Destinations, Food, Photography, Zanzibar

Cooking Octopus Curry with A Woman Named Peace

November 10, 2012

Coconut palms, mango trees, citrus fruits, rice and spice and fish. Turmeric, vanilla beans, hot chilies, black pepper, and cinnamon curls…

Zanzibar cuisine.

When we arrived on the island, a spice tour and a cooking lesson were my two highest hopes. Rather than find a touristy cooking lesson in Stone Town, I waited to look for a teacher until we left the city and settled into our spot an hour east, on the beach near the little town of Bwejuu. I’d read about a project in a neighboring village where local women taught cooking lessons as part of a grass-roots community development project, but as it turned out, I didn’t even have to look that far to find exactly what, or rather who, I was hoping for.

Removed by sea and time from the hazy city of Dar es Salaam (a gritty place on mainland Tanzania, ironically bearing the Swahili name Haven of Peace), a woman named Peace sits inside a woven-palm-walled hut on the white sands, selling her wares, saving her earnings, and offering kindness to strangers like me.

Salama smiled when I walked through her shop door. She was eating a late morning meal of what looked like homemade leftovers.

“Please, look around,” she invited me to peruse the scarves and necklaces, paintings and leather bracelets, henna patterns and coconut massage oils out for display on scrappy shelves. Her kind voice – so different than I’d been used to hearing during Stone Town sales pitches – caused me to linger.

I didn’t really need souvenirs, but after making my clockwise circle of the store, I thought I’d ask her my one burning question:

“Do you know of any cooking classes around this area?”

No, she didn’t. She gave me a funny look, and my heart sunk a bit.

If she didn’t know, who would on this quiet stretch of coastline? I stood alone and time was ticking.

I went out on a limb.

“Would you or one of your friends teach me how to make a meal at your home? I could come with you to the market and buy the ingredients, and I could pay for your time. And then we could eat together?”

She gave me another funny look and then began to seem amused.

“What kind of food do you want to make?”

“Oh, anything! I just what to learn what people actually eat. Whatever meal is normal for a family living here. I would like to learn about the spices and the foods that you get at the market and see how you prepare them in your kitchen and we could share the meal at the end…”

My eyes were eager, my mind was already plotting logistics: we had several days on the beach. Depending on her schedule, we could go tomorrow, or the next day…or the next. Morning, afternoon, evening. I’d be ready at 3am if it meant a legitimate cooking lesson.

She thought about it, shuffled her fork and her plate of leftovers, then softened into another warm smile and spoke an easy-going, “Yes, I think I can do that.”

Perfect. We’d meet the following morning at 9am, a bit farther south on the beach, just past the lookout tower. I’d bring the cash for the market and a camera and notebook and she’d bring the know-how.

The menu was entirely up to her.


Salama: The Very Next Day.

***

A few years ago, I sat in my Portland, Oregon apartment, laptop open, ready to host hour fourteen of a 24-hour #ourcookquest blitz on Twitter. I chose Zanzibar as the topic, tantalized by the notion of far-off flavors and secretly excited to be planning my own visit to the exotic island off the coast of Tanzania.

I smile now to re-read some of those tweets and prompts that yielded a flurry of recipes and ideas:

  • #Zanzibar: trade & migration for centuries = wildly diverse food culture. Cuisine influenced by Arabia, India & Europe
  • #Zanzibar: sea food, spices, rice, and coconut milk…
  • #Zanzibar: often a treat to supplement “local food” cuisines with amazing spice imports and exotic flavors
  • Ingredient inspiration # 1: {bananas & vanilla beans}
  • Ingredient inspiration # 2: {cinnamon & cloves}
  • Ingredient inspiration # 3: {sweet potato & cassava}
  • Ingredient inspiration # 4: {cocoa beans}
  • Ingredient inspiration # 5: {lychee & ginger}
  • Ingredient inspiration # 6: {coconut & cardamom}
  • Tips on cooking a complete #Zanzibar meal: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Cookbook/Zanzibar.html

Cooking a complete Zanzibar meal?

Sounded delicious, and only slightly intimidating.

