At Stone Town's waterfront, in the otherwise pleasant but unspectacular Forodhani Gardens, a masterpiece unfurled every evening as the sun plunged into the turquoise Zanzibar Strait. Evenings the Gardens host dozens of local artisans who set up broad tables and charcoal grills and cook all sorts of seafood delicacies in local sauces over the coals.
Zanzibar is renowned for its delicate and imaginative cooking. A hub of the spice trade for centuries, blessed with a diversity of seafood and tropical fruits, and at the nexus of both Middle Eastern and African cuisines, the result is a panoply of taste experiences as exotic and enticing as the island itself. And nowhere was this more evident than evenings in the Forodhani Gardens.
Night after night, we dined on roast octopus with naan bread, beef shish kabobs in pili pili (red chili) sauce, mantabali (Zanzibari stuffed chapatis), fried potato balls, and chopped vegetables served with lemon. The Mantabali in particular were fantastic, and cost less than a dollar each.
The vendors were cajoling but not aggressive and obviously enjoyed a rapport with their patrons. Watching them in action was as much fun as eating the food itself. They were a blur of motion against a backdrop of the flames of the gigantic cauldrons, the harbor, and the evening stars. Best of all, though we tried our hardest to spoil the illusion, the entire dining experience was completely free of flies. In fact we were impressed by the amount of hand washing we saw going on, by the control the cooks maintained over their food stocks, and the public's diligence in putting garbage in the bins.
As we ate we watched young men whirl the great steel arms of the sugar cane presses. They placed lengths of freshly-cut cane and halved lemons at the opening of the press and passed them between two gears that squeezed out the sweet juice down the shiny spigot into a glass full of ice. It was frothy and satisfying (and addictive: I had three before the first night was behind us). As we drank we admired the diversity of Zanzibari diners. Ignoring the tourists there were still dozen of ethnicities, women in head scarves, men that looked more African, men that looked more Arabian, men that looked more South Asian. We were all there for the same purpose.
One night we eschewed the Gardens for a restaurant not far away, a gorgeous building that once housed the British Consulate but now boasts one of the most evocative dining experiences I can remember: rustic wooden tables set in the sugary sand of the beach front, lit by candles in clay pots and the light from a dozen tiki torches blazing away at the waterside. We enjoyed fish steaks and gin and tonics and the unforgettable atmosphere of the restaurant.
But afterwards we still went back over to the Forodhani Gardens to get something good to eat.
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