Simple cooking but definitely not fast food

Just as much as language and history encapsulates the culture of people, to me food and food traditions tell very much about a countries population. And I am not talking about the exportable delicacies but the family and everyday cooking which can be hard to find as a tourist. Looking behind the kitchen curtains is a wonderful advantage when living in a country for a longer period.
When travelleing in Tanzania I honestly did not have any “haute cuisine” culinary experiences. We mostly ate from street kitchens or the restaurants at the guesthouses or hotels we stayed at. This of course does not exclude all possibility of a really good meal and we hade quite a few good ones but most of them were very very simple.

Head to tail: street kitchen at the market in Mwanza –  fried fish, I guess!? I have to admit that I did not try it out.
What affects both the street cooking and home cooking of Tanzanians is the scarcity of resources. By this meaning obviously money as the average Tanzanian still lives in poverty, but also the scarcity of electricity in a country where most of the electricity is transported from the capital Dar es Salam which results in frequent power break downs and many restaurants and food stalls rely on more old fashioned cooking equipment that does not require electricity.
This “cauldron” was used in the kitchen of a social institution for boys with family troubles which we visited. Today’s menu: tiny fish with tomatoes. At their homes the boys would often have to work hard for their food or not get any meals at all.
The menu at street food stalls is thus often very simple with few choices. One Tanzanian street food classic is chipsi mayai, the Kiswaheli words translating to chips and eggs. This is a real hang-over dish, simple and filling, served mostly with ketchup and chilli sauce. It is a cheap dish and some places have the additional choice of grilled meat.
The meat we had in this occasion was actually well seasoned but it was extremely chewy. That was probably because most of the meat in Tanzania is not hung due to the limited refrigerating facilities.
Refrigeration! Another obstacle in cooking in Tanzania. In many cases the result is that meat simply is not found on the menu and you will get your protein from various combinations with beans (rice and beans, ugali (rice or corn meal mush with a stiff consistency) with beans) instead. Did I get tired of rice and beans during my time there? You bet! Naturally also because of the high price of meat compared to vegetables, meat remains a delicacy.
Though being a traveller in Tanzania, in fact I had one opportunity to look behind someone’s kitchen curtains! Towards the end of our stay we were booked into the Robinson’s Place guesthouse on Zanzibar. The owner Edi is an extremely friendly and funny host who takes a lot of interest in his guests. He cooks typical Zanzibar dishes for his guests every evening on request and he always stops for a quick chat and he will also tell you a lot about the island and it’s history if you are interested.
When I asked if I could watch him cook he quickly agreed and added “you can also help!”.
On the menu that day were amoung other things beans, of course. He had already boiled the dried beans in water and we “just” added spices and coconut milk into the big ceramic pot on the fireplace. The spices had to be ground in a wooden mortar and for the coconut milk Edi had already done a lot of preperation.
He had firstly gathered four coconuts that had fallen from the palm trees on his grounds during the night. He had opened them and carved out the flesh which now looked like coconut flour. He mixed the flour with water and then took up hands full of the coconut/water mixture and pressed the liquid in a seperate bowl. He repeated the process until no liquid was left in the flour bowl and then he poured the coconut milk over the beans in the pot. (When I asked him what he used the flour for now he told me that he would give it to the chickens as all the fat and taste had been squeezed out of it. What remained were only fibres and he said that not even the chickens did appreciatiate the left overs particularly.) All in all making the coconut milk must have taken a couple of hours, we would just open a can…
While I bashed up cinnamon, cumin and afterwards some garlic and ginger with pestle and mortar, Edi added chopped tomatos, onions and chopped green bell peppers. The spices were added a lot later but at this point in time he put two green chilis on top of the pot and let them boil with the beans but only to remove them again at a later stage. “Very spicy” he said.
Zanzibar is known as the spice island as they grow an abundance of spices ranging from cloves to cinnamon. But in general I learned that the Zanzibar kitchen is not “hot” spicy as you could expect when you see the produce that looks a a lot like ingredients for a Thai curry: lime, ginger, chili, garlic etc. In fact Swaheli curries are very mild. So I have to say that I could not taste those two chilis in the beans at the end.
As for the regulation of heat in the pot I was wondering how Edi would be able to “turn down” the heat once he had the fire going. I learned that he had two fire places lit at the same time and he simply pulled out some long branches and moved them over to the other fireplace when he needed temperature to go down and vice versa. The other fireplace was just getting started so with the extra branches it was ready to be used for cooking rice.

Edi’s cooking was delicious and I admire the amount of time and effort he puts into this work. To see the limited possibilities he has, and many Tanzanians have, also has made me appreciate my refrigerator and the appliances in my kitchen just a little more. Never being able to bake a cake?! No way!

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