Zanzibar’s Spice Tour

By 08:23

When I asked my Tanzanian travel agent about the tours on offer in Zanzibar, she very quickly recommended a Stone Town tour and Spice Tour but the quoted prices were way out of my budget for this unexpected trip. Upon arriving in Zanzibar, I very soon found out that like most third-world tourist spots, you can easily find someone to be your tour guide at a much cheaper rate. But being a girl in a new island, I decided to go with someone recommended by a friend. Our tour guide was neither too expensive nor too cheap and his name was Said – a herbalist by trade and a medical officer by qualification. Who better to show us around.

The tour guide fetched us from our hotel and we drove uphill to Bububu where the spice farms are located. I found it fascinating that Zanzibar is renowned for its spices yet none of these spices are indigenous to the Island. When the Omani Arabs stumbled upon Zanzibar, they thought it was paradise coming from their dry arid desert. Over time, more fruits and spices were introduced to the island as supplies for the port and for the people that eventually decided to inhabit the island. 

I was totally unprepared for my walk through the bush. Somehow I imagined this to be a well maintained farm or park with neat rows of spices growing and paved walkways. It’s thoughts like these that make it obvious that I’m used to South African luxuries.

It was a Sunday afternoon so it was a lot quieter than it usually is. The first thing I saw were the bright red rambutans growing on a tree. I first tasted this in a Thai restaurant in South Africa and then I tasted it fresh in Thailand. It’s like a litchi only much meatier. I was surprised to learn that most fruits come in a number of species. We walked past trees with different sized and shaped rambutans. We also saw some boys harvesting them to sell the market. They gave us one each to try out. So delicious!

As we passed by some flowers our herbalist tour guide shared some of his secrets with us. He showed us a flower which you pinch and a drop of liquid comes out of it. It’s used to clear up eye infections. My mother speaks fondly of a time when she was growing up and her parents used herbal remedies from their garden instead of visiting doctors so I quite happily listened to all of this as most of his “remedies” correlated with the medicinal properties of spices that I know. My colleague, on the other hand, was a bit sceptical.

We saw lots of different types of mango, bananas, lemons, jackfruit, lime and other fruits I’ve never heard of. I learnt that the farm is the property of the government however you can rent out a tree and sell that harvest in the market. The cool thing about this tour is that you always get a taste of everything edible that you see.

Our guide picked up some leaves and squished it between his fingers and made us smell it: the sweet fragrance of ylang ylang. He did this with most of the plants so we’d first guess the spice or fruit based on the aroma.

Who knew peppercorns could come in green, white and red! Most spices are dried in the sun to get the dark black colour like black peppercorns, cloves and vanilla pods. Said even shared a remedy for that uncomfortable bloated feeling when you’ve ate too much and your tummy just won’t digest everything fast enough: drink some crushed pepper mixed in water. In no time, the gases will naturally escape from your tummy.

Did you know that there are 2 types of lemon grass? I always thought it was from the same plant. The bulbous part that Indians like to add to their tea and the leaf blades that the all the TV cooking shows love to use. They actually come from 2 different species. No wonder I can't find the one I'm looking for at Woolworths.

Our tour guide showed the bark of the iodine plant which bleeds when you cut it. If you apply that liquid to a wound, it becomes a white paste and acts as an antiseptic.

As someone who is accustomed to eating hot food, Zanzibari chillies are deathly hot but the fire ants loved the treat our tour guide gave them. He sliced up a chilli and served it on a leaf. Millions of ants came out of nowhere to attack it! It was definitely a sight to see.

I cook with turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves almost every day. It was fascinating to see how these grow, which parts of the plant it comes from and how it looks in its raw form.

Our next stop was to what I thought was another fruit I’ve never seen before. Our tour guide cut it in half and handed to me to inspect. There were cocoa beans inside.

We spotted more bright red rambutans with those signature prickles but when it was cut open, we realised it wasn’t a rambutan at all. It had little seeds in it which when squashed stains your fingers red – nature’s very own colourstay lipstick.

Nutmeg is like a seed of a fruit, like the pip of a peach. I’ve never seen nutmeg with the red mace covering before. In Zanzibar, it’s used as a substance to tone down your logical thinking and excite your senses. It is given to Zanzibari brides for the celebrations on the eve of their wedding to allow the shy bride to loosen up to dance and have a little fun.

Our tour ended at the spice market. Most tourists do the spice tour as their first tour so they aren’t aware that the prices here are inflated in comparison to the already inflated Stone Town prices. There are various whole, ground and mixed spices for sale. I’m used to buying spices all the time and mixing my own so I was more interested in vanilla pods and saffron which are very expensive back home. They also sell perfumes from the flowers that grow on the farm.

Even if you have a short time in Zanzibar like I had, I’d definitely recommend doing the Spice Tour. It only takes a few hours and I left knowing so much more about the island, its history and culture.

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