When I returned to Forodhani a few days later, on the first night of Ramadan, the rains were less intimidating and the scene was much more festive: the ambroissing soundtrack of sizzling meat filled the air as hundreds of locals gathered. crowded around the stalls, lining up to order chicken shawarmas; grilled charcoal sparkling skewers Michkaki beef; steaming bowls of turmeric, mango and grilled meat in a stew called urojo with cups of squeezed sugarcane juice. And, of course, the pizzas: stall after stall, carefully prepared by vendors with names like “Mr Delicious”, “Mr Big Banana” and “Mr Chocolate”, stuffed dough patties landed on oiled pans with a bang. deaf.
I left my high pizza expectations in the capable hands of Mr. Nutella. My anticipation mounted as he rolled out the dough and dressed her in all that is delicious in life. A layer of ground beef. A pinch of finely diced onions, tomatoes and green peppers. A triangle of processed cheese The Laughing Cow, the pre-cut portions of which adapt perfectly to every pizza in Zanzibar. A handful of coriander. A generous spoonful of mayonnaise. A dusting of salt and pepper and a dollop of achari, a Swahili version of the Indian pickled condiment achaar. And an egg, cracked with a flower.
Swahili cuisine is a mixture of Bantu tastes, Arab tastes and Indian tastes
This amalgamation of flavors and textures was then folded into a neat little package and fried to order. Yes there was dough, tomato, and meat, but to label the concoction, a pizza seemed like a bit of a stretch. The result looked more like a stuffed pancake and, unlike its Italian namesake, this pizza reminded me of mutabbaq, a savory pancake that I grew up eating in Saudi Arabia. Mutabbaq itself has origins in Yemen; at one point, it was exported to Southeast Asia, where it is known as murtabak. Could Zanzibar pizza be an immigrant parent to the south of mutabbaq, I was wondering?
To understand the existence of Zanzibar pizza, you must first understand the existence of Zanzibar. For centuries, Zanzibar’s strategic location made it a hub for the international slave and spice trade, and the archipelago was rivaled by world powers ranging from the Persians to the Portuguese to the Arabs to the English. Centuries of cultural cross-pollination have culminated in the Swahili language, culture and cuisine of East Africa, whose blend of distant influences reflects the cosmopolitan ethos of the region today.
“Swahili cuisine is a mixture of Bantu tastes, Arab tastes and Indian tastes, all of these cultures and the people who colonized us,” said Malaquias. “When traders came from India and Oman, they came with their food, and the locals – Tanzanians and residents of Mombasa, Kenya – tried to copy the same recipes. But due to the few ingredients, most of the foods have been changed a bit. “
Centuries of adaptations have resulted in the unique culinary repertoire of the Swahili coast: I have sampled kuku paka (a rich chicken and coconut stew); pilaf (the East African variation of the eponymous Arab and Indian rice dish is heady with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom); pweza wa nazi (octopus curry); chips mayai (an egg and fries omelet); and Urujo (a sour mango and coconut broth bursting with crispy cassava strips, chunks of potato, fried bhajias, mishkaki meat skewers, and chili sauce). While some of these dishes are unique to Zanzibar, others are ubiquitous along the Swahili coast in Kenya and Tanzania. Each bite conveyed a complex story, with long-traded ingredients from Asia and Europe finding a kinship on the Zanzibar plate.
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But while many of these East African meal staples trace their origins to century-old kitchens along the Swahili coast, it seems the dish I was looking for is somewhat of a recent upstart in Zanzibar.
“Nineteen-ninety-seven,” said Farid Hamid with remarkable precision when asked about the first time he had heard of Zanzibar pizza. Hamid, a local historian and cultural expert who often works with Stone Town’s legendary Emerson Spice Hotel, said this “pizza” was actually a riff on the keema chapati, a popular Swahili street food from neighboring Kenya – which in turn drew inspiration from the unleavened flatbreads of India. And as for the way it gets its name: “A young man from [the Zanzibari island of] Pemba [working] in Forodhani was making this old street food recipe but didn’t know how to explain it when people asked for it, and just called it pizza. “
Hamid said that this first prototype contained only onions, eggs and meat, but as the dish spread to the night market, new variations appeared. “This guy started adding other ingredients, other people started copying and adding their own things.” Today, every stall offers sweet and savory spins, ranging from octopus or mozzarella to mango chicken or Nutella or banana-chocolate. In the two decades since its introduction to the market, pizzas have become the best-selling item.
In the two decades since its introduction to the market, pizzas have become the best-selling item.
Pizza may be a relatively new addition to Zanzibar’s culinary lexicon, but its origin story mirrors that of local standbys with much older histories. Mix and match the flavor profiles of neighbors and itinerant traders, then add their own twist – this is how Zanzibari have been eating for centuries, after all. Pizza, it seems, is just a more contemporary epicurean progression. But what about a possible connection to the mutabbaq of my childhood? Turns out I might not have imagined it. According to Hamid, a generation ago a dish called mutabakia had a time in Zanzibar. Hamid remembers it as a similar but bland version of the stuffed pancake.
“It only included meat and onion,” he recalls. “There is more imagination now. You do like [the Indian unleavened flatbread] chapati, pretty much the same as Zanzibar pizza now. “
Mutabakia could be found in Yemeni neighborhoods in Zanzibar, but now only the older generations will know what you are talking about if you ask, “Hamid continued.” But most will know exactly what a Zanzibar pizza is. “
The pizza Mr. Nutella served me that day lived up to everything I imagined: the perfect blister mix achari and soothing cheese, all mixed with perfectly seasoned ground beef. It’s a rare treat when expectations and reality collide so easily. So you will understand why I could not eat it in a post.
Culinary roots is a BBC Travel series connected to rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage.
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