Graham Greene may have been describing another port city poised on another ocean on the other side of the African continent when he wrote "The Heart of the Matter". A city stretched along the sea, steeped with intrigue and back street conversations carried out under the cover of darkness, the edgy undercurrent of a port town constantly welcoming a surge of strangers with each boat that docks at its shore.
The city in Greene's novel was left unnamed but the author later identified it as Freetown, Sierra Leone. But the city I imagined in my head is exactly what met my eyes on turning up in Stone Town, the labyrinthine capital of Zanzibar.
Nowhere was this impression stronger than from the two rooftop restaurants at which I had dinner on my two evenings in the city - the Rooftop Restaurant at Emerson Spice and the Tea House Restaurant atop its sister hotel Emerson on Hurumzi a few doors down. Two restaurants I would return to in a heartbeat!
Everyone can recognise a special restaurant when they come across it. It somehow has that quality that just makes everything work. For the Rooftop at Emerson Spice it was not just the spectacular view overlooking Stone Town's elegant crumbling old buildings covered in rusty corrugated iron roofs, but a refreshingly different menu that easily is among the most inventive I have eaten in the past couple of years.
Personal highlights for me were Zanzibar's favourite sundowner - Dawa - made from muddled lime, local honey and the popular Tanzanian-brewed sugarcane gin called Konyagi. Anyone who likes their drinks strong and sweet will love this. As a non-beer drinker, this was definitely my tipple of choice during my trip to Zanzibar.
The multi-course tasting menu at the Rooftop at Emerson Spice presents a daily changing selection of dishes made from locally caught fish (the hotel apparently has its own boat), and chicken, veggies and eggs sourced from a local farm. Two absolute stunners at our dinner were a dish of Zanzibar Sweet & Sour Chicken, served with a aubergine salad and beetroot rice that had just the right sweet metallic note that comes with well-cooked beetroot, and a dessert that I could easily have eaten three platefuls of. The dessert was a trio of sweetly spiced creations - an icy cool saffron givre (sorbet), served with a spiced fruit salad and nutmeg-scented tende (date biscuit). It was heaven on a plate!
The Tea House at Emerson on Hurumzi is something else altogether. The billowing silk-roofed restaurant is inspired by Zanzibar's Middle Eastern heritage and serves a Persian-inspired menu. The restaurant is set up almost like a majlis, with floor level cushioned seats and low wooden tables set out in-front of diners (although a few regular tables are available for those who don't find low seating comfortable for an entire meal.)
The meal is conceptualised around a Zanzibari wedding banquet or "soro" - served by friends of the bride and groom to the happy couple on their wedding night, usually accompanied by singing and crowds wearing colourful kangas (traditional African garments woven through with special proverbs. At a wedding these proverbs usually dispense advice on living a happily married life or messages of love).
While there was no singing at our dinner (which was another delicious and laid back multi-course affair), there was an atmospheric soundtrack provided by the adhan going off at sunset in all of Stone Town's many mosques, church bells during the evening Angelus, followed by the rhythmic chanting of Hindu prayers at the city's local temple - a fine example of Stone Town's lively cultural mix.
There was of course some more Dawa at sundown followed by a thick tende sherbet made with milk, dates and honey that provided the perfect counterpoint to the richly spiced menu of shrimp with tamarind, an absolutely amazing beetroot hummus, Persian pilao, tender goat curry that gave way with the slightest touch of a fork, and spiced sambusa with hibiscus mbirimbi chutney for dessert - among other delights.
We were lucky to have an unnaturally red moon make an appearance on both evenings, but even without that little detail those two evenings will be among the most magical and memorable dinners I have ever enjoyed.
Both dinners were organised as part of hosted stays at Emerson Spice and Emerson on Hurumzi, where we spent a night each during our trip. But if I ever head to Zanzibar again (which I very much hope to do!) I can honestly say I would not consider staying anywhere else in Stone Town.
Both hotels are designed with the confident flair of someone who liked a bit of eccentricity and wasn't afraid to show it. That someone was Emerson Skeens, the American, long-time resident of Zanzibar and active patron of the arts after whom the two hotels are named. (Skeens passed away last year after spending a quarter of a century in Zanzibar). I have yet to decide which hotel was my favourite.
Emerson Spice is housed in a towering old merchant house - all intricate wooden verandahs, stained glass and colourful landings - and brings together three World Heritage buildings in the exotic Kasbah of Stone Town.
Each room is named and inspired by Emerson's favourite female characters - both living and make-believe. The room we stayed in was called Mimi - after the character in Puccini's La Boheme and featured an eclectic collection of dhow furniture, an old dressing table, sculptures and art - and two handsome old Swahili high beds (it is believed the beds were so high so that servants could sleep under their mistress' and master's beds should their assistance be required at any time of the night). The gorgeous lobby looks like it has come to life out of an old book.The hotel was one of the most photogenic places I have ever stayed in. (Ok, maybe I do have a favourite after all...)
