Monday, August 20, 2012

Zanzibari Pesto

Potato Fritters with Chili Sauce
We followed the Masai guard into a warmly lit dining room where two doors opened out to the star studded sky.  Just past the sandy porch, waves crashed with the strength of full tide.  We had survived a puddle jumper flight from the Tanzanian bush and landed, it seemed, in paradise.

Fabio, the charismatic owner of Mamamapambo Hotel, ushered John and me up a spiral staircase to a lofted room.  We almost didn’t need a to turn on the lights, the full moon shone bright enough to illuminate the comfortable Zanzibar lounge chairs and plush cushions strewn about the veranda. 

Women Collecting Seaweed
He gave his profuse apologies.  With our plane arriving late that evening there would be no time for his cooks to make a complicated dinner.  But perhaps something simple?  Maybe a mango salad?  Or a plate of pasta?  A pesto or arrabiata could be arranged.

Really?  Pesto and arrabiata in Zanzibar?  That would be easy for his cooks to do, just like that?  We could hardly pass up the offer.

Fifteen minutes later we descended back into the cozy dining room.  One plate of pesto spaghetti made with fresh basil (and did I detect peanuts?) and one spicy penne arrabiata materialized, perfectly al dente. It was as good as if we were in Italy.  Except we were far from Italy, hungrily bent over plates, adrift on a tropical island off the coast of Africa. 

Fisherman on his boat
The next morning I spent a couple of hours watching village life happen below our veranda.  Women waded out into the turquoise waters early in the morning not returning until late in the afternoon, trailing wooden dhows leaden with bulging potato sacks.  These sacks carried the women’s livelihood: seaweed to be dried and shipped to Japan where it would find its way into cosmetics and creams.  Their daughters and sons attempted to help with the load, but even young boys working together could not equal the strength of a mother’s arms as she hoisted a bag on her scarf wrapped head and carried it the long walk in. 

Meanwhile, the few men who appeared to be working, gathered food.  Fishing dhows shipped out for the reef early in the morning returning with their catch and the rising tide.  Boys with sharp sticks drove octopus from their holes and collected them in canvas sacks.  Sea urchins and cockles filled buckets, destined for the market or the feast that would happen after the sun went down for these Muslim villagers celebrating the holy month of Ramadan. 

Mediterranean Tuna
We easily fell into a routine.  Lunch was always pasta giving us a chance to try as many variations as we could. Puttanesca, tuna with mint and lime, fresh crab, then back again to that pesto and arrabiata.  Each (with the exception of slightly gummy crab) was executed with perfection.  Fabio informed us that the produce was grown locally but for certain items like the Spanish olive oil and the Italian dried pasta, they relied on an importer.  His wife, Stephania, had lured the men in the kitchen from up the coast at one of the bigger and splashier resorts catering to mostly Italian tourists.  They already had the basics of Italian cuisine that she built upon, teaching the cooks her own recipes.  These Zanzibari men made pesto better than most Italians I know.
Coconut Crusted Kingfish

In the morning while we nibbled on fresh baked pastries and papaya, Stephania would post the night’s specials on a small black board.  If the fishermen brought in tuna that morning there might be “Mediterranean Fish” listed- grilled and topped with compote of tomato, olives, and garlic.  Kingfish, a local catch, made a couple of appearances, once expertly breaded in a crust of fresh coconut.  Appetizers ranged from a lime drenched mango salad to creamy pumpkin soup to fluffy balls of fried potato puree that would not have been out of place on any New York menu. Samosas stuffed with fish, fresh chapatis, hot sesame studded rolls with every meal, there was little these chefs couldn't cook. 

Before we knew it the three nights were up.  We were tan, relaxed, well-fed and ready to trade in our adult lives for this beach idyll.  We told Fabio and Stephania if they ever needed help, we’d gladly come work for them. 

Work for them?  Nooo… Fabio said.   But if you are really interested, I might have a hotel to sell you, he said with his characteristic wink.

It seemed that the women gathering seaweed weren’t the only ones breaking their backs.  Making pesto in Africa was hard work.  Albeit, Fabio and Stephania’s kind of hard work came with an amazing view and some delicious perks.  

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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