Saturday, September 20, 2008

Wierdest Food Experience: Zanzibar

I've done a lot of entries on some of my favorite food experiences over the last year or so. I eat and enjoy a lot of food. Rarely, there's a genuinely bad food experience too.

But I haven't shared my weirdest food moment. From my annals of memorable eats, alongside memories of beautiful ambiance and delicious flavors, what's enthralled me at the same time that it's turned my tummy a touch queasy? Bizarre and fascinating - but not quite gross?

The title goes to the open air seafood market in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Here, in one of the prettiest little spots on earth, is also one of the strangest food experiences I've had.

The festivities run almost every night during the week in a little city square. Right next to here, the island's dhows dock after early mornings at sea, where local fishermen pull up nets full of sea goodies. And at night, when some goods have been sold to local restaurants and prepared as meals at home, the remaining are curried, grilled, smoked or served raw to locals and tourists alike.

The ambiance at the market is heady. It's pitch black, the sky is full of stars, and all around the market are little kerosene and electric lamps emitting a faint golden glow onto rough wooden tables. People are everywhere, pushing and shuffling through the spaces between tables. Swahili, French, English, Italian, Arabic fly around. Some tables carry crafts and souvenirs for the foreigners. But others, the majority really, are laden with more fish, prawns, squid, crabs, octopus tentacles and fried foods than you can imagine. In the distorting light of the lanterns, it can look like the table tops are alive with creatures from the sea.

It made my stomach churn at first. Bargaining with wiry fishermen over sea carcasses, so close to where the things were just alive and swimming. But once I got past it and ordered my first bite - the sea food here is really fresh and delectable!

How does it work? You walk around and bargain with each vendor for what you'd like. And given that you probably won't speak Swahili, just accept the fact that you're going to pay double what the Zanzibari next to you will. But at least you can probably afford it. A grilled octopus tentacle, with fresh sea salt, chili powder and lime will set you back about $4. Try the fish fritters too - they're deep fried and delicious. And seasoned with some of the island's famous spices. . .

Take some strategic advice: go to the stalls near the water, with the most traffic. The guys towards the back have slow turnover and you may end up with a squid skewer leftover from the day before. Don't rush to buy everything the first time you see it either. Mosey, meander among the tables and see what you like. And if you can deal with watching an octopus get pulled from a bucket and chopped up just behind the grill - order right on the spot to guarantee the freshest piece!

1 comment:

michael said...

sounds amazing! reminds me a bit of the meat market in palermo with stray dogs fighting over animal carcasses :)