Zanzibar’s world of spices
The spice tour is one of the most popular tours on Zanzibar Island. Actually, Zanzibar is known as “The Spice Island” because of its important role in supplying exotic spices to the rest of the world for centuries.
The most famous Zanzibar spices are cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, turmeric, ginger… All of them are an integral part of Zanzibar’s cuisine, a fantastic mix of Indian, African and Arabic dishes.
On a spice tour, depending on the time of year, you can see how spices, herbs, and fruits grow on small and organic farms. We were really surprised by how some of them look in their natural environment! Also, you can taste different tropical fruits and buy spices to bring home, to spice your dishes and life, as well 🙂
The spice history
Spices have been used in cooking for centuries. According to researches, the earliest written records of spices come from ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian cultures. Cinnamon, pepper, cloves, and nutmeg were the first spices traded in the past.
Also, the sea trade was established in the Indian Ocean between Indonesia, India, Malaysia and the coast of East Africa many centuries ago. Because of its specific geographic position, Zanzibar was the perfect place and port for many traders.
Zanzibar & spices
While searching for the route to India, the Portuguese came to Zanzibar at the beginning of the 16th century. They imported plants and spices from their colonies in South America and India. For Europeans, spices were luxury goods. Therefore, the merchant companies were established in the Far East by Dutch, Portuguese, English and Spanish governments. And there were Arabic merchants who had been supplying spices before them as well. All of them battled to take control of the spice trade and shipping routes.
Except for spices, the Portuguese also traded with ivory and slaves. After almost two centuries, from the beginning of the 18th century, the Omani Arabs ruled Zanzibar. It became the centre of producing and trade spices, especially cloves.
After occupation by the British Empire in 1890, and the Anglo-Zanzibar war (1896), British colonials brought other spices and useful plants. Today spice plantations are controlled by the government.
Spices are dried parts of aromatic plants. They were used for medicinal purposes, religion, tradition, and magic rituals as well. Today we use spices for food flavouring and the very important effects they have on health because of their ingredients and anti-oxidant properties.
Jambo spice farm Dole
We discovered the world of spies visiting Jambo spice farm Dole.
A group of old and young locals takes care of this small organic farm. It is a good way to see how locals live in a rural environment as well because the farms are located near the villages.
Walking around the bushes, herbs and trees make you feel like you are lost in a green world.
And when you roll little spice parts between the fingers and feel their aromatic fragrance… Well, that feeling is unbelievable, the real paradise for the senses!
At the beginning of the tour, we got the flower-palm basket where we collected different little parts of spices.
During the visit, our guide talked about different spices, herbs, and fruits grown on Zanzibar. Most of these spices we use in our kitchens every day. We buy them in small packaging in stores and shops. Usually, we don’t think about where they come from and how they were prepared for the final use! But certainly, after this experience, we will appreciate spices and their role in everyday use much more.
Visiting a spice farm looks like you are in an outdoor kitchen where you can take everything you need for delicious meals. So let’s take a walk through the marvellous world of spices!
The first spice we saw was cardamom.
Do you know that it is one of the most expensive spices in the world, after saffron and vanilla? Well, this plant can grow from 1.5 to 6 meters. The fruits are green seeds that are picked or clipped from the stems just before maturity, and then cleaned and dried in the sun.
Cardamom has an intensive and sweet flavour, similar to mint. That is the reason why Wrigley uses it in the production of chewing gums. Mostly cardamom is used in the South Asian and Middle East cuisine and in Scandinavian pastries as well.
But cardamom has fantastic medicinal properties and its seeds, extracts and oils have been used for centuries. For example, it may lower blood pressure and sugar level, improve breathing, and help weight loss. It may also be used to alleviate chronic diseases, digestive problems, and has anti-inflammatory effects.
Well, pineapple is the favourite tropical fruit worldwide.
Mostly it grows in Latin America (84% in Costa Rica) and West Africa. Do you know that the pineapple plant could produce only one piece of fruit?
