Like many people part of a growing trend, I usually value life experiences above material possessions. I appreciate new experiences with delicious, or sometimes strange, food, which tends to be my preferred form of life experience. Nothing can be more exciting in my opinion than combining new foods with travelling to new places and interacting with new cultures. Talking to local cooks and bringing once foreign recipes home is by far my favorite part of encountering new places and cultures.
Recently, I was approached by a friend and fellow outdoors enthusiast with an opportunity to travel to Tanzania and do a Mt. Kilimanjaro trek. I gladly accepted and started training immediately. More than hiking to the “Rooftop of Africa,” I was mostly excited about getting the chance to try East African foods. Until that point, I was completely unaware of the culture or foods coming from the region.
While attempting to eat my way across the country, I discovered some very interesting history that shaped the culture and the food of the region. The island city of Zanzibar is located just off the east coast of Tanzania and was a regular stopping point for trade routes through the Indian Ocean. Zanzibar became an island known for its spice plantations and is still known for its spice markets. Through this trade, Indian spices made their way into East African cuisine. The culture’s main meals are based around beef and goat, which are highly spiced with Indian influence. Samosas and curries can be found at many restaurants. Side dishes typically consist of some form of potato, tomato, cabbage, or banana; and all very heavily spiced.
While driving through cities, you regularly see small produce vendors selling many greens, carrots, HUGE avocados, and a lot of potatoes. The small butcher shops with meat hanging in the heat and open air made me appreciate the cleanliness and regulation of American meat markets. When I had a chance to get outside of touristy locations, I found chicken (the entertaining Swahili name for which is “Cucu”) was one of the more popular dishes at local food vendors. It was usually fried and served with a spicy tomato sauce. Sides included French fries or a form of potato that reminded me of an Italian polenta, flash fried cabbage in tomato sauce, and a delicious spinach concoction of coconut milk with an onion mix.
Photo: Pilau (Zanzibar rice) and Kabeji ya Kukaanga (stir fried cabbage) after reaching the summit.
The food on the mountain trek was very different than that found in the cities. A major reason for this was the fact that all food had to be carried up the mountain for the 6-11 day hike. Breakfast started with a porridge and dinner started with a cucumber soup. These were not only easy ways to help heat up the body in the cold mountain air, but the fluid based dishes help the group stay hydrated. Hydration is a major concern when getting to high altitudes and dehydration can cause potentially deadly health concerns. After porridge, breakfast was eggs, chapati (unleavened flat bread), and fried sausages. Main dinner dishes consisted of some sort of fried meat and veggies in a stew form with fried potatoes or rice. Sides would be fruit or veggie salads that made gave the whole meal some freshness (which seemed to be lacking after 6 days of showerless hiking and camping). Bananas and mangoes could be found at the end of most meals.
Photo: Fried Cucu with Kabeji ya Kukaanga (stir fried cabbage), Mchicha, and Kochumbari.
When I had the opportunity, I would talk to small food vendors, the cooks on the mountain trip, and even local restaurant cooks (all of whom seemed extremely appreciative to get good feedback and were very open to discussion of their recipes). I tried to get an understanding of the spices and methods of preparing East African foods. Now that I am back from my travels and having a chance to recuperate from the hike, I have worked with our chef at The Healthy Grocer to create authentic and exotic dishes from East Africa. Recipes include the mountain staple Spicy Cucumber soup, the coconut spinach dish known as Mchicha, a stir fried cabbage called Kabeji ya Kukaanga, a fresh tomato dish called Kochumbari that I’ve likened to a pico de gallo and brushetta crossover, and Pilau, a Zanzibar rice. In the coming weeks we will continue to work on bringing in new and interesting dishes from the region as we bring them closer to authentic flavors and consistencies. Keep an eye out for The Healthy Grocer’s Tanzania recipes!