The Zanzibar archipelago consists of two islands. The northernmost and smaller of the two is Pemba Island, and the larger, where I have spent the majority of my last three months, is Unguja Island. Unguja is also referred to simply as Zanzibar. If someone says Zanzibar, Unguja, rather than the entire archipelago, is usually what they are referring to. The term “Spice Islands” comes from Pemba’s abundance of clove trees and the entire archipelago’s numerous other spice varieties. Although spices are present in most traditional Zanzibari dishes, there is one food I have found to be widely more significant, in the sheer number of traditional dishes in which it is the front and center. This food is the coconut.
The vast majority of coconut palms were planted in Zanzibar when the archipelago was still under Arab rule. The coconut palm provides economic support (each piece of the entire tree has a purpose, including the leaves, the husk, the shell, and the meat) and carries deep cultural significance. It is the one ingredient needed to transform any meal into something sweet and delicious.
Traditionally, Zanzibari cooking is done by hand and uses natural ingredients. The coconut milk on the island does not come in a can at the supermarket. Locals walk to the nearest market or small shop to scope out the available coconuts, stacked neatly in piles and varying in price depending on size. Around two to 10 vendors sell coconuts on any given day, depending on the market, so shoppers develop a sense for coconut scouting at an early age. The vendors do not sell the same size coconuts for the same price; their value fluctuates depending on the location where they were grown and purchased wholesale. Every market-goer asks the price at a few vendors before making their final decision.
Currently, the price for one coconut ranges from 500 to 700 Tanzanian shillings ($.25 to $.36 USD) for the smallest of the bunch, and 700 to 1,200 ($.36 to $.62 USD) Tanzanian shillings for the largest available. For an American like me, any of these prices is basically a steal — the current exchange rate is about 1,800 Tanzanian shillings to the dollar. However, for locals, rising prices are a real concern.
The coconut palm faces illegal felling because the old, tall trunks yield large quantities of strong wood perfect for building long-lasting structures. This problem has escalated to the point that the Department of Forestry travels around the island and confiscates any chainsaws they find.
However, the coconut is so beloved in local cuisine that, despite the rising prices, the people of Zanzibar will pay what they must in order to add that familiarly sweet coconut taste to their cooking. I have found that most households use an average of two to three coconuts per day. Although many families use multiple components of the coconut in their cooking, coconut milk is the ingredient used to cook staple foods like rice, curry, cassava, spinach, beans, yams, bananas, and maandazi (a sweet, fried, triangle-shaped bread that is made sweet by mixing coconut milk in with the batter). The oil made from boiled coconut milk is used to fry maandazi or almost any of the many fish caught on the island.
The process of transforming a whole coconut into its useful components is one every Zanzibari woman has known since early adolescence after watching her mother perform the task time after time again. To create coconut milk, the coconut is husked and the fibers are peeled off the outer shell, either by hand or with a knife. The round coconut shell is then held in one hand as the other hand raises a heavy steel rod and forcefully slams it down onto the center of the coconut. This slamming process is repeated until a long crack forms down the center of the shell and the nut is easily split in half. More experienced women can perform this task in two precise hits. However, it took me four or five hits to master the perfect crack. I was scared of hitting my hand instead of the coconut.
Once the coconut is split in two, the water is poured into a bowl that is then placed underneath the jagged, circular blade of their traditional mbuzi (translated loosely to “coconut shaver”). A mbuzi, described to the best of my ability, is a long wooden stool tilted upward at the end where the blade juts out. The blade represents something like a rounded cactus leaf and emerges from the end just as a leaf would. Flat, with tiny spikes surrounding the outer edge, the whole blade is about the size of a flattened ping pong ball. This circular shape fits securely into the rounded curvature of any coconut as a woman takes one half at a time and shaves the meat off the inside using a twisting motion while grasping the shell snugly with both palms. After the whole coconut is shaved into the bowl, the shavings are squeezed of their juices and strained. This first batch is known as strong or pure coconut milk because there is no water added.
The strong coconut milk is put aside, a cup of water is added to the same shavings, and the squeezing process is repeated up to four more times, depending on the amount of milk desired. Coconut milk is often used to replace water and many people insist that their traditional dishes do not taste good without this important ingredient. To cook rice, coconut milk rather than water is first boiled before the rice is added. With this technique, the sweet milk soaks into the rice while it cooks, so that the taste of coconut becomes fully embodied within every grain. A similar technique is used when cooking creamy spinach or cassava leaves, to create a smooth vegetable and fish curry, or to develop the desired thick consistency for a sweet banana sauce.
To get the most out of coconuts in Zanzibar, it is essential to make friends with locals — lucky for you, locals are generally friendly and speak enviably polished English. But if you’re only stopping in Zanzibar briefly, as a side trip from a safari vacation, for example, and don’t have the time to make friends, here are some options.
Monsoon Restaurant has many must-try dishes that get their swagger from their coconut sauce. Lukmaan Restaurant is a vegan paradise, with dishes like carrot and pea curry and spinach and beans in coconut milk sauce. Under the “Local Zanzibari Favorites” section of the menu at 6 Degrees South Restaurant, you’ll find items like traditional coconut fish curry and coconut mojitos, for which you should certainly ignore the rest of the menu.