If my circumstances had not been so dire — or rather, if my circumstances had been drier — I might never have found myself at the Zanzibar Curio Shop.
At first glance, the store did little to distinguish itself from other trinket purveyors besieging the tangled lanes of Stone Town, the historic quarter on the coast of Unguja, Zanzibar's main island: "Hakuna Matata" T-shirts obscured the facade and tourists browsed souvenirs. In any other city, I'd breeze past. But sodden from the fury of a downpour, feigning interest in refrigerator magnets seemed a small price to pay for shelter.
"If you want to see the real history of Zanzibar, you have to come upstairs," said Murtaza Akberali, who, with his brother, runs the store their father opened in 1968. And so I followed him through a portal to Zanzibar of yore: Hand-carved wood-and-brass trunks teetered against one wall; vintage cigarette ads from India and political posters from Tanzania formed a retro pastiche on another. The ceiling was an inverted necropolis of timeworn lanterns and teapots suspended from the rafters. Cameras and African tribal busts were jumbled in some nooks; others were orderly archives of domestic ephemera: a wall of grandfather clocks; a cluster of rusting keys, likely belonging to earlier iterations of the brass-studded doors I'd been compulsively Instagramming all over Stone Town. I flipped through bundles of black-and-white Indian matrimonial headshots, the subjects' bouffants, curlicues of eyeliner and flared pants suggesting a 1960s provenance. In one room, I paused before a glass cabinet of daggers glinting with bejewelled and mother-of-pearl hilts.
You have to be careful, when writing about a place like Zanzibar, to not reduce it to a series of prosaic meditations on brilliantly sunny skies, blindingly white beaches and beguilingly azure waters. Even British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton wasn't immune: "Truly prepossessing was our first view of the then mysterious island of Zanzibar," he wrote in "Zanzibar: City, Island, and Coast" in 1872. "The sea of purest sapphire ... under a blaze of sunshine which touched every object with a dull burnish of gold."
To prevent such exaltations from finding their way into my own notebook, Zanzibar made sure I encountered nothing of the sort.
I'd landed on the first day of a delayed rainy season. While I'd been ready for showers, nothing, short of packing an ark, could have prepared me for the apocalyptic tempest that descended with my flight. Swimming in sapphire seas might have been out of the question, but I hadn't considered swimming down streets that had been transformed into gushing canals. These were not silvery, romantic mists slinking through latticed rooftops; this was a miasma of damp and despair.
Undeterred, I brandished my umbrella like a shield and waded through the waterlogged streets of Stone Town. While I certainly wouldn't have minded them, beaches and sunshine weren't what had lured me, anyhow. As someone who's lived in the Middle East, India and Africa, I've long been curious about the confluence of the three cultures on an archipelago that could, on a map, be mistaken for ink splotches in the Indian Ocean, just off the coast of Tanzania. The Swahili language spoken here is a composite of Bantu and Arabic, with tributes to Persian, Portuguese, English and Hindi. The architectural dialect is also complex: a dulcet dialogue between African, Arab, Indian and European influences. The briny air gnawing patterns into walls, the serpentine lanes shaded by filigreed balconies, and the ornately carved teak doors: All lend Stone Town a dreamlike beauty that even sheets of rain can't obscure. The culturally layered cuisine I would sample, and the mishmash of trinkets I browsed at Zanzibar Curio Shop, scavenged from estate sales, told me more about Zanzibar than a sun-drenched beach ever could.
Where far-flung corners converge
"Zanzibar is not just one thing — Arab, Indian, Persian or Bantu. It's what they call Swahili," fashion designer Farouque Abdela said. With his dark glasses, embroidered kofia hat and a playful smirk tugging at his lips as he doles out sharp one-liners, Abdela is hard to miss. But if you want to be certain to catch him, your best bet is dropping by the Emerson Hurumzi hotel, an elegant 19th-century mansion once owned by a wealthy adviser to a sultan. Abdela designed the hotel's jewel-box interiors and holds court most mornings on a divan in its lobby.
"It's very difficult for people to place Zanzibar. Is it the Orient? Is it African? What is it?" He paused. "I think that's what makes it interesting."
You can trace the cultures that mingled in Zanzibar through Abdela's lineage: He is a native Zanzibari of Comoran, Indian and Arab descent, who spent much of his life in England before returning to Stone Town 16 years ago. "Zanzibar is the most peaceful place in the world," he declared. "We are all one. I can't go against Arabs, because I have a little blood of that. I can't go against Indians, because there's a little blood of that. You can't pick a fight with someone because of their ethnicity or because of their faith."
It's a noble sentiment but one that plays down Zanzibar's complex and often tragic history. Straddling strategic coordinates for ancient trade routes, Zanzibar was, for centuries, where far-flung corners of the world converged. The region was settled by Bantus from mainland Africa, then Persians, Portuguese and Arabs, each wave leaving indelible influences on the language, dress, food and religion.
Today, Zanzibar's population is almost entirely Muslim. For two centuries it was part of the Sultanate of Oman; for a brief period in the 1880s, the Omani capital was moved from Muscat to Stone Town. The archipelago became immensely wealthy from the brutal slave trade to both Europe and Asia, and was also a hub for ivory and spices. Europe's scramble for Africa saw Zanzibar become a British protectorate in 1890, then finally, a violent 1964 revolution led to Zanzibar's union with Tanganyika, now known as Tanzania.