The production process lasts very long. It grows as a small shrub. About 15 to 20 months after planting, a group of 100-200 individuals purple flowers forms one fruit. Actually, after flowering, a pineapple fruit needs five or six more months to mature. The best way is to eat it fresh, but it is mostly available in cans worldwide.
And this is how the pineapple plant looks like.
The smell of lemongrass is amazing!
Actually, it smells like a lemon, but its fragrance is more intensive and very fresh. Lemongrass is used in food and beverage preparation, herbal tea, aromatherapy and cosmetics. The soaps with lemongrass are perfect for smooth skin and have a wonderful smell! And this plant is also good as a mosquito repellent.
Spice Ginger is very popular all around the world.
Usually, it is used to spice the vegetarian and meat-based dishes, for making juice, ice cream, cakes, chocolate. Also, there is ginger tea and ginger is used as an ingredient in soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, wines, and beer as well.
So, ginger is a pain killer, it has anti-inflammatory properties, and it is very important in Ayurvedic medicine. It is good for nausea, indigestion, blood circulatory, it can cure acne and yellow fever. Also, it is used in food preparation for pregnant or nursing women (in moderate doses and with caution).
And there is something more: it improves circulation and it is a good aphrodisiac 🙂
The spice turmeric is a flowering plant of yellow colour and it is similar to ginger.
The main ingredient is curcumin, a very strong antioxidant that has powerful anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects as well. It helps in treating heart problems, cancer prevention, treating Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis problems.
Turmeric is used as a spice in South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Also, it is an ingredient in many products such as canned beverages, baked and dairy products, ice cream, cakes, biscuits, cereals, sauces. And it is a principal ingredient in curry powders.
The main reason why Zanzibar is called “The Spice Island” is cloves. It is called “the king of the spice”.
During the 19th century under the Oman Arabs rule, Zanzibar produced about 90% of the world’s cloves! At that time, Zanzibar had a central role in trade routes into the interior of Africa. But in the present time, the government controls and owns the cloves plantations.
Cloves are sweet and aromatic spice. They are used in Asian, African, Mediterranean, and Middle East cuisines, to flavour the dishes, hot beverages, fruits. Also, cloves are used in traditional medicine as analgesics, to reduce blood sugar, liver disease, food allergies, and cancer prevention. It is rich in oxidants and it is used in aromatherapy as well.
In a word, nutmeg looks gorgeous, just like a sweet little present! Actually, it is a particular 2 in 1 kind of spice.
When you cut a smooth yellow fruit, there is brown seed nutmeg.
But there is the mace, red fibers that cover the seed and have a more delicious taste.
Usually, the nutmeg is added to desserts, bread and fruit salads because of its sweet and aromatic flavour. It is also used to spice the meat dishes, vegetables, warm and cold beverages.
It contains powerful antioxidants, controls blood sugar and has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. But be careful: in large doses, fresh nutmeg could have psychoactive and hallucinogenic effects. Even the nutmeg overdose can result in death, especially when mixed with other drugs.
Also, nutmeg is the natural Viagra for women 🙂
One of the favourite spices in the world and also my favourite is definitely cinnamon.
It is a bushy tree and the spice derives from its bark. And it smells fantastic! Because of its sweet aroma, it is used for flavouring different kinds of food, curries, beverages and bakery goods. I don’t know about you, guys, but I usually add it to coffee, cakes, and freshly sliced apples and oranges as well!
It has been used for medical purposes for thousands of years. In fact, cinnamon is anti-oxidant, has anti-inflammatory properties, prevents heart disease, reduces insulin resistance, lowers blood sugar, may protect against cancer, etc. All parts of the plant are used – leaves, flowers, and roots. The essential cinnamon oil is used in the production of perfumes, liqueur, and drugs. Also, cinnamon improves blood flow in the abdominal area, which makes it an aphrodisiac.
One of the most popular and most traded spices is definitely pepper.
