Sept, 2017: After the relative culinary wastelands of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi we were rather excited to discover the East African joys of Swahili food. From our first samosa bought out the window of our car in Mbeya, to a cardamom spiced coffee (kahawa) and peanut brittle (kashata) on the streets on Dar es Salaam; a fresh Zanzibar pancake in the Darajani night market to mounds of crunchy sugar coated dumplings on Lamu Island in Kenya; the Swahili food we found down the coast of East Africa restored our faith in African cuisine. Sampling local cuisine is always a massive part of our travels and often our overall impressions of a place with be influenced by the quality and variety of it’s food. After a couple of weeks spent in Tanzania and Kenya’s coastal communities we found a food culture bursting at the seams with richness. We wanted to share it with you.
Swahili is derived from the arabic word sawāhil which means coasts. It is also the primary language for much of east Africa. While the history is a little hard to unpick, references to Swahili date as far back at the second century AD when Persian traders started working their way down the coast of east Africa. As these traders settled on the coast, Arabic intermingled with the local Bantu tongue with the resulting language taking the name of Swahili. Over time Swahili has spread throughout east Africa but is also spoken in the south of the continent e.g. Zambia, Malawi etc.
Culturally, Swahili is heavily influenced by Islam from religion itself, to architecture and design, to the abstinence from alcohol and of course food! Strolling through the streets of Zanzibar and to a slightly lesser extent Lamu in Kenya, the influence of Islam can be seen everywhere. The muezzin’s call to prayer starts the day and seemingly every second doorway has a beautifully intricate wooden inlay. Fashion is long, flowing and conservative with some women still wearing the full burka, and with alcohol banned, everyone seems to sip on endless cups of tea or cardamom laced coffee. The people can at times seem slightly guarded but it doesn’t take long to get below the surface to find some of the most friendly and generous of our travels.
What is Swahili food?
Swahili street food bares the influence of the various Arabic, Persian and Asian merchants who have plied their trade up and down the coast. As Zanzibar became the centre of the spice trade in the 18th and 19th century, so developed the flavours of ginger and cardamom, black pepper and cinnamon. Seafood features heavily along with beef, goat and chicken but definitely NO pork. As you walk the streets, around one corner the smoke of grilling meat (nyama choma) permeates the air while around the next wafts the smell of coffee brewed with ginger or cardamom. A darkened doorway will reveal an old lady selling samosa or lemony potato cakes (katlesi) and then you’ll stumble upon a vendor squeezing sugar cane juice with fresh ginger. For the street food lover, Swahili cuisine has plenty to offer.
Here are some of our favourite Swahili street food treats that we found during our time in Kenya and Tanzania (and where we found them):
Arguably the most common Swahili street food you’ll find and for a quick snack it’s hard to beat. Versions vary from plain potato, to a mix of vegetables and spices to spiced meat and vegetables wrapped around a whole boiled egg. The best one we found was actually in the Tanzanian town of Mbeya in the hilly, tea and coffee growing region of the country’s south.
Nyama choma means grilled meat in Swahili and can be found throughout East Africa and not just on the coast. Sometimes it’s just plain meat grilled over coals and then served with a tomato and onion salad (kachamburi) and chili salt. Our favourite was probably the heavily marinated meat skewers from the streets of Zanzibar. Either way Nyama Choma is a meat lovers paradise.
Wondering around the streets of Zanzibar Stone Town one day we came across a lady with a small glass cabinet stuffed with what looked like potato cakes. Being the greedy buggers we are, we obviously couldn’t resist. The first bite revealed a slightly crunchy exterior wrapped around rich mashed potato laced every so slightly with lemon and in the centre a little wodge of spiced beef mince. It was so good we immediately bought a second.