Emerson on Hurumzi is larger, in a way less flamboyant and more classically elegant, but also incredibly striking. Its colours are bold and strong - rose walls, forest green bathtubs, beautiful woodwork and trellising. South - the room we stayed in - was situated in a completely separate upstairs annex reached by a vertigo-inducing slatted footbridge. The red room with long shuttered windows all around led into a cleverly screened outdoor bathroom (obviously no peeping Toms are tolerated in a devoutly Muslim country!) but it seems like Emerson was the kind of man who liked to push the boundaries. Both hotels have many rooms with (albeit carefully screened) outdoor showers.
Breakfast at Emerson on Hurumzi was served in a relaxing inner courtyard, half-way down the building and was a lovely space to enjoy the morning - and a plate of juicy tropical fruit. It was also a chance to enjoy my favourite find in Zanzibar - the wonderful local "zaitun" fruit (mamey sapote in English) - a moreish cross between the creaminess of an avocado and the stodginess of a sweet potato. The fruit seems popular in South America (and obviously Africa). I have never come across it before. If anyone ever finds it Dubai, do let me know where I can buy some :)
Many visitors to Zanzibar head straight to its beautiful beaches and give its atmospheric capital a miss but I would advise a stop - however brief - in this evocative waterfront city, with its solid stone fort, beautiful filigreed buildings and gorgeous Omani wooden doors punctuating every street. It's a city that will stay with you long after you leave.
"You need to watch them closely, they move around in small groups. Watch which way they all move and pick the one in the lead. It'll have all the meat, the others will mainly be feeding on its scraps."
This was my first lesson in sea urchin gathering, confidently delivered by Julian Burton, the GM of The Residence Zanzibar. He definitely seemed to know what he was talking about.
I had questions though - sea urchins moved? That was news to me. I thought they mainly spent their spindly lives rooted to the sea bed. Julian's spirited introduction to what I would be doing that afternoon raised other questions:
Is a sea urchin a vegetable or an animal? (It doesn't have a brain but it moves and has a nervous system).
Can I pick it up with my bare hands? (There were differing opinions).
How does one know where to find a sea urchin garden in the big wide Indian Ocean? (I will come to that later).
Either way I was excited. I was signed up for an afternoon of sea urchin gathering and an evening cooking class with The Residence Zanzibar's Executive Chef Raymond Beck, a Frenchmen who has spent much of his life perfecting the sunny, multi-layered cuisine of the island nations, including Mauritius and a stint in the Caribbean before heading to Zanzibar.
So with the unofficial theory portion completed and the key instructions committed to memory - take your time to watch them, pick the leader - we headed off on a boat to catch some sea urchins.
Zanzibar seems to have a LOT of them on its beaches. In fact swimming or walking on the beach without reef shoes is pretty foolish. Up north in Matemwe, certain areas of the sea bed were so full of the little spiny balls it looked like a thick dark carpet.
Down south in Kizimkazi where we now were, it was slightly different. There were a few sea urchins in a spot we tried to gather them from at first but the tide was coming in rapidly which made skin diving to get them in an incredibly salty and buoyant sea rather tricky.
We had to bring in the expert.
The expert being Captain Kipande, a man of the sea if ever I saw one. At more than 70, well salted by years in the sun and ocean, dressed in a wet suit with a net bag slung over his arm to stuff the sea urchins in, Captain Kipande definitely looked like the man who would help us find those sea urchins in time for dinner. We chugged out into the ocean for about 10-15 minutes until the Captain signaled we should stop.
"Captain Kipande is like a barracuda," the man steering our boat told us. "He can stay in the water all day - fishing, swimming, diving..."
That fact was obvious. With afternoon rapidly descending into dusk, Captain Kipande seemed nonplussed, diving straight into a pretty feisty current in a seemingly randomly picked spot in the Indian Ocean with no real markers to determine where along the coast we were.
"How does he know there will be sea urchins here?" I (foolishly) asked.
Of course, I was silly to ask. Because Captain Kipande obviously knew there were sea urchins there. Massive creatures, the size of which I had never seen before. These sea urchins were so big you could see bands of luminous purple spots running down their sides. And these ones definitely moved! Or sort of pulsed in their net bags.
Two dives later we were back on shore with a hefty haul of sea urchins and apron-ed up for our cooking class with Chef Raymond.
I had eaten sea urchins once before, in Japan. Plain and simple in the Japanese way of retaining the sacrosanct purity of ingredients. They tasted like more saline crab coral, in a way.