A few months after the Twitter chat, I scored a clearance-shelf cookbook of Zanzibar dishes, Where Flavor was Born by Andreas Viestad. Flipping through pages of palm trees and colorful plates, I filed away mental notes, dreamed of my future trip, and promised myself to eventually try serving a feast-for-friends once I could draw from real-life experience.

***

Ted and I greeted Salama on the beach at 9am sharp. She stood wrapped in a blue headscarf with dark sunglasses shielding her smiling eyes from the hot morning sun. Her teeth flashed a grin, and she motioned for us to follow her down the shoreline toward her village.

“So, what are we making today?” I don’t remember if it was Ted or me who asked, but we were both eager to know the plan.

“Pilau, curry, and salad,” she said. “Octopus curry.”

We’d be cooking octopus curry??

Make that delicious, and entirely intimidating.

“Rice and curry made from fish or octopus is a common daily meal,” she explained. “My friend will catch us an octopus this morning – fresh, right from the ocean.”

No time to be squeamish. Dive right in was the best approach.

As we walked, the sun shone over women harvesting seaweed and unearthing buried coconut fiber out in the shallows of the low tide. Salama shared that in the past, while men farmed the land or set out on boats to fish off the coast, most women had no way of earning money on this side of the island. These new seaweed and coir rope productions have become a common project allowing women to earn a living and help support their families.

The incredible heat of the sun, still three hours from its zenith, roasted both the drying seaweed and we land-dwelling creatures roaming the white sands.

As we stepped past the boundaries of the shoreline vegetation, past the hanging fishing nets and into the worn pathways between wooden and concrete structures erected by families of the island, I felt Salama paving the way for us with her presence as villagers gave us curious glances.


We walked unhindered to the first market stop.

Salama ordered, and the young fellow behind the counter measured. Rice, potatoes, cumin, garlic, onions. Forget the bulk bins with their plastic bags and grease pen tags: loose spices were wrapped unlabeled in tiny newspaper packets.

“We skip the tomatoes here,” Salama said to us quietly, “they’re too small.” First bill: 5,000Tsh ($3.18).


Onward to the charcoal seller’s door. Salama knocked and exchanged a few words, then the door shut as we waited in the street.

“Some people cook with only kerosene,” she told me, “but the flavor is bad. The food tastes like it. We’ll use kerosene for one of the stoves, but it is important to cook the rice especially over charcoal, for the flavors.”

The charcoal comes from right here on the island: she said that men will harvest and burn the palm trees and then sell the charcoal in the villages. The bigger pieces are better; they burn longer in the kitchen stoves.

The door opened again, and out came a bag. She inspected the pieces; smaller scraps and slivers appeared as she lifted the large chunks of charcoal from the top. Back the bag went, and out it came a second time, a bit more fairly packed. Second 1,000Tsh ($0.64).

On to the third stop of the shopping trip: one of the handful of vegetable stands servicing Bwejuu.

“Who grows the vegetables?” I asked Salama. “Do the owners have gardens?”

Turn out, not often. Most of the produce is grown inland on the island on larger farms, trucked into the Stone Town market, and then purchased by enterprising local vendors who transport it again to their respective villages.

The woman in the red sarong calling the shots at the roadside stand dickered with Salama until they reached an agreed on price of 3,000Tsh ($1.92) for bananas, cucumbers, and tomatoes that were, thankfully, an acceptable size.

Back outside, men stood on the rooftop of another concrete cube, working in the blistering 11am sun. I asked queried about housing in the villages.

Salama’s only renting on this side of the island during high tourist season. She has a single room in another family’s home and otherwise lives with extended relatives in Stone Town. She’s purchased a piece of land outside Bwejuu’s neighboring town of Jambiani, but with house construction costing 9,000,000Tsh ($5,720.00) or more, she looks decades down the calendar toward a far-off move-in date.

We stepped over the threshold of her front door and walked a few steps in to the central courtyard. “Karibu,” she calls in Swahili in a sing-song voice (“you’re welcome,” she means in English). White stucco covers partial sections of the concrete walls. Empty Maple Leaf “ordinary Portland cement” bags hang tethered alongside ropes and buckets instead of set on nonexistent shelves.