All cuisines around the world use it as a spice for thousands of years. Pepper is so spicy because of the chemical compound piperine, like capsaicin in chilli peppers.
Pepper is a climbing plant growing up to 4 m and its fruit is peppercorns. They grow green, they are picked before becoming red and then dried until they are black. So depending on the manufacturing process of drying, we have different types of pepper from one plant. Green is dried for a short time or marinated. Red pepper refers to mature red berries, which are subsequently marinated. Black pepper is collected when it is still green, but the period of drying is longer. Also, there is white pepper which demands special treatment. The skin of red berries is removed and then the berries are dried.
It has many health benefits. It is a strong anti-oxidant, boosts nutrient absorption, improves digestion and has anti-inflammatory properties.
In fact, the real name of this fruit is Achiote or Bixa Orellana.
It grows as a shrub or small tree. The tiny waxy seeds are inside the fruit. And when you roll up them between the fingers, they become a red paste. Traditionally it is used as natural cosmetics, like lipstick and body paint in some rituals.
And that is why it is called lipstick fruit 🙂
The vanilla is the second expensive spice in the world and belongs to the orchid family.
It is a climbing plant and grows in plantations, but it demands special treatment for cultivation. Actually, it takes three years to get the first flower after planting.
One flower produces one fruit. Otherwise, flowers are hermaphroditic and have both male and female organs. The vanilla flower opens for only 24 hours for pollination. So, they can be naturally pollinated only by one genus of the bees or manually by plantation workers. That is the reason why vanilla is so expensive. Usually, it is replaced with artificial vanilla flavouring, called vanillin. Of course, its taste is not as good as real vanilla.
Except for a whole pod, vanilla is used as powder, extract, and vanilla sugar. And of course, it is an essential ingredient of cakes, cookies, beverages, and cosmetics as well. I am sure that most people enjoy vanilla ice cream mixed with fruits or chocolate on hot days 🙂
Coconut & palm tree
During our visit to the farm spice, we had an opportunity to see a performance live.
Actually, one young local guy climbed a palm tree using only rope from a palm tree and singing a famous Zanzibar’s song “Hakuna Matata”. Well, it was very interesting!
Locals gave us hand-made palm crowns decorated with a red flower.
And we tasted coconut water from a fresh-cut coconut, which was so refreshing, especially on a hot day in June.
The coconut tree is a part of the palm tree family. As a matter of fact, coconut is the fruit of the coconut palm. And it is amazing how many ways the coconut tree and fruit could be used.
So, inside the fruit is coconut water, which is very tasty. And it is the perfect way to feel better immediately if you are dehydrated. So coconut meat and cream are made by pressing the raw meat, which is used in cooking and baking. In the recent period, we have had an expansion of using coconut oil for cooking, health, beauty, skin, hair. Coconut contains a high percentage of nutrients, minerals, antioxidants and it has many health benefits.
From the leaves the locals make baskets, and trunks are used for building small bridges, huts, and houses.
Tasting the tropical fruits
After a walk along with the spice farm, we enjoyed a different kind of fresh sliced fruits.
Some of them we saw for the first time. Mmm… what a fantastic mix of tropical fruits 🙂
The fruit papaya has a delicious and sweet aroma.
Usually, the yellow-red ripe fruit can be eaten raw, and unripe can be eaten cooked and used in salads, salsa, smoothies, and desserts. It contains the enzyme papain, used for tenderizing meat and other proteins. Papaya is rich in vitamins C and A, and fibers. Also, it has powerful antioxidants effects, anti-cancer properties and may improve digestion.
Maracujá or Passion fruit is one of my favourite fruits.
And yes, I have to admit: I am addicted to this sweet and delicious fruit!
They are oval-shaped and could be yellow, red, purple, and green in colour. Its pulp is aromatic and has a jelly-like and watery texture. Freshly squeezed passion fruit juice has a fantastic taste and can be added to cocktails as well. It is used as an ingredient in cakes, desserts, salads, ice cream. There is also passion fruit tea, which contains herbs and not caffeine, only if it is not mixed with black or green tea.
