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  • Writer's pictureInge BB

Zanzibar: The Spice Island Paradise

Updated: Jan 23

Zanzibar spices
Zanzibar is often referred to as the Spice Island due to its rich abundance of spices. While a few spices were imported, such as vanilla from Mexico by the Portuguese, cloves from Indonesia by the Arabs, and nutmeg from India, Zanzibar itself is the origin of significant spices like cinnamon, cardamom, lemongrass, turmeric, and ginger.
In 1698, the Arabs from Oman successfully ousted the Portuguese occupiers from Zanzibar, gradually extending their control over the entire East African coast. By 1840, the Sultan of Oman had moved his seat from Muscat to Zanzibar, strategically leveraging the island to further expand the slave trade. Sultan Said bin Sayyed required thousands of slaves, particularly for his 45 newly established date and clove plantations. The prosperity of the spice trade and the opulent wealth of the sultans on this small Indian Ocean island, which resonated in Europe, would have been inconceivable without the utilization of slave labor.

Sultan of Zanzibar
Sultan of Zanzibar
The Sultanate of Zanzibar survived under British suzerainty until gaining independence in December 1963. The last Sultan, Jamshid, was allowed to continue his rule, with only 32 days remaining until the revolution.
During the fasting month of Ramadan, in the night of January 12, 1964, the pent-up anger of the exploited African islanders erupted against the Arab-Indian elite. A bloody massacre ensued, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Arabs and Indians. The next day saw the proclamation of the "People's Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba," which shortly thereafter joined Tanganyika to form the semi-autonomous state of the United Republic of Tanzania. Arabs and Indians fled, including Sultan Jamshid.
After the revolution, the Sultan's plantations and those of the Arab landlords were nationalized. Clove production was intensified, especially on the island of Pemba. Soon, a decision was made to redistribute a significant portion of the plantations in Zanzibar among small-scale farmers.
Pemba became the primary cultivation site for cloves, leading to the extensive clearing of the majority of its original forests to make way for vast clove plantations. However, gone are the days when Zanzibar could thrive on the spice trade. The global market price for cloves has plummeted, and the once-largest clove producer now plays a minimal role in the world spice market.
Most spice farms in Zanzibar are located approximately 20 km northeast of Stone Town. They no longer cultivate spices primarily for export but rather focus on local sales and catering to the popular spice tours, allowing guests to explore various spice plants and learn about their cultivation, harvesting, and processing methods.

Certainly, I'd be happy to introduce you to some of the most popular spices:

Clove Tree
Clove Tree
Cloves are the nail-shaped (thus their name from the French “clou=nail”) flowering buds from the clove tree, an up to 8–12 m tall evergreen. Harvesting is done twice a year by pickers climbing the trees, gathering the small buds by hand in baskets made of coconut leaves. The cloves are then dried for three to four days on mats in the sun, the buds turn a dark brown colour and the spice is ready for use. Cloves are used in the cooking of Asia, Africa, and the Near and Middle East in meats, curries, and marinades, as well as fruit such as apples, pears or rhubarb and hot beverages (German “gluehwine”) . Cloves have also been used in medicine, especially topically against toothache, inflammations of the mouth and throat, the active ingredient Eugenol has been given to lower fever and
blood sugar, against stomach upset, diarrhea, hernia, and bad breath, intestinal gas, nausea, and vomiting and premature ejaculation, the evidence of any of these effects being inconclusive. Clove oil can also be used to anesthetize fish. The spice is used in a type of cigarette called kretek in Indonesia, giving it a menthol like flavour. In the 19th century cloves have been -next to slaves- the single most important export product of the rich Omani empire of Zanzibar. A hurricane in 1872 largely destroyed the clove industry on the island, but on nearby Pemba the plantations remained largely intact, and the clove crop from there is still of great export value.

Cinnamon Tree
Cinnamon Tree
Group of spices, derived from the inner bark of different types of trees. Cinnamon is native to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Malabar Coast of India, and Burma. Sri Lanka produces 80–90% of the world's supply of true Cinnamon. Cinnamon tamala and Cinnamon cassia  come from the north of India, China, Arabia, Madagascar and Ethiopia. Cinnamon is used for cooking in sweet and savoury foods, perfumes and medicine and has been known from ancient times like in Egypt as early as 2000 BC and been mentioned extensively in greek and roman literature. It was highly priced and one of the reasons for the Portuguese, Dutch and British to search for trading routes to Asia after the Mediterranean route via Alexandria was blocked by the Ottoman empire and the Mameluke sultans.
Cinnamon sticks
Cinnamon Sticks
After the rainy season the smaller shoots of the tree are stripped of their bark. These sheets of bark are then put overlapping to dry in the sun. As the bark dries it will curl up in the form of a cinnamon stick. The sticks are then cut to the right size. The small pieces and flakes that fall off during the process are ground into cinnamon powder. Cinnamon verum sticks can be recognized by the very fine thinness of the bark. The people of Zanzibar use the bark, but also the whole plant can be used for different purposes. The leaves can be used fresh or dried in cooking and tea, the stems can be burnt as incense and insect repellent.
While Ceylon Cinnamon contains very little of the anticoagulant Coumarin, Cinnamon cassia has a considerable amount of it which can interfere with blood coagulation, liver and kidney function if ingested in great amounts (like during Christmas time) in susceptible individuals.