The brilliant blue ceiling of sky and a fluttering palm tree waving behind the tile roofline remind me that when this oven-hot home sees rainy season weather, water will be running every which way on the dirt floor.

Half-walls separate the courtyard from the kitchen, and the living room. Behind a door, a squat toilet. Behind another few doors, family bedrooms, and behind the final door, Salama’s room. She shows her tidy space to me gracefully. A mosquito net suspended above an on-the-floor mattress. A few colorful blankets. A woven-rope table standing waist high. One window revealing daylight. And that is it.

She explains she spends her days at her beach-side stand; this sparse spot is simply for sleep between the passing days…

We return to the kitchen, take inventory, and then depart to claim our octopus.

I followed Salama a short walk down the dusty streets and through the doorway into her friend’s house.

“Karibu,” called Sukena who sat on the floor with baby in arms and sewing project in hand. Sukena’s brother-in-law, Ali, was not yet back with the octopus. No matter, we waited easily, admiring three-week-old Talha as Sukena rocked her to sleep then continued stitching an old pink and white dress into a padded mattress for the newborn.

When Ali eventually appeared, he came bearing the promised octopus and a surprise: a gift of a second, young tentacled creature, and two limes and a red pepper to sweeten the deal. He also brought the kerosene to spare us the last errand of sourcing the fuel in the heat of the day, and for a total of 8,000Tsh ($5.08), we returned to Salama’s home, shopping complete.


Three hours into our lesson and just beginning to clean and cook, and eventually eat.

***

Nineteen years old, visiting Greece for the first time, I pushed through my squeamish hesitation and bit into my first taste of octopus. Chewy with a hint of crunch and a pop of lemon juice, that grilled tentacle rewarded my taste buds with flavor and my ego with a shot of pride.

Twenty-eight years old, watching Salama take a knife to that marbled grey-pink-purple creature, I knew what was coming. I followed her to the tide-pools, swallowed hard and grabbed the smaller octopus with my bare hands.


I expected to be repulsed.

But oddly, the texture was soft, the surface clean. Even the little jelly suction cups were a bit of a kick.

It was kind of…fun!

Here I was, on the beach in Africa, scrubbing ink out into a saltwater pool then kneading the octopus body into the sand, living the dream of authentic cooking in Zanzibar, while Salama chuckled at me and demonstrated proper technique.


After the rinse and repeat element, I finished my last bread-dough-like kneading session then let Salama give the meat a final tenderizing. She whipped it back into the air and flailed it hard into the ground.


Thud. Thud. Whack.

Sand jumping up into the air at each pass.

And just like that – complete. A last wash in salt water and a return to the kitchen.

“Pweza” – Swahili for octopus.

A rinse in freshwater scooped from the rain-barrel removes a bit of the bite, then the octopus slips into a pot and over the kerosene flame to steam in its own salty juices while we work on other tasks.

Rice pilau over the charcoal stove.

Wash and rinse the rice.

Peel the potatoes.

Diced red onion and press garlic.

Sort the cinnamon powder and cinnamon sticks, black pepper and cumin.



We brown the quartered potatoes in sunflower seed oil then remove them from the pan.

Salama adds the red onions, cooks them until brown, then tosses in the cinnamon, cumin, pepper, garlic, and salt. Garlic and fresh-squeezed lemon are added to the simmering octopus put, and the combined aroma is simultaneously like everything I’ve ever eaten and loved and like nothing else I’ve ever smelled in my life.

Once spice aromas are released, we add water and the browned potatoes, bring to the boil, then add the cleaned rice and cover the pot.

Fresh squeezed coconut milk.

Salama grabs a fresh coconut, peels away the husk, hacks it open with a machete in the courtyard, and then pulls out the tool she’s borrowed from her neighbor: a wooden seat with an attached blade used for shredding coconut flesh. Her rolling motions look so easy.


Ted and I take turns sitting on the contraption scraping the coconut halves, and we laugh at ourselves.


No cracking a can or opening a carton: this coconut milk takes muscle.

Once both coconut halves are empty, Salama manually extracts liquid from the blue bowl of white shavings. The first squeeze yields coconut cream, the most potent, rich, and flavorful liquid set aside for the final addition the the curry. She adds water to the shavings and again presses and strains them into a separate bowl to yield second and third batches of coconut milk and likewise sets them aside.

