Sea, Spice & Stone Town … Zanzibar

There is an Arabic proverb that says, “If you play the flute in Zanzibar all Africa dances …” Its derivation hails from a period when, nearly 200 years ago, the islands were colonized by an Omani sultan after he moved his capital from Muscat and transformed them into a prosperous kingdom. Like a character out of The Thousand and One Nights, Sultan Seyyid sent Arab caravans deep into the African interior where they traded with ivory hunters and indigenous slave traders. While the sultan developed and cultivated massive clove plantations inland, becoming the world’s largest producer, his powerful navy protected the islands’ coastline.

Sultan Seyyid led Zanzibar into its Golden Age, and it is remnants of these influences grafted onto its African roots, lapped by the jeweled Indian Ocean, that makes these islands such an enchanting place to visit.

A rooftop with a view at the Emerson Spice Hotel in Stone Town.
A roof with a view, the teahouse atop the Emerson Spice Hotel in Stone Town.

It’s a place of paradox. People love it or hate it. Such is the romance associated with Zanzibar — just its name is imbued with spice and fragrant ocean winds — some visitors aren’t up for a collision with the chaos of its disintegrating infrastructure, the littered streets and smelly alleyways, the poverty of its burgeoning population. The touts on the beach. The haphazard development along the coastline in the northern town of Nungwi. And for me, the worst indictment of all: the disappointment in the cuisine of these so-called Spice Islands. “There’s just no excuse,” some said to us. “Not when you have access to such an array of fresh fish and all those spices.”

The food we ate was both sublime and ordinary. An example of the sublime was a light lunch made out of local ingredients which we ate at the Emerson Spice Hotel in Stone Town. I ordered spiced fish cakes served with a sour sauce made out of baobab fruit (think tamarind), while Chris had smokey baba ganoush served with peppered bananas. The simple authenticity of both dishes, washed down with a wild hibiscus drink and East African beer, blew us away. The [very] ordinary, in contrast, was at our Nungwi hotel, where time and again something as simple as grilled fresh catch of the day was destroyed by carelessness.

Lunch at the Emerson Spice Hotel, where the food was made with local ingredients, including baobab.
Lunch at the Emerson Spice Hotel, where the food was made with mostly local ingredients.
Dining al fresco Zanzibar style.
Dining al fresco Zanzibar-style: where we ate our sublime lunch.

Chris was reluctant to go on one of Zanzibar’s renowned spice tours until a friend wrote and told us, while we were there, not to miss it. On his previous visit Chris had been led to believe the spice tour was a poor shadow of what it once would have been, but our friend was right: it was a highlight of the trip.

It’s a naturalist’s tour more than just a spice tour. The variety of plants was impressive, while our guide, Diablo, was informative and engaging. We both learned so much. I never knew that peppercorns, for instance, started out green, turned yellow, and when completely mature, turned red. They only turned black after they had been dried in the sun. Then there was the lipstick plant, or annatto, where beneath the fruit’s soft spiny skin lies lots of bright coral heart-shaped seeds that are used to color or flavor food.

A pepper plant.
Zanzibar spices ...
Zanzibar spices …

The farm we visited was more like a jungle garden, where vanilla and pepper plants climbed up trunks of trees; where lemon grass, ginger, and turmeric thrived under canopies of coconut, papaya, jack fruit, and Indian almond. Everything was organic. The plants’ disordered interdependence — where they find their own way, and their own piece of earth in which to thrive — reminded me of my own vegetable garden here in Livingstone.

Diablo told us that in Zanzibar the clove is regarded as “the king of spice,” while cinnamon was known as “the queen of spice” for being such a good doer. One can use all of it: the bark (the spice), the leaves (essential oil), the roots (a Vix-like chest rub). So much of what is grown on Zanzibar’s spice farms is used as both an edible and for medicinal or cosmetic reasons.

A Zanzibar almond tree.
An Indian almond tree.

Then there’s the coconut. The fruit is a staple, the leaves an adornment, the tree itself a part of the family. Literally. Every single coconut tree belongs to someone in Zanzibar. When we asked what happened to a person caught stealing a coconut from someone else’s tree, we were told “we beat him.” Corporal punishment by the people for the people, as it is if you’re caught stealing someone else’s bananas. (That said, if a coconut lands on the ground it’s a free-for-all.)

