Our Great Stories

Inspirational conservation and social projects. Most can be met if traveling.


See all Great Stories by Rachel Bray

The spicy flavours of Zanzibar have long enticed me. In Jambiani, a relaxed village on Zanzibar’s east coast, we made friends quickly and were soon learning how to create local delicacies. Coconut-crusted fish, spicy rice and spinach in coconut milk topped our list: Never before had I seen four young children devour a fishy meal with so much enthusiasm. Recipes are included!

Cooking in Zanzibar - Zanzibar, Tanzania [2010 © greatguides.org]
Sina shares her knowledge of Zanzibari cooking

Sina and her brothers, Okala and Haji, run a restaurant from their home. We arrived hot and sweaty after a morning exploring the rock-pools and cycling along the beaches (the smoothest thoroughfare in Jambiani). Haji greeted us, then deftly whacked open two young coconuts with an enormous knife, removed the top – like one would a boiled egg – and offered the over-flowing cups to our daughters. What better way to begin our lesson in Zanzibari cuisine? Okala, former-fisherman now ardent conservationist, showed us how to fillet two fresh rabbit fish.

Cooking in Zanzibar - Zanzibar, Tanzania [2010 © greatguides.org] - Cooking On Zanzibar - Great Guides
The lagoon is a vital source of food for the village, but is endangered
Nudged by my conscience, I asked about fish stocks in the lagoon. "Dwindling”, was the response, "but not an irreversible situation if steps are taken to balance local livelihoods with the health of the coral reef”.


We then joined Sina on a palm mat, where she had laid out a few crucial utensils and her ingredients. Sina started by grating four half nazi ; coconuts in the second edible stage of ripening. They have a thick layer of white flesh and still retain some milk. She was remarkably quick because she used the simple but ingenious buzi. Found in every Zanzibari household, a buzi is a low wooden stool to which is attached a serrated tear-drop shaped blade. Even as novices we found it easy and fun to use – as was the kinu, a deep wooden pestle and mortar for pounding a heady mixture of spices for the coconut-crusted fish and pilau rice (See recipes below).

Cooking in Zanzibar - Zanzibar, Tanzania [2010 © greatguides.org] - Cooking On Zanzibar - Great Guides

Watching our daughters’ attentive faces, I could see how utterly absorbed they were in the process. I had no prior intention that this should be ‘school-time’, but here was participatory learning unfolding before us. Later that evening when six-year-old Sarita leapt up to join me pounding cardamon and cloves for chai tea, I noticed how she mimicked Sina’s methods and gestures, cupping her hand around the mouth of the mortar to prevent the spices flying out. While the rice bubbled on the fire, Haji beckoned us outside to watch him weaving the leaves of coconut palm into panels.

These are then tied together with rope made from coconut fibre to roof the restaurant. We took turns weaving, feeling the strength and pliability of the leaves, and realising again the significance of the coconut palm for daily life. The previous day, we took a culture walking tour around Jambiani led by a local guide, Rama, who works for a non-profit organisation called Eco-Culture.

Learning to use a pestle and mortar to crush spices
He showed us building techniques using coral stone dug from the nearby quarry as well as how to make rope from coconut fibre, commenting accurately that "no part of the tree or fruit is wasted”. We waded into the sea at low-tide with women and girls collecting seaweed that they had planted in order to sell to a Japanese company. As our girls picked up and squeezed the seaweed left out to dry, they remarked how much it had shrunk: "What a lot of work they must do to get just a small bagfull!”



A shop in Jambiani, Zanzibar - Jambiani, Zanzibar, Tanzania [2010 © greatguides.org] - Cooking On Zanzibar - Great Guides

Later, we met the medicine man who uses over 100 plants found in the village to treat a variety of common ailments. All in all, our time in Jambiani taught us how creatively and sensitively local plant, mineral and marine resources are used by communities with generations of experience. For us parents, it was also a good reminder of the value of ‘learning by doing’ alongside our young children – what more could one ask of education?

Children in the hatch of a shop, experiencing the local community


Okala’s contacts for restaurant or excellent tour guiding / snorkelling: 00255 777 430 519 and www.jambiani.net Eco-Culture can be found in Jambiani as well as Hurumzi Street in Stone Town, opposite the hotel named 236 Hurumzi - a beautifully restored Arab merchant’s home.

See also our related story on 'Marine Cultures'


Serve together for a full Zanzibari meal, or take your pick!

