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 spice tour 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.
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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!
One of the most common spices worldwide, of course, is pepper or peppercorns. Pepper grows as a flowering vine.
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.
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.
This is how turmeric grows. The plants are flowering perennials.
Speaking of dyes, this is how annatto grows. Annatto comes from the anchiote tree:
Here’s a close-up of the strange, fuzzy, heart-shaped seed pods:
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:
What do you think? Is this my perfect lipstick shade?
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:
Notice 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.
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 passion fruit, just to name a few:
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!
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.
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!
This label was my personal favourite:
Taking a spice tour in Zanzibar really gave me a new appreciation for all of the herbs and spices that make our food so flavourful today!
Where to Stay:
Want to take a spice tour in Zanzibar? Staying in Stone Town is a perfect starting point:
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