Passion fruit is rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibers. It may reduce inflammation and pain, boost metabolism and heart health, relax the mind and protect the brain.
Pineapple and mango
I have already mentioned pineapple. But I have to say that it was the best and juicy pineapple I have ever tasted 🙂
It is full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, may speed recovery after surgery, it has anti-inflammatory properties. And it is good for a diet because it is low in calories. Pineapple is used as an ingredient in various desserts, meat, fish, rice and vegetable dishes, and sometimes in Italian pizza, as well. Yes, it seems strange, but it is very delicious!
Mangoes have been cultivated in South Asia for thousands of years.
There are several hundred cultivars of this sweet and juicy fruit. It can be yellow, orange, red, or green colour and can vary in size and shape. The best way is to eat mango fresh sliced, or as squeezed juice and in smoothies. Or you can taste it in ice cream, fruit salads, and a milkshake.
And guess what: it is low in calories which makes mango a great choice for diet. But it is full of vitamins – particularly vitamin C, minerals, antioxidants and has many health benefits. Also, it is widely used in cuisine as an ingredient in different dishes and for making sweet and spicy sauces.
We all know how bananas look like and what taste they have. It is one of the most important fruit and it is consumed all over the world. The banana plant looks like a tree because of its wide and very long leaves.
Besides yellow bananas, there are red and green ones as well. In Zanzibar, for example, only small size yellow bananas are eaten fresh, but the bigger bananas are used for cooking.
Carambola or star fruit got its name because of its specific look. When you cut it cross-section, the sliced parts have the shape of a five-point star. The taste of ripe fruit is a mix of apples and citrus fruit, juicy but not so sweet. It is a very nutritious fruit, rich in fiber and vitamin C, and low in calories because it has 91% water.
Jackfruit and Durian fruit
Well, the jackfruit and durian fruit looks very similar, but they are not the same.
Jackfruit has a sweet taste but it doesn’t have a strong flavour. Usually, in the cuisines of many Asian countries, it is boiled and used in curries, salads, vegetables, and meat dishes as well.
It is low in calories, but rich in fibers and vitamins A and C.
Durian fruit has also a sweet and creamy taste. Some people call it “the king of the fruits” because of its large size. Actually, it can be 30 cm long and weighs one to three kilograms.
But, there is something else: its smell.
So, if you eat this fruit fresh, plug your nose and don’t smell it, just eat it. The local guys told us not to smell it, but I was curious and… oh my God, it smelled terrible! It is a strong and intense smell, something like a mix of rotten onions and sewage.
And because of this specific characteristic, it is forbidden to keep it in hotels and public transport in Southeast Asia. Usually, it is used in preparing sweet dishes, desserts, ice creams, biscuits, milkshakes.
Durian is one of the most nutritious fruits in the world. It is rich in vitamins, healthy nutrients, minerals, antioxidants, fibers. This specific fruit reduces cancer risk, improves muscle strength, skin health, low blood pressure, has antibacterial properties, etc.
Shopping: spices & natural cosmetic products
We finished our spice tour in a little shop in an open space. In this way, you support the local communities. So you can buy various fresh-packed different spices from the farm.
Also, there are natural hand-made soaps and they smell amazing, such as lemongrass, coconut, aloe vera, and various natural oils. For example, coconut oil makes your hair stronger and silky, it is enough to take two or three drops after washing.
If you miss the opportunity to buy spices during the farm visit, you can find them in the Darajani Market in Stone Town.
Spices for all senses
Usually, local agencies organize spice tours or you can ask the owner in your hotel to help you. Visits can be arranged for the groups or individually on a few farms in Zanzibar Island. So take an opportunity and find time to explore the world of spices. It is an unusual and fantastic experience.
In a word, spices together with long sandy beaches, palm trees and all shades of blue, green and turquoise water, make Zanzibar an unforgettable destination.