Spice town that lets you smell and taste Zanzibar

Sunday December 4 2011

Fesh peppercorn

Fesh peppercorn 

By Rosemary Quipp

Zanzibar boasts of white sandy beaches and the history-rich alleyways of Stone Town, but a visit to the archipelago isn’t just about seeing the islands – it’s about smelling and tasting them, too.

Spice traders crowd downtown market stalls, the pungent scent of their wares hanging in the air. Hawkers offer visitors a whiff of cinnamon or a taste of spiced coffee, but these dried and powdered products are a far cry from the spices in their raw form.

For any visitor who wants to see first-hand the origins of their chai (tea) masala, the “spice tours” of Zanzibar are a must-do.

Private landowners have created miniature spice plantations where tourists can sample a variety of spices in their natural form – blades of lemon grass freshly picked from their bushes or ginger roots still covered in damp soil.

Cloves are typically the first tastes of the tour, being the spice most important to Zanzibar’s economy. The archipelago earned its nickname of the “Spice Islands” in the 1800s, after Omani settlers introduced the clove tree to the region.

Other spices were introduced over time, but cloves remained the main cash crop for exporters: during the 19th century, the archipelago was the source of 90 per cent of the world’s supply of cloves.


Zanzibar’s economy today, remains dependent on clove exports, even though only seven per cent of the world supply comes from the Isles. The market share was decimated by a fast-moving world market, coupled with Tanzania’s failed experiment with socialism in the 1970s and 1980s. Indonesia now supplies 75 per cent of the world’s cloves.

Cloves are picked as unopened flower buds from the evergreen clove tree. After being dried, they are ground or used whole in cooking, especially as a key ingredient in chai masala.

Most recipes use cloves sparingly; their spicy, warm, and faintly sweet flavour is very powerful even in small doses. Aside from their culinary uses, they are also commonly used as painkillers in dental emergencies.

Cloves may be the centrepiece of Zanzibar’s economy, but they’re not as common in kitchens as another spice on the tour: Peppercorns. Peppercorns are the world’s most-traded spice and grow on a vine, like tiny grapes along a stem.

The fresh green kernels pack an eye-watering punch, even when eaten raw.

Depending on how they are picked and dried, they either become black, white, or green pepper. While peppercorn is the most common spice, a third plant wins the award for versatility: Cinnamon.

The roots, bark, branches, and leaves of the cinnamon tree can each be used for different degrees of flavour, the bark being the most pungent in odour and taste.

Dried and pulverised, the cinnamon tree bark is used to make cinnamon powder, or dried whole to become cinnamon sticks.

It must be removed from the tree trunk in vertical strips – the tree dies if the bark is stripped around the circumference of the trunk.

Sweeter and less pungent than cloves or pepper, cinnamon is used in a range of dishes, from apple pie to curried chicken.

It is often paired with nutmeg and mace, two more spices found on the tour.

Both impart a stronger, hotter flavour, and grow intertwined inside the pithy nutmeg fruit: red ribbons of mace encircle the hard shell of the nutmeg seed, which is about the size of a brazil nut.

Nutmeg, the sweeter of the two, is made when the flesh of the seed is dried, then ground or grated. Mace has a more delicate and peppery flavour, and is made from the dried membrane that surrounds the nutmeg seed. Nutmeg trees take at least seven years to begin producing fruit and do not reach their full production until after 20 years; this makes them a valuable trading commodity.

Vanilla is perhaps one of the most intoxicating and valuable spices on the tour. It starts out not as a nut or a bark, but as an orchid. Vanilla pods grow dangling from a vine wrapped around a host tree, looking like french beans that got lost in the rainforest.

The vanilla beans have to be carefully harvested, dried, and aged before they can be used as a flavouring, a process that takes at least six months. Once the beans are processed, the pods can be used whole, ground into a powder, or turned into a liquid extract.

Cacao also lurks on the spice tour, looking nothing like its final product. This fundamental ingredient in chocolate is found within the green rind of the cacao pod, which holds about 30 seeds.

The seeds, about the size of an almond, are embedded in a slightly sweet, slimy white fruit. When they are dried and ground, the paste – called chocolate liquor – can be separated into two different products: Cocoa powder and cocoa butter.

Eventually all these spices and others like cardamom, cummin, annatto, end up in the market stalls of spice hawkers in Stone Town.

And while the booming spice exports of Zanzibar are largely a thing of the past, tourists can stock their suitcases with fragrances and flavours for friends back home, keeping that trade going just a little bit longer.