I Found the Spice of Life on a Farm in Zanzibar

We visited Abdalla Abeid’s Spice Farm on our way from Stone Town to Pwani Mchangani during a trip to Tanzania’s Zanzibar.  The farm was not anything like America’s commercial orchards, where apple trees grow neatly in rows.  It was a miniature forest with mango tree canopies and a little of everything all growing together — a throwback to the time when the Sultan of Oman controlled Zanzibar and the spice and slave trades were economic staples.

Spices have always been a serious business. So serious that Spain, Portugal, England, and Holland all fought for control over the Indonesian Spice Islands for 200 years.  The leaves, fruit, and oils provide the ultimate culinary experience and have healing powers, too.  Spices are what Christopher Columbus was in search of when he landed in the Bahamas.

Confession: If “spice trivia” were a thing, I would have lost miserably.   Our guide explained how each of the farm’s spices and fruits grows, about their local uses, cultivation and preparation for market.   I didn’t recognize the fresh green vanilla bean or the shiny green peppercorns, which only slightly resembled the dried black ones in the market.  I had no idea that fresh nutmeg was shiny, black and covered in red veins.  I was surprised that lemongrass repels mosquitoes.  The local fruit Mbilimbi (cucumber tree), traditionally enjoyed pickled, can also be used to treat venereal disease.  It was a stark reminder of how far removed we are from our food sources and how little I knew about the spices I use.

The tour left me amazed.  Tasting jackfruit right from from the tree was a delicious experience.  We left the farm wearing natural red lipstick made from annatto, adorned with bracelets woven from palm leaves.  Our spice bouquet’s fragrance perfumed our seaside room for days.

If you ever get the chance to visit Zanzibar or any other spice-growing area, find a farm and ask for a tour. You’ll be glad you did.

 

 

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My Favorite Fir Fir Recipe

Fir fir, dried injera reconstituted in a spicy, garlicky, tomato sauce, should be on every Ethiopian restaurant’s menu – breakfast lunch and dinner. Despite rumors that fir fir served in restaurants is made by re-using the discarded injera from customers’ plates, this spicy staple has become one our family’s favorite. As expected, everyone’s fir fir tastes just a little bit different. Our cook, Meskerem’s take is the best I’ve had. It’s good on its own, with an extra side of injera, with fried eggs, or surprisingly, atop a pile of whole wheat pasta. Today I watched her make it and here’s exactly what she did.

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Ingredients

1/3 cup oil
3 onions, diced small
1 head of garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
3 roma tomatoes, chopped
3 heaping tablespoons of berbere spice
1 1/2 cup water
more salt to taste (for us, about 1/4 tsp)
2 dried injera*

Directions

1. Heat the oil and add the onions, garlic and salt.

2. Cook on medium high heat until the onions begin to brown.

3. Add the chopped tomatoes and continue to cook, stirring frequently for about 3  minutes.

4. Turn the heat to medium low.  Add the berbere and continue to cook.  The tomatoes will start to cook down. Simmer while stirring for about 10 minutes.

5. Add the water. When the water comes to a boil, the fir fir is done.

6. Add more salt to taste.

7. Add the dried injera  to re-constitute it — a little of a time, until you reach the desired consistency and the sauce is absorbed.  Adding too much will make it dry. Add too little, and it will be watery.

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Completed Sauce
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Ready to Enjoy

*Note: Fresh injera can be dried out by placing it in a warm oven for 10 minutes. Heat the oven to 400 degrees and turn off the heat. Place roughly torn pieces of injera onto a sheet pan and into the oven.