Of pepper and cinnamon
Spices remain one of Zanzibar's calling cards, although things have changed quite a bit over the centuries. "Back in the day, pepper had as much value as cocaine today," said Raphael Flury, a Swiss lawyer who is now the director of the spice cooperative 1001 Organic in Stone Town.
These days, Zanzibar's purported spice farms tend to mainly be for show, staging tours and performances geared toward visitors. In fact, many of the spices on sale in Zanzibar's markets are imported. Seeking a less commercial outing, I joined Flury and Ethan Frisch, a New York-based entrepreneur whose company, Burlap & Barrel, imports spices directly from farmers around the world. Frisch was in Zanzibar on a sourcing trip, and on a rare morning when the sun pried its way out of the clouds and held the raindrops at bay, I tagged along as they met with farmers growing nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper.
"Spices have been ignored in the global food revolution," Frisch said. "There are heirloom tomatoes, single-origin coffee — I'm trying to find heirloom spices." While Burlap & Barrel procures everything from Icelandic kelp flakes to blue turmeric from Vietnam, Zanzibar had been Frisch's first scouting trip, in 2016. "It's a place ignored by the global commodity trade but with a significant history of spice trade."
A culinary adventure
But what really drew me to Stone Town, and what kept beckoning me out into the spongy air and sleepy offseason streets, was the food. The island's long relationship with spices, and the cultures that converged in pursuit of them, have concocted a singular — and delicious — culinary tableau. In Zanzibar, fusion is a creed, not a craze.
"A mixture of culture, rather than food," is how Abdela described urojo to me. The stew, popularly known as Zanzibar mix, is hearty, rainy-day food — best slurped, not eaten. "It's all the cultures of Zanzibar in a little bowl."
When I tried it for myself, it was as though my taste buds were circumnavigating the globe: a few chunks of mishkaki, or East African grilled meat, sliced off a skewer, were draped with Indian-inspired fried bhajias, local cassava strips and chunks of potatoes — originally introduced to the region from the Americas by Europeans — then layered with generous dollops of coconut chutney and fiery chile sauce and doused in a sour mango broth. The dumplings yielded deferentially to my fork, the soup was bright and citrusy, and each sloppy spoonful came laden with visions of the sunny afternoons and balmy weather that weren't written in my destiny.
On most days, the storms were relentless, so it was a relief to escape the worst of the downpours with the promise of a meal. During one cloudburst, I ducked into Maa Sha Allah, a no-frills, cafeteria-style restaurant, to bide my time over a plate of beef masala; during another, I watched sheets of rain lash the beach from the cosseting confines of the Serena Hotel, where I tucked into kuku paka, a flavourful chicken-coconut stew, popular along the Swahili coast in Kenya and Tanzania. From a woman hunched in a sheltered nook off the side of the road I picked up a pillowy disk of mkate wa ufuta, sesame bread baked over coals, and ripped off chewy, perfectly charred chunks to nibble on a baraza, a shaded bench that's a fixture outside traditional Swahili houses.
One sultry evening, I climbed a series of dizzying staircases of Escherian proportions to the rooftop of the Emerson Spice Hotel, where course after course of traditional Zanzibari dishes with contemporary twists — tuna timbale, roast sheli sheli (breadfruit), chaza mchicha (oyster wrapped in spinach leaves) and coconut-crusted kingfish — were served with a soothing staccato of rainfall against the roof and the call to prayer, echoing from dozens of surrounding mosques.
And yet the dish that had inspired my epicurean exploits was in danger of eluding me: the curiously named Zanzibar pizza, a snack I'd never tasted and yet had somehow developed an unlikely sort of nostalgia for; now I just needed a long-enough respite from the elements to find it.
You can smell Stone Town's main culinary destination before you see it: the nightly open-air food market at the seafacing Forodhani Gardens. It's usually a festive affair, but on my first visit, the weather put a literal damper on the market and washed the vendors out.
I returned to satisfy my craving on another drizzly evening, bypassing stalls cranking out sugar cane juice and urojo to make a beeline for a row of pizza hawkers with names like Mr. Delicious and Mr. Big Banana before the rains triumphed again. I watched, entranced, as a jovial chef — I'd gone with Mr. Nutella — rolled out a mound of greasy dough, slick with oil and likely more than a few dashes of perspiration and rainwater. Against that gleaming canvas, he scattered minced beef, sprinkled a chiffonade of onions, tomatoes and green peppers, dressed it all with salt, mayonnaise, cheese and achaar (a spicy condiment), then cracked an egg on top of it before slapping it on a griddle until it attained that optimal level of chewy-crispy communion. Think of it as an adopted sibling of Italian pizza: the same last name but a completely different genetic makeup. The concoction was more crepe than pizza, but the result tasted just as delicious as its laundry list of components might portend.
I'd barely finished my last bite when I felt the unmistakable splat: first on my shoulder, then on my cheek, then on my head. Then everywhere, all at once. The rains were back without warning, although at this point I knew better than to expect one. I followed other diners to congregate under a feeble tent until it passed — but what was the point? Instead, I splashed my way back out into the sticky night, soggy but satisfied.
Written by: Sarah Khan
Photographs by: Joao Silva
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES