If you are wondering what food is like in Tanzania, then you have landed in the right place. I have travelled three weeks around Tanzania, eating only local Tanzanian food, so that I can create this guide for you. As a foodie, it was my delight to try as many different Tanzanian dishes I could, and find out which are the specific flavours of the country.
The Tanzanian cuisine has been influenced not only by its neighbouring countries, but also by the Indian cuisine, due to the Indian nationals who have started migrating for trade to Tanzania in the 19th century. There are many dishes that Tanzania is sharing with its neighbour Kenya, both in name and taste.
Coconut, aromatic spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, peppercorn and cloves, bananas, and beans are some of Tanzania’s most used ingredients in its national cuisine. As Tanzania has one of the largest livestock population in Africa, meat is also used widely in the local cuisine. Beef, goat and chicken are the most common types of meats with which people cook the traditional Tanzanian meals.
For dessert, Tanzanians usually eat a lot of fruits, from bananas to mangoes, from watermelon to papaya. For special occasions Tanzanians eat cakes, and there are a few pastry shops in every city where you can order a sweet treat. Cakes however are quite pricey.
The Tanzanian Breakfast
I like a lot the Tanzanian Breakfast. It comes either sweet or savoury. Or sometimes, both! I can’t remember when was the last time I ate so many crepes in consecutive days, like I did during my 3 weeks holiday in Tanzania.
The two most often things that you will find on the Tanzanian breakfast plate are eggs and crepes. They are accompanied by several different fruits and also freshly squeezed juice, tea and coffee. Most of the times the Tanzanian coffee is instant, which I don’t really understand, in a country that produces such good quality beans.
Now, let’s see what kind of food people eat in Tanzania:
Ugali is without a doubt a staple of the Tanzanian cuisine. The most traditional Tanzanian food, ugali is never missing from a plate of food. But what is ugali, you may ask? At a first glance it looks like a big chunk of sticky rice, but it’s nothing like it. Ugali is made out of only two ingredients: white maize flour and water. They are stirred together until they reach a stiff consistency that pulls apart easily from the sides of the pot.
Ugali is served as a side for everything: meat or vegetable stews, beans, greens, and pretty much everything that has a sauce. Ugali is eaten with the hand, not with the fork. Simply pull a little bit apart, roll it in your hand to create a ball and then press it with your finger in the middle to create a small indent with which you can then scoop some stew.
How does ugali taste like? In my opinion, it doesn’t really have a taste. It’s role it is more to fill you up rather than taste like anything.
Pilau is another Tanzanian traditional food, with roots spread all over the world. The basics of making pilau are the same as the ones in making paella, or risotto, or even biryani so in one form or another, you have probably tasted a similar dish.
The Tanzanian pilau is cooked using five main spices: black peppercorn, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and cumin seeds, crushed together in a mortar.
The Tanzanian pilau is usually made without any meat and served as a side dish. It is a very aromatic dish, as the onions and the spices are boiled for quite some time, to release flavour into the water in which the rice is added later. The best place to eat the traditional Tanzanian pilau would be at a local’s house and, if you choose to do a homestay in Tanzania, you can make sure that you will get the chance to taste it. Restaurants serve it as well but there’s something about a home cooked pilau that makes it more delicious. Maybe it’s the love the locals cook it with.
The chapatti has its origins in India, and you have probably eaten it if you have visited the Central Asian country. Tanzania has adopted the chapatti and made it its own, by modifying the recipe a bit. The Tanzanian chapatti is thicker than its Indian relative and it is more filling.
Tanzanians eat chapatti with breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If I was to choose a Tanzanian dish that I could eat over and over without getting bored, that would be the chipsi mayai. Popular as a street food but easily found is most of the local restaurants chipsi mayai would translate as a French fries omelette.
After the potatoes are fried, eggs are beaten and poured on top, binding them together. It is usually eaten with loads of ketchup on top, and a side tomatoes and onions salad. It is incredibly cheap as well, even in restaurants. I first tried the chipsi mayai at We Travel Hostel and since then I couldn’t stop myself ordering over and over.
Another street food that you will find pretty much at every corner, especially as soon as the evening comes, is the mishkaki. The marinated pieces of beef are skewered together with vegetables and grilled over hot coal barbecues.
The taste of the mishkaki is so good, as the meat is tender and juicy, with a smoky flavour from the grill.
Nyama Choma is Swahili for “roast meat”. You can find it anywhere, as a street food or in more established restaurants. On the street you will usually see a big chunk of meat hung next to the grill, from which the cook keeps cutting different pieces and places them above the hot coals.
You never know what part of the beef you will get. Personally, I think nyama choma is great when you get the tender parts. However, you can be unlucky and get some really tough pieces of meat that are inedible, impossible the chew. However, there is always a cat around that is grateful for them. I was introduced to this Tanzanian dish by Jospehine, with whom I took a local tour of Moshi.