But Chef Raymond took a different approach. He combined the sea urchin with unique complements - a Tanzanian coffee-flavoured sabayon and smooth pumpkin puree for course one, star anise and cinnamon-scented sweet potato, sweet mango and a crustacean jelly created out of boiled lobster shells for course two, a Creole style soup studded with sea urchin roe for course three. In the typical elegant French style of cooking, he elevated one unusual ingredient to take it from being something most people would be a bit hesitant to try to not one, but three, incredibly exciting dishes.
Preparing the sea urchins was probably the most fun part of our class. You have to admit they are pretty theatrical creatures and due to the size of the ones we caught, quite a handful! Chef Raymond gave them a "shave" - cutting off the long spines with a scissor before snipping off a round lid at the top from which we could extract the meat. I had a go, holding the sea urchins in a towel before cutting one open. Their exoskeletons are pretty easy to cut open with a scissor, and feel a bit like cutting through thin corrugated cardboard.
"Captain Kipande obviously caught the ones in the lead," he said.
Sea urchins are sometimes called the pigs of the ocean. And if you cut one open you may start to understand why. Their insides are full of... stuff! I'm not sure what it is. Gritty little balls of what looks like hardened sand, a free floating liquid (which most chefs save, strain and use for deepening the flavour of sea food stocks and dishes) and the sort of grey matter similar to a the "dead men's fingers" you find in crabs. But in between all this "stuff" are the pieces of sea urchin meat - a roe-like beige-to-orange-coloured ingredient with a consistency almost like foie gras. This is what you should be looking to scoop out.
Prep done, sea urchin flesh retrieved, pumpkin and sweet potato puree prepared, sabayon whipped up and jelly left to cool in little dishes, we were ushered out of the kitchen to dress for dinner.
And what a spectacular dinner it was! A table for two was set up a little further away from The Dining Room - the hotel's main plantation-style restaurant - with only a brilliant moon and a night sky stretched over with a clear view of the Milky Way for company. A degustation menu of three sea urchin courses followed by white snapper on a bed of sauteed sweet potato leaves and a spiced chocolate and vanilla bombe for dessert followed. There were dulcet-toned serenaders singing Miriam Makeba's beautiful "Malaika" - incidentally my granny's favourite song. If this is how all sea urchin gathering trips end, I am definitely signing myself up for another one!
The sea urchin gathering experience was arranged as part of a hosted stay by The Residence Zanzibar, and could soon be a part of the resort's "Extreme Stay" experiences that offer adventurous travelers a chance to delve deeper into the local culture of the destination in a variety of ways such as photography courses, cooking classes and diving trips.
The 66 all-standalone-villa property turned out to be a relaxing spot to end our trip across Zanzibar. Set in sprawling, lush gardens fronted by a breezy ocean, the spacious and light-filled villas at The Residence Zanzibar do make you feel like you are coming home (to a pretty plush home at that - with each villa having a sizeable private pool that is long enough to actually swim rather than sit it, a generous patio, cool white and wood interiors and a bright glass-walled bathroom opening into a high-walled outdoor garden that will keep your privacy - and modesty - intact!)
Kizimkazi is apparently home to Africa's oldest mosque which, with just one day and sea urchin gathering adventures to indulge in, we sadly didn't have time to explore on this trip. The Residence does give each villa his-and-hers bikes to explore the grounds, a really nice touch.
Kizimkazi is also quite close to the Jozani Forest Reserve - home to the island's most famous primate, the Red Colobus monkey and one of its last remaining sanctuaries in the world. We saw a whole family of the furry red and white monkeys hanging out by the roadside on our way to the airport. An absolutely perfect end to a perfect trip in southern Zanzibar.
I've been to Africa before. Technically. North Africa more correctly. Egypt in actuality. And as someone who has lived in the Middle East for almost a decade, I have to confess that although delicious, Egyptian food lacked the exotic element I have always associated with the word "Africa".
That's because as a kid, the words I associated with African food were things likes "mandazi" (fried Swahili donuts), "chakula" (snacks) and "ugali" (maize gruel) - food that sounded enticingly foreign to me. Food I never actually had a chance to eat, but for my mum - who was born and grew up in Tanzania - in a way must have tasted of home.
So the chance to finally travel to East Africa and get a chance to try some of these exotic-sounding creations was something I was extremely excited about. A whole new continent of flavours to explore - flavours that to me felt foreign yet strangely familiar.
The destination? Zanzibar. The legendary Spice Island. Where heady ingredients like cloves, baskets of seafood, tropical fruits and Asian-inspired flavours like coconut milk and lemongrass featured heavily on the menu.
