Cooking is one of my favourite things to do. The entire process, from preparation of ingredients to sharing a meal with friends is, to me, one of the greatest joys of life. Combined with my other passion, travel, food is more than just sustenance. Taste, smell, and the social and sensory experience of eating can be a poignant reminder of loved ones and times past.
Understanding the food, flavours, background and eating culture of a destination can help you get a deeper view of the place and the people. When I travel, I eat with abandon. Moving to a place nicknamed the Spice Island set my wannabe-foodie taste buds a-tinglin’. I envisioned adding Swahili flavours, spices and techniques to my culinary repertoire, to the gastronomic delight of all.
Zanzibar’s spices were mostly imported from Asia, but in the 19th century they quickly became the archipelago’s most important trading item. At one point in history, Zanzibar supplied over 90% of the world’s cloves. Unlike some nearby regional cuisines, where soggy French fries and fatty meat abound, Zanzibari food is no stranger to flavour. Spicy chili, heady cloves and cardamom, and the freshest herbs are blended in exotic (to me) ways that make eating here an adventure.
My first Zanzibari cooking lesson was with a friend from work. It doubled as a language lesson because she didn’t speak English. That was my first mistake. I watched in awe as she flitted around the kitchen, eyeballing the perfect amount of torn cinnamon bark to toss in a bowlful of water with cumin and peppercorns. It was years of experience in the making, and I was suddenly embarrassed by my colour coordinated measuring cups and recipe books.
The dish she was trying to teach me was pilau, one of Zanzibar’s most loved dishes. Using the cumin, cinnamon, and cardamom that thrive under the island’s blazing sun and heavy rainy seasons, the spiced-rice dish tastes like Zanzibar itself, and like nothing I’ve ever had before. When you fall in love with a recipe while traveling, it becomes imperative that you know how to recreate it or risk going the rest of your life without that deliciousness. I want to know how to make it so when I return to Canada I can make it and take the second best kind of trip – one on the tip of your tongue.
Pilau is a celebratory dish, something people make once a week for family lunches and dinners on Fridays. It’s kind of the equivalent of a roast on Sunday dinners in my house growing up. It’s also eaten at weddings and celebrations.
Unfortunately, learning to make pilau wasn’t as simple as opening a recipe book. Using spices in the whole was new isn’t something most Canadians are used to. Trying to learn it in another language made the lesson a bit of a write-off. I ended up doing the dishes after a delicious meal that I had no hand in whatsoever.
My second pilau lesson was with a different friend, one who speaks English and was more willing to explain each of the steps to me. I was her guinea pig for her first professional cooking lesson for tourists, for which I had so generously offered my kitchen in exchange for leftovers (full of altruism, I am).
During the second lesson, I made some progress, but again the lack of organized measurement and recipes mystified me. I was with her on soaking some spices but not others, mashing shelled cardamom, onions and garlic in a makeshift pestle and mortar, and soaking the rice, but when it all came together she lost me. When I asked how she knew to put the onions in, she thrust the pot in my direction and said “When it smells like this.” To me, it smelled the same as it had five minutes ago, but the years of cooking Zanzibari girls and women go through creates a deep understanding of the dish. Every nuance of flavour and trick of technique has a purpose. Cooking complex dishes with layers of flavour is something every woman in Zanzibar is taught to do from childhood, on par with making a bed and keeping your room tidy (two tasks I still struggle to manage as a fully-fledged adult).
The second lesson was more of a success, but I spent most of my time writing down what my teacher was doing (“add approximately one palmful-ish of a small person’s handful of cumin seeds” and “add onions when it smells like onions????”). In the end I had about half the recipe written down but still didn’t get how the dish got to that perfect spot on the knife-edge between sweet and savoury that made it like nothing I’d ever had before.
The third time I tried, I was acting as assistant to my friend’s lesson. She was teaching two honeymooners on holiday and wanted to use a Western-style kitchen so they would be able to recreate the dish at home more easily.
Unfortunately, the day on which the lesson was scheduled was also the day on which a full-day total-island power outage was planned. The whole idea to use my four-burner electric stove to help the tourists apply their knowledge to their own kitchens was, therefore, a bust. Rolling a large gas tank with a burner on top into my candlelit kitchen, we all had our doubts about the class.
The honeymooners – Canadians! – were great sports. In spite of the makeshift lighting and workspace, we successfully made a three course meal of Zanzibari food, including the pilau that had thus far eluded me. And, in role of assistant and veggie chopper, in a barely lit kitchen with a single burner, I finally ‘got’ the recipe. Layering the flavours – soaked cinnamon, cumin and peppercorns underneath cardamom, onions and garlic, making sure each ingredient gets its time to soak into the rice and potatoes – was the key. It took three lessons to figure out the important parts, but I think I can make it again. I’ll still write it down for notes, of course, but a memorized recipe is the best kind of souvenir. It can take you back whenever you want, and help share memories of your travels with others.
Eating with the couple that evening, we realized it was Canadian Thanksgiving. I hadn’t even noticed and felt a tinge of nostalgia for the home-cooked food and hours of family time that usually come on this day. Thankfully, we had made coconut pumpkin for dessert, a traditional Zanzibari dessert that was deliciously appropriate for our faraway holiday. I had my own culinary souvenir, satisfying my yen for home. Hopefully I can keep learning the elusive and time-honoured cooking traditions of Zanzibar to satisfy that same nostalgia and remember the places I have been – travel by tastebud.