Most travellers come to Zanzibar to kick back on its undeniably beautiful beaches, but with one of the richest and most diverse culinary scenes in all of Africa – shaped by centuries of trading and migration – the highlight for many is local food.
If you’ve (wisely) scheduled a few days on this tropical isle off the coast of Tanzania to feed your face before or after an Africa overland tour, here are the top dishes to try in its UNESCO-listed heart, Stone Town.
1. Zanzibar pizza
More like a galette (savoury crepe) than a pizza, a Zanzibar pizza begins as a small ball of dough that is thinned out then piled with your choice of ingredients (such as chicken or beef) followed by onion, capsicum, an egg, a triangle of Happy Cow cheese, a dollop of mayonnaise, and chilli sauce (if you like it hot). The corners are then folded in to make a square, and the whole thing goes in the frypan. When the base is crispy, it’s flipped, then sliced into bite-sized squares, scooped onto a plate and served with a toothpick ‘fork’. Bliss!
Where to try it: You’ll find a few stalls dotted around Forodhani Gardens, which transforms into an open-air food market as the sunsets every evening, but it’s worth seeking out Mr Mango, who makes a mighty fine chicken and mango version.
2. Biryani and pilau
Thought to have originated in the Indian Subcontinent, biryani and pilau (also known as pilaf and plov) are rice dishes cooked with a mixture of spices such as nutmeg, cloves, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, garlic, ginger and coriander. The key difference between the two is that biryani is cooked separately to the meat dishes that typically accompany it. Pilau, on the other hand, is cooked in the same pot as the meat (or meat broth), allowing the rice to absorb the juices. Both are delicious.
Where to try it: A Stone Town institution, Luckmaan Restaurant on New Mkunazini Rd is the place to try Zanzibarian staples like biryani and pilau. Just point to the dishes you want in the bain-marie, and the staff will plate them up for you for peanuts.
Marinated in a blend of spices and sauce, then grilled to charred perfection, mishkaki (meat skewers) are an ubiquitous Zanzibarian snack food, often seen grilling in alleyways of an afternoon. Buy them straight off the grill to ensure they’re fresh.
Were to try them: Forodhani Gardens, or anywhere you see them cooking (check out the front of Mukky’s Cafe, next to Luckmaan Restaurant).
4. Octopus everything
Zanzibar is renowned for octopus, which are caught by skilled ‘octopus hunters’ who can often be spotted wading out across the coastal flats armed with spears to catch the tasty invertebrates that thrive in the seagrass and coral beyond the beaches. Among the most popular ways to eat octopus include mishkaki skewers, octopus curry (cooked with a blend of rich spices like turmeric and simmered in coconut cream), and straight off the grill.
Where to try it: You’ll see a lot of octopus skewers at Forodhani Gardens, but be warned most of them have been pre-cooked, so it can be risky having one heated up. If you’re planning a day or overnight trip to Chumbe Island nature reserve (and you should), bank on sampling some delicious barbecued octopus there.
5. Persian food
Part of the Sultanate of Oman for nearly two centuries, Zanzibar cuisine takes many cues from Persia. Persian-style dips such as baba ghanoush are often served as a starter (with Arabian flatbread) at fancier restaurants, along with falafel, tagines, rich goat curries and kofta, often with a uniquely Zanzibarian twist.
Where to try it: The set dinner served at Emerson on Hurumzi’s Rooftop Teahouse Restaurant is an essential Stone Town experience. Arrive with plenty of time to catch the sunset.
6. Urojo soup
Also known as Zanzibar mix, this mash-up of a dish typically comprises a bowl of tangy, flour-based soup full of crispy bhajias (a fried, pakora-like snack), fried mashed potatoes and topped with a spoonful of coconut chutney, a dash of chilli, and a scoop of cassava shavings. It’s not particularly healthy, but it’s a great filler.
Where to try it: Forodhani Gardens is an easy option.
These triangular ‘Swahili doughnuts’ are essentially deep-friend balls of dough, lightly sweetened and occasionally seasoned with a hint of cardamom. Yum.
Where to try it: Look for street carts around Stone Town. The mandazi at Mukky’s Cafe are particularly good.
8. Zanzibar chocolate
Locals refer to this sweet, savoury and inexpensive snack as ‘Zanzibar chocolate’ but it’s more like a sesame bar made with toasted sesame seeds and rich honey, cut up into small diamond-shaped pieces. Warning: highly addictive.
Where to try it: From street vendors everywhere.
For what Muslim-majority Zanzibar lacks in bars (don’t fret – there are still a few) it makes up for in coffee shops. Perhaps the most famous (of sorts) is Jaws Corner, an intersection of alleys named for its shark mural. Locals come here to gossip over small and inexpensive cups of black, cardamom-spiced Arabic coffee served from a mobile coffee-seller, making it a great spot to people-watch as you enjoy your own cup.
Where to try it: If you prefer espresso, check out Zanzibar Coffee House (64 Mkunazini St) which also has an excellent breakfast menu, or Puzzle Coffee Shop.
10. Chips mayai
Who knew a French fry omelette could taste so good? There’s nothing much to this comfort food dish, but it goes down a treat with condiments such as kachumbari (tomato and onion salad), chilli sauce, mayo and/or good old tomato sauce.
Where to try it: There are several sellers at Forodhani Gardens.
Want to try ALL the food in Zanzibar? Munch your way around the island on a small group adventure now. For a more in-depth introduction to Zanzibar cuisine, led by a knowledgeable local guide, join an Urban Adventure while you’re there (and arrive hungry).
All images by Sarah Reid.