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Spices are the basis of Zanzibar's cuisine

The taste of Zanzibar’s Spices – 4 delicious foods you must try!

What is your first thought when you hear Zanzibar?  Exactly! Beaches and spices. Both have their place in this blog. Spices are the basis of Zanzibar’s cuisine. The special flair of the beach or in the historic Stone Town gives every dish that certain extra.

UnboxingTanzania introduces you to our favorite dishes that we discovered while exploring Zanzibar.

  • Urojo – Zanzibar Mix
  • Fresh fish and seafood
  • Pilau
  • Biriyani

A bit of Background

In the culinary world of Zanzibar, it is important to people that you can taste the individual spices. Each spice is used very thoughtfully. That puzzled us at first. We expected hot or spicy dishes because of the historical relationship with India and the Arab states. We also saw the cultivation of chilies on the spice farms.

But this is exactly the biggest difference between these cultures. Because the dishes are seasoned but not spiced, the taste of the different spices remains longer on your pallet.

Although we like to eat spicy food, we have decided not to season the dishes. Over time, we have learned to taste individual spices. But don’t worry, if you prefer to eat your dishes really hot, you can always ask for a chili sauce (Mchuzi ya Pilipili).

The restaurants in touristic areas usually have good hygienic standards. That is what we have observed. If you try one of the local restaurants, it’s good to pay attention to a few things:

Tip No 1

Crockery and cutlery should be dry. The plates are usually rinsed cold with soap, under normal tap water. That is okay. It’s just important that they are dry so that you can protect yourself from a typhus infection.

Tip No 2

You should only order freshly squeezed juice if purchased drinking water (bottled water) is used. You should definitely ask about it.  If you are unsure which water is used, we’d advise you not to get it.

Tip No 3

Don’t forget to wash your hands. Especially in Zanzibar, where the population is 95% Muslim, much emphasis is placed on this. No matter how clean your hands are, wash them again before eating.  At most snack bars you’ll find facilities to wash your hands (check here for more information about hygine) You then also win the respect and heart of the locals.

But now, let’s make you hungry.

Zanzibar Mix or Urojo

The dish is exactly what the name suggests. A food that combines the cultures, history, food, and spices of Zanzibar.  The basis of the stew is a broth consisting of turmeric, mangoes, and flour. Of course, every chef and every restaurant has their own recipe. Potatoes (sometimes fried potatoes or fritters), falafel, boiled eggs, tomatoes, onions, and some lemon or lime juice are then added to the broth. Of course, meat should not be missing.  Often it is grilled beef. The soup is seasoned during the whole process. Sometimes a spoonful of coconut chutney and a dollop of the Pilipili sauce (chili sauce) is a topping.

Zanzibar Mix street food booth at the Stone Town night market
Zanzibar Mix street food booth at the Stone Town night market

Sounds good, right? The soup often tastes a bit sour, but very gooood.  We found the mildness pleasant. This allowed us to taste many of the ingredients mentioned directly.

Fresh fish and seafood

Every day on the beach we could watch the fishermen selling their catch directly on the beach. Of course, the hubbub is even bigger at the fish markets in Stone Town.  The sea around Zanzibar is very rich in fish and so it is no wonder that fish and seafood are part of the culinary menu here.

We mostly just ask about the “catch of the day” in the restaurants. Followed by the question of whether the fish was really caught today.  This is often the case. Otherwise, the waiter will honestly tell you that the fish was frozen or how old it is.

In a beautiful location on the beach, for example, we were told that one lobster is fresh from today and more needed to be defrosted. The fish is usually served grilled.  We especially liked the tuna steaks. Perfectly grilled, so that the fish was not dry, but just nice and juicy.  We also ate our most delicious octopus EVER in Zanzibar.

Our Tip:

One more word of caution, though. Choose the restaurant well for your fish dish. Fresh Fish must also be sufficiently cooled.  This is also the case with shrimps and gambas. Better to spend a little more than get fish poisoning and be sick for the rest of your holiday.


Pilau is a rice dish that is common throughout East Africa.  Why do we associate it with Zanzibar?  Pilau is a simple dish, rice with spices and sometimes meat is mixed in. Especially you will taste cinnamon, cardamom, and cumin. These spices can be found everywhere on the island.

Pilau with some local dips and chapati
Pilau with some local dips and chapati

So, how is pilau prepared? In the case of pilau with meat, the meat is first seared in oil.  Then add onions, garlic, and ginger.  The spices that form Pilau are the ones mentioned above, as well as black pepper, coriander seeds, cloves, fenugreek, fennel seeds, and turmeric.

Then you pour in water. First, the meat is cooked in the decoction. With additional water, the rice is added. Fold the rice under the meat and continue to stir occasionally. As soon as the water is boiled, the pilau dish is ready. Often pilau is served with a bean sauce or a thick meat sauce.

Our Tip:

Try Pilau! The spice mixture can be bought everywhere, even in small, packaged bags. These are ideal as a small gift or souvenir of your holiday in Zanzibar.


Biriyani dish at a street food corner
Biriyani dish at a street food corner

The history of this dish goes back to the end of the 15th or the beginning of the 16th. The word “Biriyani”, is believed, to have its roots in the Persian word “birian”, which can be translated as “fried before cooking”. Muslim immigrants may have spread the dish in India.

Unlike Pilau, the rice is prepared separately from the meat. It is very important for good biriyani that the rice is not overcooked but still a bit gritty.  The secret also lies in the spice mixture (fenugreek seeds, green and black cardamom seeds, fennel seeds, cumin, cinnamon, black pepper, and chili). In addition, the fried onions and the clarified butter used are a hit.

Biriyani is usually served with meat. Mostly a nicely cooked piece of beef with a reduced meat sauce (a bit like gravy).

Our Tip:

You can also order both rice dishes to take away. So, you can enjoy your food directly on the beach with your favorite view.  In addition, the portions are often so large that you still have something to eat for the next day.

Bottom Line

Our Zanzibar trip was unforgettable for us.  Pleasant people who gave us a friendly welcome, beautiful nature with endless beaches, and a special history and culture to discover on the island. All this you can literally taste in the culinary diversity.

Will you be in Zanzibar soon? Tag us on Instagram or Facebook on your Biriyani or Urojo post. We’d be thrilled to hear how you like it.

By the Way

Do you like food? Check out our block about Street food in Tanzania “Street Food in Tanzania – You Have to Try the 5 Best!

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