The Zanzibar pizza (also known as the Zanzibar pancake or Swahili pizza) is a fairly eclectic mix of ingredients cooked on a large open fry pan and usually found for dinner. It’s starts with a basic flour based batter on top of which is added onion, garlic and tomato, spiced mince, cream cheese and mayonnaise. Slightly different versions can be found along the coast and while we know the mixture of ingredients sound a bit weird, Zanzibar pizza are delicious. Definitely the best we found was in the Darajani night market in Zanzibar Stone Town. Honourable mentions goes to one we had in the back alleys of Nungwhi (also on Zanzibar).
Flavoured with tamarind, this piquant soup made for a super tasty lunch one day in Zanzibar. Add in some skewers of marinated beef, potato cakes, cumin laced koftas, crispy cassava chips for crunch, more tamarind and a decent hit of chili, the end result really packs a flavour punch. For this one you want to head to Kibakuli which is a little hole in the wall around the corner from Zanzibar Coffee in Zanzibar Stone Town.
On many a street corner throughout east Africa you’ll find a small crowd gathered around a dude with a couple of battered old kettles boiling away over coal braziers. Small thimble sized cups of cardamom coffee (kahawa) get passed back and forth for top ups while everyone catches up on the latest gossip. Similar versions flavoured with ginger can also be found or just plain non-spiced coffee is common as well. While we had great Kahawa from many spots, for the combo of atmosphere, delicious coffee and sweet, tasty snacks you want to head to Jaw’s Corner in Zanzibar Stone Town. An honourable hot beverage mention should also go to the cinnamon tea we found on Lamu. Outstanding!
Usually found next to the aforementioned coffee kettle will be a plastic container full of sugary sweets featuring either peanuts or shredded coconut. We had the peanut version in Dar es Salaam but probably enjoyed the coconut version we had Jaw’s Corner on Zanzibar even more.
Ginger infused sugar cane juice
We were rather parched from walking the streets of Dar es Salaam when we came across a small shop selling cups of sugar cane juice. At first we thought it just plain sugar cane juice but then realised it was laced with ginger. Never have you had such a refreshing and thirst quenching beverage (ice cold beer aside). That little shop was called Miwa and is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the vicinity.
Boiled eggs with kachamburi and chili salt
We were strolling through the town square of Lamu town in Kenya when we saw a young guy with a bucket of boiled eggs. Then we noticed him serving them up with a spoon of tomato and onion salsa (kachamburi) and a little hit of chili salt. So simple but so good.
One morning on the island of Lamu we sent a mate out to find chapati to have with our breakfast. Half an hour later he came back with a bundle of delicious chapati but also news of the bustling local restaurant where he bought them from. The next morning and every morning after that we always went back to the same place for amazing Swahili breakfast. From a glass cabinet we could choose yeasty donuts (mandazi), crunchy sugar coated dumplings flavoured ever so slightly with rose water (kaimati), onion bajias, samosas and cumin flecked kofta. Then from the menu we would request delicious braised beans (maharagwe), fresh chapati and if we were feeling really hungry, skewers of marinated grilled meat and fresh liver (nyama choma). All of this would then be washed down with cups of sweet tea (chai). Combined with the bustling atmosphere and warm, friendly welcome from the owner Omari and his patrons, it made for the perfect start to the day.
Braised baby squid and tomato salsa
Just outside the main ferry stop in Dar es Salaam on the road down to the fish market are a set of stalls selling various forms of seafood snacks. One of our favourites were braised baby squid which you skewer with a tooth pick and then dunk in a tub of tangy, slightly spicy tomato sauce. You could also get chopped up octopus tentacles, prawns and fish croquettes but the baby squid were probably our favourites.
Final thoughts on Swahili food
Swahili food may not quite be on the same level as Thai or Vietnamese but it is pretty damn good. There are other well known Swahili foods like ugali (pretty bland corn maize doughy stuff), pilau (braised rice) or a range of tasty curries but for our money, the above street foods are where it’s at. Next time you’re in east Africa, make sure you get away from the hotel restaurants and tourist cafes and discover a bit of amazing Swahili food.