Taking a Spice Tour in Zanzibar

Do you know where black pepper comes from? Or what a vanilla plant looks like? How about nutmeg? We were lucky enough to take a tour of a spice plantation in Zanzibar, which answered a lot of these questions for us.

Zanzibar’s spice history goes back about 2000 years ago, when the Persian Zenj sultanate was established in 975 AD. The Zenj traded ivory, gold, spices and slaves with the Chinese merchants who sailed through India and Persia, bringing garlic and lemongrass to the island. As trade increased, Zanzibar received cinnamon and cardamom from Asia, while the Portuguese brought cacao and chilli from South America.

The plantation we visited was just a short drive outside of Stone Town. Below are vanilla beans before they are processed. Vanilla is part of the orchid family, if you can believe it!

Vanilla beans in Zanzibar

One of the most common spices worldwide, of course, is pepper or peppercorns. Pepper grows as a flowering vine.

peppercorn plant in zanzibar

So what’s the difference between black pepper, green pepper and white pepper? They all come from the same plant. Green peppercorns are the uncooked dried unripe fruit, and white pepper is the ripe peppercorn fruit. Black pepper is the cooked and dried unripe fruit.

peppercorn seeds in Zanzibar

This is fresh turmeric. Isn’t the colour gorgeous? Turmeric is a member of the ginger family, and native to southwest India. It was once used as a dye, as well as for medicinal purposes.

Turmeric in zanzibar

This is how turmeric grows. The plants are flowering perennials.

Tumeric field zanzibar

Speaking of dyes, this is how annatto grows. Annatto comes from the anchiote tree:

anchiote tree

Here’s a close-up of the strange, fuzzy, heart-shaped seed pods:

Annatto seed

Annatto is used as a food dye, as well as a natural colourant in some cosmetics. We tried it out for ourselves by rubbing our fingers over the seeds nestled inside the pod. Then we applied it directly to our lips:

using Annatto as lipstick in zanzibar

What do you think? Is this my perfect lipstick shade?

using annato as lipstick in zanzibar

I’m sure you’ve seen whole nutmeg seeds in grocery stores before. But have you ever seen the actual fruit that the seeds come from? It actually reminds me of an apricot or other small stone fruit:

Nutmeg seedNotice the shiny red coating around the nutmeg seed. That is mace!

About halfway through our spice plantation tour, we took a brief pause to enjoy a lovely tea break.

tea break on spice tour

Snacks included sampling a few teas made with ingredients like lemongrass and ginger. Then we had some slices of fresh fruit such as pineapple, papaya, starfruit and passionfruit, just to name a few:

passionfruit on spice tour

Afterward, we got the opportunity to taste fresh coconut juice straight from the tree. Our guide climbed the tree all the way to the top, barefoot, to get the best coconuts for us. He made fast work of that knife too!

opening coconuts in zanzibar

Young coconut milk is really delicious. This one wasn’t as sweet as some others I’ve tried, but to be fair, it was still on the slightly unripe side.

fresh coconut juice in zanzibar

At the end of the tour, we had some time to peruse and purchase some of the amazing spices grown here. It was worth it for the labels alone!

Piripiri chilis from Zanzibar

This label was my personal favourite:

nutmeg spice label

 

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