In perfect coordination, the octopus is finished cooking: Salama removes the pot from the heat, slices sample bites from the now-bright-red tentacle, and each of us eagerly asks for seconds then lick our fingers clean.


The rice comes off the flames, and hot charcoal embers are placed on top of the clay lid to finish cooking.

The gnarled tentacles are placed inside a lidded bowl and tucked away for later.

Into the pot with the remaining octopus juices go the diced tomatoes, more diced red onion, yellow curry powder, garlic and water. Once the mixture boils, we add small pieces of potato, the second and third batches of coconut milk, bite sized pieces of octopus, and a squeeze of fresh lemon, then the curry simmers away while the fresh salad is assembled.

Simple vegetables tossed for salad.

Salama demonstrates how she mixes salt with her red onion slices then rinses them in water and drains to macerate the onions and tame the flavor. She adds thin tomato slices, lime juice, and pieces of tango – cucumber in Swahili.

All of this work is done in a room the size of an average area-rug.

There is no kitchen sink; there’s a faucet and ground-level basin in the adjacent courtyard.

There is no kitchen counter; the floor will do.

There is no pantry; a 5-gallon bucket sits in the corner.

This makeshift cooking school offers something many of the spendy, flashy, stainless steel and granite kitchens miss: the payoff of flavor born from alchemy of fully invested heart and effort. The taste of a full day’s labor.

Sweaty, sticky, hot and hungry, we sliced the bananas, stirred the last bit of rich coconut cream into the curry, set the woven mat on the living room floor with a mix of floral pattern bolls and clear glass cups, and sat to fill ourselves on our Zanzibarian feast.

Spiced rice pilau, fresh salad, octopus curry, a bite of banana thrown in for dessert.

A 9am shopping trip, noontime kitchen session, a 3pm meal, and Salama’s calm, methodical, spot-on instruction. Sans-guidebook, website, or tour agency, I’d say we found the most authentic cooking school in Zanzibar. All it took was with a walk down the beach, a few extra questions, and a smile or two.


This post is dedicated to my kind friend, Salama who replaced my picture books and online recipes and fanciful notions of cooking in Zanzibar with a real-life meal and memories. Her name means Peace in Swahili, and her generous spirit and willingness to teach her cooking traditions blessed me immeasurably. I’m grateful that our day spent cooking octopus curry on a little stove in Zanzibar once again proves the beauty of real food and the power of a shared meal, across cultures and continents. I’m not sure how soon I’ll next get my hands on a fresh octopus, but I’ll absolutely be carrying the spirit of diligent preparation and joyful entertaining the next time I try my hand at preparing Zanzibar cuisine at home.

What’s the most unique dish you’ve prepared in your kitchen?
Would you be game to try a bite of octopus curry?

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24 Comments

  • Reply Emily November 10, 2012 at 5:37 am

    I loved this post. Way to go out on a limb and ask a woman you didn’t know for cooking lessons! You’re so brave…I would have had to do laps around her shop before I had enough gumption :)

    And what can I say about the octopus? Talk about getting up close and personal with your food…you guys really gave it a beating :)

    Thanks for sharing this experience, it made me smile!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians November 27, 2012 at 2:24 am

      You would’ve LOVED it, Em! I wish I could have had you there with us : ) I will admit, I didn’t have the muscle or the heart to really put my back into the meat tenderizing bit, but Salama was impressive to watch as she flailed that thing against the sand. My goodness. Makes me feel silly for that squeamishness I feel when I’m pulling skin off a piece of chicken…

      Hope you and Paul and the kids had a wonderful Thanksgiving! We’re loving New Zealand. Not enough internet to keep up with all the stories and adventures, but we’re filing away the memories and can’t wait to catch up with you guys the next time we’re all together.

      Hugs,
      Bethany

  • Reply Nessa (and Rogan) November 10, 2012 at 6:45 am

    Best post yet!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians November 27, 2012 at 2:26 am

      Thanks, Nessa (and Rogan!)