On the spice tour we watched a Zanzibarian climb the tallest of coconut trees. It’s not a job for those who suffer from vertigo. After wrapping twine in what-looked-like a figure-of-eight around his feet, he encircled the trunk with his arms, and slowly made his way up the tree in caterpillar movements. When halfway up he stopped. He took a deep breath and began to sing the most mournful of Swahili songs in a voice that must have made his mother proud.

A coconut: new shoots emerge from the two eyes.
A coconut: new shoots emerge from the two eyes.

Our trip to Zanzibar was a spur-of-the-moment decision to honor the small space between the end of one farming season and the start of the next. We made no plans other than to reserve a place to sleep as near to a beach as possible. A couple of days before leaving, however, a friend suggested we visit The Rock, a restaurant perched in the middle of the Indian Ocean on the east coast of Zanzibar. She’d heard great things, so I booked it.

The Rock wasn’t cheap, therefore we elevated our reservation to being our “one big treat.” Specializing in Italian cuisine, The Rock was filled to the gills with guests, mainly couples like us, all there for the same reason: to partake in a meal in a place you imagined only existed in fairytales. The food, unlike the location, was not beyond the imagination. This time it was the sublime and the ordinary wrapped into one: the location sublime, the food ordinary.

The Rock!
The Rock.

On our last morning we rose at dawn so I could photograph the fishing dhows returning to Ras Nungwi. Set beneath an old Portuguese lighthouse, the rising sun searing gold through its windows, the scene resembled the coming to life of a Turner painting.

Watching the dhows return from fishing at sunrise.
The dhows return from fishing at sunrise.

I was also interested to see what the fishermen caught and observe them selling their fish at the market thereafter. Except there weren’t many fish. One to be precise: a small bonito lying alone on a large concrete slab being eyed by a couple of early-rising, disappointed cooks. The only other food on sale was sweet potatoes, laid out in neat rows on the beach, I assume as a recommended complement to fresh fish (when it’s available). The weather was to blame, we were told, a familiar lament to us. It’s the go-to excuse we farmers use when production goes awry. It’s always the weather’s fault.

Contrast in colors ... exotic, moody Zanzibar.

Zanzibar, Zanzibar … exotic, sultry, unpredictable Zanzibar. Love it or hate it? We loved it.

Annabel Hughes Aston is a writer and an award-winning chef in Livingstone, Zambia. She is the creator of "bush gourmet" cuisine.


  • Thanks for sharing the journey so wonderfully. A mini break for me 🙂

    • Thank you for joining me, Bart! It’s a singular place, to be sure … All the best to you, Annabel

  • What a lovely, well deserved break for you both and great that you loved it. The spice tour sounds fantastic!!

    • Thank you so much, Squacky … you would have LOVED the spice tour. Maybe one day you’ll consider going on it? 🙂 Lots of love to you … xo

  • Really enticing. Your photographs are exquisite.

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Greg. Zanzibar was built for the photograph … what a place!

  • Beautiful photos and so interesting hearing about Zanzibar. Friends went there a few years ago sailing from SA but left asap as the locals were very unfriendly and hostile towards them. They had to stay a few days to re stock with supplies etc. but couldn’t leave soon enough.
    So it was lovely to read about your experience. I hope you were able to load up with all those gorgeous spices.
    Loved the sound of your meal in the Emerson Spice hotel. Very cute dining area.
    Did you swim in the sea? ?

    • Thank you for your great comment, Gillian. Feelings about Zanzibar seldom lean towards the mundane, it seems! We did indeed load up on spices, and yes, I swam in that beautiful ocean. It was lovely. All the best to you, Annabel

  • Love this – beautiful photos!

    • Thank you, Georgie … have you been there? It’s full of surprises …

      • Sorry – bit hectic here! Never been to Zanzibar. Love the name – can feel the poem already!

  • As always a delight. Your description is almost as good as being there (accompanied of course by the beautiful photos) – friends of mine went there some time ago now and had a similar experience to you but they were not really interested in the food. Took some amazing photos though – the blues are so blue. Thanks for sharing and hope all well back home. By the way have you seen the new wares on sale in Zim – one being Avocado Seed powder US$6,75 for 50g!! Utsanzi produce it- Baobab Fruit Pulp US$4.15 for 250g. Four Seasons Baobab fruit pulp is US#3.85 also do quite a few weird and wonderful things too.Cow Pea Leaves Munyemba and Black Jack leaves too.

