Inside Africa's Darajani Market
“Look out!” chef Wollman pulls me out of the way as a cart, laden with watermelon, careens down the narrow stone lane. The sun burns high in the sky; Hindi music and Taarab tunes stream from shop windows; the air is heavy with humidity and the scent of cloves and frangipani flowers.
We’re heading to the Darajani Market at the edge of Stone Town, an ancient maze of alleyways and fine merchant houses that’s classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Zanzibar ignites imaginations around the world. And beyond the perfect powdery beaches and turquoise water straight out of Eden, the “Spice Island,” as it’s known, cooks up some of the most exciting cuisine on the planet. Anchored off the east coast of Africa, Zanzibar’s proximity to India and the Arabian peninsula secured the island’s status at the historic center of maritime trade routes. Over the centuries, the distinct Swahili culture that developed here has resulted in a simmering exchange of recipes between Persia, Portugal, Africa, India, Oman and Britain.
The market is a chaotic collision of these cultures. To immerse myself in this flavor fusion, I’ve enlisted chef Lucas Wollman to show me the ropes. Raised in Zimbabwe to German and Italian chef parents, Wollman cooks up gourmet delights at Kilindi, a luxury hotel that’s part of the Elewana Collection. Originally built for Benny Andersson of ABBA fame, Kilindi is an otherworldly retreat of sparkling white domes nestled on 50 acres of tropical gardens in the northwest of Zanzibar. “It’s a food-oriented place,” Lucas explains, noting the five-course meals he serves every night to just a few clients. (There are only 15 guest villas.)
A walk through the market, its present structure dating to 1904, is like seeing ancient trade routes collide. Pyramidal piles of turmeric, neat rows of piri piri chili pepper, bags of cardamom pods and saffron, vats of dried hibiscus, handcarts brimming with avocados, Indian rice alongside cloves and coconuts… A vendor prepares freshly pressed sugar cane juice, while ladies wrapped in colorful khangas cook up chapatis over an open-air fire. As chef points out the products, I get whiplash turning from side to side. “I quickly had to learn the Swahili words for all these fruits and vegetables,” he says. Stalls are brimming with limes, sweet potatoes, cassava, bunches of mint, lemongrass and 10 banana varieties including the dainty “lady finger” and the larger “elephant hand.” There are mountains of pineapples, jackfruit and mangos. I’m amazed by the bounty — much of it grown right on the island.
“Spinach grows like fire here,” he explains. Chef has actually started cultivating his own garden to take advantage of Zanzibar’s fertile climate. I stop to stare at some crazy-looking litchis sporting prickly red spikes. Wollman grins at the shokishoki and insists on buying a bunch — at peak season, it's the sweetest I’ve ever tasted. Mouths full, we round a bend and come face to face with chickens strutting on top of wicker cages.
Over the centuries, the trade winds carried merchants and pirates who brought with them spices, fruits and vegetables. The islands were originally settled by Bantu peoples from the African mainland, followed by Persians and Yemeni, before being colonized by the Portuguese, who were booted out by the Omanis, followed by a period of British colonization before Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika to form “Tanzania” in 1963. Throughout history, Zanzibar was a major port, trafficking in spices, ivory, textiles and — until abolition in 1876 — slaves. It was the enterprising Sultan Seyyid Said who, in the 19th century, insisted that Zanzibar create clove plantations to break the spice monopoly of the East India Company. Cloves are still harvested alongside vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom and pepper. Many of these spices are used to cure ailments. Cloves are a known toothache remedy, while nutmeg is considered an intoxicant.
Of course the seafaring Swahili people are masterful fishermen, many still using the traditional dhows, canoes carved from mango trees, and bamboo fish traps. Before we even step into the fish market, the soft melodic hum of Swahili washes over us. The morning auction is a musical sing-song as men, wearing traditional kofia (embroidered caps), call out their bids for the fresh catch of the day. Baskets of mackerel, piles of squid, tuna, barracuda and glistening octopus are artfully arranged on ceramic tiles. There’s even a marlin on the floor.
Oh and that octopus? A Zanzibar signature is Pweza wa nazi, a curry of octopus cooked in coconut milk and flavored with cinnamon, cardamom, garlic and lime. Locals will insist it’s an aphrodisiac.
“It’s like a bouillabaisse on steroids,” says chef Wollman. With Indian and Arab influences, original dishes like this sprang from Zanzibar’s unique terroir. Even the pilau rice, prepared with coconut and spices, is its own invention. And boku-boku meat stew is flavored with ingredients that come from all four corners of the globe: ginger, cumin, chili, tomato and onion.
At the end of the day, I find myself on the beach, stuffed to the gills on — what else? — chef’s perfectly grilled octopus. I take a seat next to the bonfire and watch the dhows unfurl their sails against the setting sun. Silhouetted on the horizon, a trio of ladies walk home with baskets on their heads, piled high with harvested seaweed. As the sun drops below the horizon, I cool off with chef’s sorbet made from market-fresh mangos. It’s sweet but the finish has a distinct spicy kick, thanks to a generous sprinkling of chili pepper. A perfect reflection of Zanzibar.
See the photos above for a sneak peek inside the market, and view more food market tours below.