This unique dish is very popular in Tanzania and it translates as bananas with meat, usually beef. It doesn’t look very appetising, but you’ll have to trust me that it tastes really good.
The only cooked bananas that I had during my travels around the world were in South America, and I remember that their texture was very soft. Tanzania grows more than 20 different types of bananas, some are edible, some are not. Among these, the green bananas are used exclusively in cooking.
The green bananas maintain their shape and texture when they are cooked, which make this Tanzanian dish look kind of odd. In the stew, they taste more like potatoes than bananas, so imagine Ndizi Nyama tasting more of a potato with meat kind of stew rather than sweet bananas.
I highly recommend trying it when traveling through Tanzania.
This is a beef stew made with coconut milk. Usually the beef is slow cooked, so that it is very tender and almost melts in your mouth. I had it several times, home cooked, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Maharage ya nazi
I have to admit that this was not one of my favourite foods in Tanzania because I am not a fan of beans. However, I did try it so that I can tell you how it tastes like.
The name of this Tanzanian food translates simply as rice and beans. The beans are cooked in a curry sauce with coconut milk. It tastes like… well, beans. There is a nice coconutty flavour and the sauce has a nice aroma.
Choroko nazi is made with chickpeas and coconut milk and it resembles a thick soup rather than a stew. It’s usually served with ugali.
It is a great choice for vegetarians, with a nicely subtitle coconut flavour. It is again one of those dishes that doesn’t look very appealing but tastes good.
Kachumbari is the most popular salad in Tanzania, served with most of the dishes. You don’t have to order it, the salad usually is usually brought with your main meal, for free. It consists of tomatoes and onions and has a very refreshing taste.
Seafood Feast in Zanzibar
Food in Zanzibar is different that the dishes you would normally find in mainland Tanzania. This is quite normal, as Zanzibar is an island, so there is plenty of fish and seafood around. Also, because Zanzibar is visited by many more tourists, the restaurants have adapted and introduced many western style dishes, such as pizza, pasta or burgers. The resort I stayed it even had a “Tanzanian tapas” night, on my last day there.
Coming back to the seafood, Zanzibar is an excellent place to eat as much as you can, for relatively reasonable prices.
At first, I was shocked of how much of a difference in price was between the restaurants in Zanzibar and the ones in mainland Tanzania. Whilst in Moshi I would expect to pay around 10,000 shillings (£3.5) for a good and filling local meal in a touristic restaurant, in Zanzibar you can’t really find anything under 20,000 shillings (£7), unless it’s vegetarian, and even then you will have to pay 14-15,000 shillings (£5).
A seafood platter will cost anything between 60,000 shillings (£20) to 120,000 shillings (£40), depending on which restaurant you go to and how close to the beach they are.
I stayed in Jambiani at New Teddy’s on the Beach and went to the nearby Yellow Card Café for the seafood platter. I ate octopus in coconut sauce there the day before and because it was cooked perfectly, I decided to return for the seafood platter. I don’t know how familiar you are with octopus, but it is really hard to not overcook it – when it changes its texture from soft to chewy.
I was not wrong; the chef did an amazing job grilling all the seafood to perfection. He even butterflied the prawns so that they come out easily from the shell. The platter was massive and came with calamari, octopus, tuna, king prawns, lobster and sea crayfish. On the side there was also a bowl of chips and a salad. I did not eat alone this entire feast, I wouldn’t have been able to. Needless to say, I didn’t need any dinner later that evening.
The Zanzibar Pizza is not what you think it is: a pizza. In fact, it looks like it is quite popular in Stone Town’s night markets, but not outside it – or maybe I was unlucky and didn’t find it anywhere in Jambiani, where I was based during my trip to Zanzibar.
The Zanzibar pizza is a thin crepe dough filled with chicken or beef (or none if you are vegetarian), onions, peppers, an egg and, wait for it… a triangle of Laughing Cow cheese. It is then fried on a flat pan and served with mayo, hot sauce and a vegetables salad on the side.
The more gourmet Zanzibar pizzas are filled with seafood and cost more. You can even find sweet pizzas, which have a Nutella or fruit filling.
I would say that mandazi are the Tanzanian doughnuts. There are not many desserts in Tanzania, but mandazi is one of them. They are usually eaten for breakfast, with a cup of tea. Mandazi are not very sweet and, being made with coconut milk, have a nutty flavour.
Grilled corn is a popular snack in Tanzania, which you can buy from people grilling it in markets and near bus stops. It has a smoky flavour from the charcoals and a bit of a chewy texture, but it’s good. Put some salt on it for a more flavoursome taste.
Have you ever eaten Tanzanian food? Would you like to try any of the Tanzanian dishes I wrote about in this article? I would love to read your opinions in the comment section below.
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