Coconut-Crusted Fish

Cut 4 thin de-skinned fillets of white fish into pieces about the size of your palm. Grate the flesh of two fresh coconuts (nazi; a good layer of white flesh and some liquid can be heard when shaken), or put 3 cups of dessicated coconut into a bowl. Using a pestle and mortar, crush 2 tsp peppercorns, 2 tsp salt and 4 cloves of garlic. In a separate bowl, mix the crushed spices, fish pieces and juice of 2 limes (4 Tbsps). Leave to marinate. Beat two eggs in a small bowl. Put a few tablespoons of flour in a deep plate. Take a piece of marinated fish, dip in the flour until well-covered, dip into the egg, then push it into the grated coconut and cover it well, pushing the coconut on to make a good crust. Repeat for all the fish pieces and leave, covered, on a plate until you are ready to fry them. Heat oil in a small frying pan and fry for 5 minutes. Sina used enough oil to cover the fish, and it frothed as the fish cooked. Shallow pan-frying or a hot oven/grill for a few minutes would be the healthier alternatives.

Spicy Pilau Rice with Kachumbari

Wash 3 cups of white rice with cold water. Crush the following in a pestle and mortar: 2 tsp cumin seeds, 1 tsp black peppercorns, 2 tsp cardamom pods, 1-2 tsp salt crystals, 3-6 garlic cloves.

Heat 3 Tbsp oil in a small frying pan. Add 1 finely sliced red onion and fry until dark brown at edges. Add crushed spices, plus 2 chunks of cinnamon bark. Fry for 2 mins then add just less than 1.5 litres water, salt and bring to light boil. Add washed rice to the pot, cook for 10 minutes stirring occasionally, then place in the oven or hotbag (or if using open fire, place hot coals on lid of pot) for final 5 minutes.

Kachumbari garnish for Pilau: In one bowl mix 1 finely chopped red onion, 1 tsp salt, 1 finely chopped tomato, 1 carrot diced very small and ¼ green pepper, finely chopped. Squeeze the juice of 1 lime and mix with a small pinch of chilli powder.

Serve pilau by spooning into a cup or small bowl, pressing down and turning it out onto plate. Top with 2 tsps of Kachumbari.

Spinach in Coconut Milk

Wash and chop a large bunch of spinach, then wilt in boiling water. Drain and squeeze out excess water. To the spinach in pan add ½ red onion, finely chopped, 3-4 chopped garlic cloves, 1 diced tomato, and ½ tsp chilli powder.

In a separate bowl mix 1 cup of grated fresh coconut (use excess from coconut crusted fish recipe) with 1 cup water and massage with hands to make ‘coconut milk’. Placing a sieve over the pan containing spinach mix, strain the coconut milk into the pan. [If no fresh coconut available, use 1 cup of canned coconut milk.] Add 1 teaspoon of salt and cook for 5 minutes.

Biringani cooked in Coconut Milk

Peel and rough chop the following vegetables, placing them all in a pan: 2 medium aubergines (biringani in Swahili), 2 medium potatoes, 2 carrots, 1 large tomato, ½ green pepper and 1 small red onion. Crush 4-8 garlic cloves in pestle and mortar. Add 1 ½ cups coconut milk (made as above) to pan so that it just covers the vegetables. Add 1 tsp turmeric, and 1 tsp salt. Boil for 10 mins and serve.

Jambiani Coconut Cake

1.Pre-heat oven to 180 C or make a fire. Mix together the following: 1 cup sugar, 1 cup butter, 2.5 tsp ground cardamom seeds, 1 tsp baking powder 2.Beat the above with a wooden spoon for a very long time (or an electric blender for a shorter time). 3. Then add 4 eggs (well beaten), plus another tsp baking powder 4. Add 2 cups cake flour and stir in. 5. Finally add 1 cup freshly grated coconut OR 1.5 cups dessicated coconut and ¼ cup of coconut milk. Stir in.

Turn into a 30 cm diameter baking tin and cook in oven for 40 mins. Alternatively, put lid on tin, place on medium coals on open fire and heap coals onto lid of tin for approx 40 mins. Cool then turn out.

Delicious served with Zanzibari Spiced Chai Tea: Pound cloves and cardamom pods in pestle and mortar, or crush slightly with back of knife. Place in pan with pieces of cinnamon bark, a couple of black peppercorns and sufficient water, then boil. Add black tea, milk or sugar to taste. I prefer it as is!

Author: Rachel Bray
Published Date: 24 Aug 2010
Location: East Africa | Tanzania
Themes: skills and interests, travel | cooking, state