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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