    • Thank you for your kind comment, chitaiti! I loved our short visit, and would highly recommend it. I haven’t been to Zimbabwe for a long time, so no, I haven’t seen all those yummy things about which you write. I might have to ask my mother to send me some! All the best to you, Annabel

  • Hugely entertaining Bella – and beautiful photos! I remember the spice gardens being random as you described, with the peppercorn creepers just growing all over the place. I got hooked on Cardamom, and started putting it in everything – it’s excellent with fruit. How disappointing that as a gourmet, you had such ordinary food and so little fish. Emerson Spice used to be called Emerson Green when I stayed there with the girls. Their bedroom was the old ballroom with two enormous Zanzibar four poster beds in it. Did you manage to look round the house/hotel, as I’m sure Leigh told you about her contact who works there now. It was so beautifully restored. The rooftop restaurant was voted ‘The most romantic restaurant in the world’ by Conde Nast in 2000. I loved Stone Town, but didn’t go a bundle on Ras Nungwe, so we moved to Kiwengwa Beach which was lovely.

    • Thank you, dear Bridgey! It’s a place one will never forget, to be sure. I’ve brought back a few seeds pocketed on the spice tour so we’ll see if they germinate here. I fear it might be too dry for some of them, but you never know! Emerson Green is now the Emerson Hurumzvi. Emerson Spice is another hotel owned by them very nearby. We met Leigh’s contact and he showed us around the hotel, which is where I took so many of the interesting architecture pics. I’m not surprised the teahouse on the roof was voted the most romantic restaurant in the world. It was gorgeous! xo

  • Your last photo! The east African coast is the best on earth.

    • Thank you, Trudy. I couldn’t get enough of the different moods of Zanzibar … and they were fun to photograph!

  • So much fun to see what these spices actually look like! Annato, and nutmeg…who knew?!

    • Thank you, Cynthia. It was a revelation to me!

  • A wonderful experience for me to see. Yes, the last photo is dramatic & perfect. All photos amazing as usual.

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Kathy. The word ‘dramatic’ suits Zanzibar … on many different levels!

  • Enjoyable and fun story Annabel. Talking of spice: as I wrote this our Director of photography just dropped two small bottles of chili on my desk: one crushed into a red paste and the other tiny small green chilies. He had just returned from his in-laws in Colombia. Their farm produced 50% of all the chilies in the world that go into Tabasco sauce. I can’t wait to try them out – although I might regret it later.

    • Thanks, Pete! I know those chillies. We grow the red ones here. Not long after Chris came to Zambia he was asked to grow chillies for Tabasco, too. While the contract never panned out, remnants of that crop remain in the garden. The bushes self-seed and provide us with chillies all year round. *Warning: go easy. The ones we have are hot!

  • Wow…. your best blog yet in my opinion! Gorgeous photos, great words, evocative and exotic indeed. Great place for a mini break and SO glad you visited The Rock – what a setting and loved the photos. Fabulous…. fabulous……Loved the spice market images, now I know what fresh cinnamon looks like! xxx

    • Thank you so much, Louise. You would just love Zanzibar … an assault on all the senses in many different ways. I learned so much about the spices and hope to be growing some of them here soon!

  • Oh my goodness. You’re always taking me someplace I’ve never been. Wonderful!

    • Thank you, Michelle … it was my first time in Zanzibar, and boy, what a place it was!

  • All pictures, the Rock, the spices, and all others spectacular.

    • Thank you so much for your super-kind comment, dendymactoodle. All the best to you, Annabel

  • What beautiful photos. Too bad the food wasn’t great at the Rock. I guess they figure people will keep coming because of its location!

    • Thank you so much, chef mimi! Sadly, I found that this is often the case. It’s such a shame.

  • Thank you for this wonderful blog – the photos are certainly sublime. My mother was born in Zanzibar and it is a place I want to visit. Sounds like I need to get there sooner rather than later before the old Arab infrastructure crumbles away.

    • Thank you, Lilias … the island begs to be photographed! Zanzibar must have been wonderful in your mother’s day. The island hasn’t lost its exotic feel, but it’s a riot in so many ways. For us, that was part of the charm!

  • […] reaping so many right now. The first time I did this I made baba ganoush, echoing the memorable dish Chris ate at the Emerson Spice Hotel in Zanzibar. It was so good I wanted to use smokey […]

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