  • Reply Joy November 10, 2012 at 8:32 am

    Just thinking Salama is really very close to Shalom. Interesting. Wonderful read. I want a taste :-}.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians November 27, 2012 at 2:26 am

      Very close, indeed. Thanks for reading, Joy, and thanks for the comment. I wish I could figure out a way to share meals over the internet : )

  • Reply Heather November 10, 2012 at 10:07 am

    I’ve been eagerly waiting for this post- sounds incredible and like a dream come true for you! Now that is the way to find out how the locals do it! :)

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians November 27, 2012 at 2:27 am

      Thanks, friend! I knew you’d smile at my craziness when you got a chance to see the pictures. It wasn’t quite “midnight in my Portland kitchen”, but it was absolutely just as much fun : )

  • Reply Stephanie - The Travel Chica November 11, 2012 at 1:07 am

    I love, love, love this story. I have often thought about asking a local for the exact same experience but never had the guts to do it.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians November 27, 2012 at 2:28 am

      I know! When people suggest it, it sounds so easy, but when them moment comes, I’m usually too timid. I’m so glad I went with my instincts and decided to ask. One of the best decisions of the trip. And one of the best meals, too.

  • Reply Susan Buck November 13, 2012 at 10:47 am

    You never cease to amaze me and I’ve known you your whole life. Your gift for eloquent expression is only surpassed by your courageous gumption. Way to be brave–on every level. You inspire and humble me, Sis. I love you.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians November 27, 2012 at 2:29 am

      Thanks, Mom. I’m glad your endless field trips put the sense of adventure and the inquisitive streak into my spirit! Field Trips & Fun 2.0.

      • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians November 27, 2012 at 2:30 am

        There’s a blog title for you. ; )

  • Reply Susan Buck November 13, 2012 at 10:51 am

    P.S. I guess those silly cassettes were priceless. Little did I know how far they would take you. For fun and facts: Besides your having zipped around in Zanzibar, There’s a dirty, damp dog dripping dry in the garage tonight here in Oregon.

  • Reply Mark Wiens November 14, 2012 at 8:10 am

    Outstanding article, photos, and story Bethany. I’ve spent the day in Bwejuu before and I absolutely loved the peacefulness, the lanky swaying palms, and all the warm heated people in the area. While the meal looks and sounds absolutely scrumptious, the entire experience is what made it so incredible. On another note, I’ve tried to grate coconut using that device (my parents have one at their house in Dar), and while our Tanzanian househelper can do it with ease, it’s actually pretty tough!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians November 27, 2012 at 2:32 am

      Mark, thanks so much for your note. It’s nice to hear that you’ve spent time there, too, and that you can vouch for those same hidden treasures on the island… I know what you mean about the coconut tool! I was proud of myself for getting a little bit of a rhythm, but there was no real competition with Salama!
      Cheers,
      Bethany

  • Reply judy Loucks November 17, 2012 at 9:04 am

    Amazing. Simply amazing. If you need a place to tenderize your octopus, you can use the beach here at the camp! I need to ask, though, was the octopus curry gritty?

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians November 27, 2012 at 2:33 am

      Ha! Thanks for that, Judy. Now I just need to find a place to fish for octopus… ; )

      It wasn’t gritty at all, as a matter of fact. The rinsing process removed all of the sand, and the hint of saltwater left after the final rinse in rainwater gave it the perfect flavor.

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  • Reply amy January 17, 2015 at 5:29 pm

    How funny that as I sit here in Portland, freshly back from Zanzibar, googling “coconut octopus curry” because I want to make what we ate there, I come up with this article by you right here in Oregon! Lovely piece! Thanks…

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians January 19, 2015 at 10:03 am

      Amy, your note makes me so happy! How terrific that you were in Zanzibar. Gosh, I miss the flavors. What parts of Zanzibar did you visit? What did you do? I’d love to hear all about it :) Thanks for leaving a note, and I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the post. We spent September 18, 2012 making curry with Salama, and September 18, 2013 ended up being our daughter’s due date; a very sweet reminder of our travels.

      P.S. Did you end up finding a good recipe to try here at home? Where are you planning to buy your octopus?

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