With its rich and layered culinary history that brings together native Swahili cuisine overlaid with Arabic, Portuguese and Indian overtones built over centuries of trading and colonial influence, I don't think I could have picked a better point of entry to start my platetrotting adventures in Africa.
My first stop, the little diving haven of Matemwe where I was to spend three nights perched in cool turquoise and cream-hued makuti thatched huts looking over the Indian Ocean with uninterrupted views of one of Zanzibar's most beautiful dive spots - Mnemba Atoll.
The plan? To spend my mornings suspended among the reef's beautiful inhabitants and my afternoons and evenings tasting the honest, fresh flavours of Matemwe's shores. It turned out to be a pretty perfect one.
First on the menu, fresh, light, fruity fare - the perfect set up for days of diving
I'm a child of the tropics. There is something about ripe mangoes, pineapples, papayas and passion fruit that just feels right. And Zanzibar, with an economy that is still very much driven by a barter system of home-grown products rather than mass production, lets you eat fruits that come straight out of people's back gardens. Organic to the core and you can taste it! Passion fruit mousse and home-made jam, plump and sweet little "apple bananas" to roll into your pancakes at breakfast and scoops of pinkey-orange papaya so sweet, getting your five-a-day never seemed so pleasurable!
I loved Zanzibar because it really did feel so much like home. From the trees - huge teak, mango and Ashoka - to the weather, architecture and trumpet-laced local music, it had that slowed down ease of Goa. But best of all Zanzibar possesses the Goan love for snacks. And their snacks even resemble the ones we eat back home. Papaddum and fruit pickles, deep fried battered vegetables, samosas stuffed with spiced vegetables and served with the most insanely delicious coconut, lime and chilli chutney, I thoroughly approved of the post diving snacks we chomped our way through during our time in Matemwe.
Honestly tasty seafood
No try-hards here. The sea food was just fresh and flavourful. A bit of butter and lime brushed on fleshy white snapper, creamy spiced seafood soups (that tasted very much like Goan Caldinha), plump cigale or rock lobsters and coconut crusted shrimp served with a chilli aioli - when you stay this close to the sea it seems silly to eat anything else rather than what comes straight out of it.
Something cold to wash it down
The taste that I will always associate with Zanzibar is that first cool slosh of spicy Stoney Tangawizi ginger beer, enjoyed on a golden evening looking over a turquoise pool to the wide open Indian Ocean beyond. Heaven!
Africa has had more than its fair share of troubles recently. I won't lie by saying that traveling there didn't come with its share of apprehension. But my first real taste of the Continent lived up to my wildest dreams.
With flights out to Zanzibar on flydubai and Oman Air (and starting this summer, Qatar Airways), there couldn't be a better time to explore this beguiling part of the world. A good dash of common sense and doing your homework in terms of checking the safety records of resorts and places you plan on staying in will go a long way in keeping most out of trouble.
There is no denying that there is something very special about Africa. And I can't wait for an opportunity to head back to take an even bigger bite out of it!
When in Matemwe:
Stay: We stayed as guests of Sunshine Marine Lodge, a thoroughly bright, airy (and friendly) lodge made up of 23 rooms stacked into double storey makuti-hut-styled bungalows with stunning views overlooking a butterfly-filled flowering garden, and for those staying right by the water's edge (like me!), the most spectacular sea view I have ever come across.
The lodge is off-the-beaten track but we found that in reality is not that much further than some other spots on the island that are along the more well-traveled tourist trail - it has somehow managed to capture that happy medium between feeling beautifully isolated yet not too far to get to. For dive enthusiasts its location is unparalleled, being only a short 25 minute hop from Mnemba Island, saving you more than an hour's drive from other resorts on the island - personally a huge plus post dive when all you want to do is get straight back to dry land and a hearty lunch.
Dive: Another personal plus was the professionalism of the on-site Dive Point dive centre, an independently run operation that runs diving and snorkeling trips to the top-class dive sites along Mnemba Atoll and the north-east coast of Zanzibar. Water babies have got to get in a boat to this spot - in two short days I saw more sea life than I have in my entire diving history - short as that may be! :) - including wild bottle-nosed dolphins, rays and luminous nudibranches. All I can say is, if you head to Matemwe, hit the water!
Soak it in: The sea is just stunning! Typical of Zanzibar's coast the water at low tide retreats far out, which means that no matter where you are on the coast you are subjected to a daily gorgeous change of vistas as the tide flows in and out, exposing the sandy sea bed which the locals comb every morning for shellfish and sea weed. With sturdy reef shoes it is easy to walk out to the edge of the reef when the tide retreats. Just make sure to check the tide schedule with the resort you stay at to avoid being out when the tide comes in!
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