Vanilla plant
Vanilla Plant
Is world’s second priciest spice. The plant from the orchid family with 25000 species and at least 250 different flavors originated from Mexico, where the Totonac people added it to chocolate, calling it the fruit of the gods. They were conquered by the Aztecs in 15th century, who taxed the Mayans in vanilla beans, using the beans as currency, followed by the Spanish, who introduced vanilla to Europe as additive to chocolate, considering it as the ultimate aphrodisiac until early 17th century, when an apothecary in the employ of Queen Elizabeth I developed a chocolate free vanilla dessert. The French then used it in ice-cream, and in 1780 the recipe brought to America by the future American president Th. Jefferson, who then lived in Paris as American Minister to France. The demand increased in the 2nd half of 19th century when vanilla was used in soft drinks including Coca Cola after 1886. The propagation was not successful outside Mexico, because the pollinating Melipona bee and humming birds only exist there. In 1841 a 12 year old slave boy in Reunion discovered a pollination technique using a stick and flip of the thumb, after which the plant spread worldwide through the tropics, nowadays being produced mainly in Madagascar and Reunion. The vanilla plant winds around trees up to 100 m and produces once a year 10 cm big green-yellowish flowers, which only open for 24 hrs and have to be pollinated (by hand) during this time or die. 9 months later 15-20 cm long pods emerge containing thousands of small grains. The pods have to be harvested by hand and in a very labor- intensive process with cooking, drying, curing in the sun over several months, matured into the dark brown shrunken pods, the whole development process lasting 1,5 years. Only 2000 tons are produced per year. The remaining 99% of the demand come from synthetic vanillin production by gene technology and from petrochemistry, wood processing and paper industry, from engenol (clove oil) and even from the secretions of anal glands of beavers. Vanilla is used in sweets, also in combination with meat, salads, in coffee, perfume, tea, home products, body lotion. The most popular vanilla species with distinct flavours are from Tahiti, Madagascar and Mexico.

Tamarind means “Indian date”. It is the only spice derived from Africa that is being used extensively in cuisines around the world, and that is not growing on a palm-like tree. It is cultivated worldwide in tropical and subtropical zones. It produces edible, pod-like fruit which are used for cooking. Other uses include traditional medicines and metal polishes. The wood can be used in carpentry.


Mace & Nutmeg
Mace and Nutmeg are two distinct spices derived from the same plant, Myristica fragrans. Nutmeg refers to the seed within the yellowish fruits of the plant, while mace is the lacy, reddish covering (arils) surrounding the seed. Once harvested, the mace arils are separated from the nutmeg seeds and spread out to dry, from a few days to a couple of weeks. The dried mace arils are carefully ground or grated, releasing the aromatic oils and intensifiing the spice’s flavor and fragrance. Both spices were highly priced in ancient times, have a fascinating history spanning centuries and are widely used in culinary traditions around the world. Originating exclusively from the tropical regions of Indonesia, particularly the Banda Islands, nowadays nutmeg and mace are cultivated in various countries, including India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Grenada. In the 15th century, the spice trade, including mace, became a driving force behind global exploration and trade routes. During the Middle Ages, mace was believed to possess various health benefits, including aiding digestion, relieving pain, and even acting as aphrodisiacs. Mace and it’s sister-spice nutmeg are versatile spices that add a distinct flavor and aroma to a wide range of dishes. Sharing similarities, but also with unique culinary applications setting them apart. Compared to nutmeg, mace has a more delicate, subtly sweet and fragrant scent with hints of citrus and pine. It is often used in lighter dishes such as fish, poultry, and delicate sauces, adding a gentle warmth and complexity without overpowering the other flavors. It can be used in spice blends (e.g. garam masala), marinades, and rubs to enhance the overall flavor profile. Maze offers some nutritional benefit (minerals, vitamins, fibre), which is small due to the small quantities of the spice used.

Cardamom Plant
Cardamom is a spice belonging to the ginger family, native to the Middle East, North Africa, and Scandinavia, nowadays mainly produced in Guatemala (to where it has been introduced before World War I by a german coffee planter). The word is derived from the Mycenaean Greek  “ka-da-mi-ja”, and in the New Testament was mentioned as "amomon” = spice. It is world's third-most expensive spice after saffron and vanilla. Cardamom can be bought still in the pods (strongest flavor), as seeds or as ground cardamom with less flavor. It has a strong, unique spicy-sweet taste, which is slightly aromatic. In a recipe 10 seeds equal 1 ½ tsp. ground. The two main genera are “green cardamom” (white cardamom when bleached), and ”black cardamom” (Java cardamom, Bengal cardamom), both
Cardamom seeds
Cardamom Seeds
with a strong, unique taste and being used as flavoring and cooking spices in India, the Middle East and Scandinavia. In South Asia, China and in Ayurvedic medicine Cardamom is used to treat infections, digestive disorders, to break up kidney and gall stones, and as an antidote for both snake and scorpion venoms. 

Black Pepper
Pepper is the most widely traded spice in the world. It has been used in ancient Egypt and is now being cultivated in India and the far east (Vietnam). One of the reasons for the exploring voyages of the Portuguese (including Christoph Columbus) has been to break the monopoly in spice trade of Venice and other Italian cities. Black pepper is the cooked and dried unripe fruit, green pepper the dried unripe fruit and white pepper the ripe fruit seeds. The spiciness of black pepper is due to the chemical piperine, not to be confused with the capsaicin that gives fleshy peppers their spiciness. The taste of green and black peppercorns is different from white pepper since latter lacks flavours concentrated in the shells.

Discover the enchanting allure of Zanzibar's spices, where each aroma tells a tale of a vibrant and flavorful history.

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