Discovering Zanzibar's Most Iconic Snapper Dish
Called samaki wa kupaka, the fish is broiled over a jiko charcoal brazier and smothered in a creamy turmeric–coconut milk curry.
While researching my book Far Afield, I traveled to the Swahili Coast of East Africa, which includes the Lamu Archipelago in Kenya and the islands of Zanzibar, about 22 miles off Tanzania’s mainland. In the 19th century, explorer Richard F. Burton described this sub-Saharan coast as a place where “earth, sea, and sky all seemed wrapped in a soft and sensuous repose.”
Cooled by the trade winds, the region lies on one of the world’s oldest spice routes. Early traders from Goa, Portugal, Malaysia, and the Arabian Peninsula influenced its multinational culinary tradition—dishes are aromatic with locally grown clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper, and paired with the seafood caught on fishing dhows and ngalawaoutrigger canoes that still sail the Indian Ocean. One of the most characteristic dishes is samaki wa kupaka: red snapper broiled over a jiko charcoal brazier and smothered in a creamy turmeric–coconut milk curry. It can be found on the plainest tables in fishermen’s homes and served at the grandest lodges on empty white-sand beaches lined with coconut palms, but I recommend hunting for it among the street-food stalls at the Forodhani Gardens night market in Stone Town, also known as Mji Mkongwe.
With its carved mahogany doorways and winding lanes and cramped bazaars, the oldest part of Zanzibar City is a center of Swahili culture. (Rock star Freddie Mercury is the city’s most famous native son. Born Farrokh Bulsara to Parsi parents who emigrated to Zanzibar from Gujarat, his family left for England during a revolution in the 1960s.) This is the best place to end the day: on a townhouse rooftop bar, facing that sensuous sea, with a cocktail in hand.
Guests at the elegant Essque Zalu Zanzibar can enjoy culinary experiences like Tanzanian chef Rose Mosha’s Swahili cooking courses or catch-and-grill fishing expeditions. (Rooms from $480; essquehotels.com)
Tuck into the Mrembo Spa for traditional treatments including the Singo scrub of ylang-ylang, jasmine, rose, and sweet basil used by Swahili women on their wedding day. (mrembospa.com)
The entire eastern coast of the main island, Unguja, is an idyll of bleached white coral sand and gin-clear seas. Spend the day at Nungwi, at the island’s northernmost tip, for pristine waters and sand.