Zanzibar became known as “Spice Islands” as a result of the numerous clove plantations established during the 18th century while the archipelago was under sultan rule. I knew of the spice market in Stone Town, but decided to “one up” that experience by visiting Mtausa Spice Farm in Kizimbani Town. Although I love cooking with spice, I knew very little about how spices are grown and harvested. The farm, located just outside of Stone Town and near Kizimbani Persian Baths, accommodates group tours, private tours and independent travelers. Perfect!
Our guides led us on a dirt path through the plantation, stopping at various plants. We ripped and smelled leaves, tasted spices and learned interesting facts:
- Turmeric is called the “poor man’s saffron.” Turmeric plus milk is a homemade acne treatment; plus honey is an antidote for sickness; plus chili makes curry.
- Peppercorns are usually picked when green; they turn black when dried. If allowed to mature on the plant, peppercorns will turn from green to yellow to red.
- Cloves are the pride of Zanzibar, with export levels averaging 100,000 tons per year. A clove tree grows for seven years before bearing its first fruit.
- Cinnamon sticks are actually shaved tree bark. Cinnamon powder keeps ants away and stops bleeding gums. The tree’s roots have a menthol flavor that can be inhaled as a respiratory treatment.
- Annatto has no taste, but is so potent in color that it is used for lipstick (as our guides demonstrated!) and added to oil for dye. More people know it as the color of tandoori spice.
- Nutmeg has a special place in Swahili tradition. Believe it or not, on special occasions, women are served a potent nutmeg porridge to get them high.
- Even today, the vanilla that grows in Zanzibar is hand-pollinated. It was originally imported from Mexico and the bee species that pollinate vanilla flowers are not found in Zanzibar.
The young men working at the farm were quite entertaining! Using palm leaves, they first made each of us “cones” to hold the leaves and spices we collected along the tour; and then continued to fashion and shower us with rings, bracelets, crowns and necklaces with a frog pendant.
One young man even demonstrated how to climb a palm tree to cut down coconuts. (He twisted a looped rope into a figure eight, placed it around the backside of a coconut palm tree, slipped his feet inside the rope and climbed up, inchworm style.) I tried my best inchworm impression but didn’t make it much more than a meter off the ground! I did, however, learn the fun Swahili-English (Swahinglish?) chants they use to let people nearby know they are climbing up high:
Verse 1: Jambo bwana — Habari gani — Mzuri sana — Wageni kuwakaribisha — Zanzibar yetu — Hakuna matata
Translation: Hello sir — How are you — Very good — Guests welcome — Our Zanzibar — No trouble
Verse 2: Asante sana — Squash banana — Don’t say hapana — Poa kichizi — Kama ndizi — Lemon squeezy — Japoneze
Translation: Thank you very much — Squash banana — Don’t say no — Crazy cool — Like bananas — Lemon squeezy — Japanese
We ended the tour with spice shopping and lunch. The packet of nutmeg had a pretty funny label—but no porridge recipe!