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When the manic local buses to the east coast wildly turn the bend in Pete village, women on the roadside are all ready to deal their fruit. Before the driver has stopped, they’re rushing to the truck, arms overflowing with mangoes and shouting their prices. Only a nod is needed and you’re drowning in mangoes, piled into the daladala (bus) until it’s moving to fast for any more to be loaded without being thrown in.
This fast-paced fruit stock exchange in Zanzibar is the best way to sample the island’s delights. Most of the fruit grown on the island (and there’s hundreds of varieties) can’t be sourced in the major market places, they’re sold on roadsides (like Pete) or just collected by locals and consumed. Mangoes are plentiful and connoisseurs of exotic foods will relish the fact that Zanzibar produces over 100 varieties, all with distinct traits. Pete is famous for their small pod-like mangoes that are sucked out of their skins like oysters. Other varieties are harvested unripe and served with chili and salt, a surprising addiction for local pregnant women called embe keri.
If you’re in Zanzibar at the right time, you’ll get to taste jackfruit. It’s as close to bubblegum as you’ll ever get in nature and has a fantastic texture. The bulbous skin encloses smaller fruit covered seeds; the fruit is a bright-yellow stringy flesh that almost looks like stretched chewing gum. Jackfruit produces latex and locals cover their fingers with oil first to keep the sticky gum off, but it always seems to stick somewhere, so be prepared to be a little tacky afterwards.
The small ultra-sweet soda soda berries are something you’ll have to really hunt down if you want to try them. They are so-called because they taste like a certain bright orange bottled soda drink. The berries are mixed with local cane sugar and water to make the original local soda. Swahili soda is a high-vitamin alternative, but it’s very hard to come by unless you’re in deep countryside. Zanzibar ‘coca-cola’ on the other hand, is easy to find. The clear juice of young coconuts, known as dafu in Swahili, is the most hydrating and healthy drink you will find anywhere. Roadside sellers hack off the outer husk with a machete and serve it straight from the tree. Dafu will cure any sunstroke or dehydration and many people swear by drinking at least one a day for good health.
If you’re taking a tour in town, search the market and ask around for baobab fruit (otherwise known as ‘Monkey Bread’). Many people in Africa consider it to be the healthiest food you can eat. It’s got more vitamin C than oranges and even more calcium than cow’s milk, plus another 12 or so essential vitamins and minerals. Baobab is set to become the next big ‘superfood’ - put in everything from skin creams to London gin - so try and get Zanzibar’s best organic produce while you’re here.
Bananas might seem like a very ordinary fruit to add to your must-eat list, but Zanzibar’s 22 varieties are not your average bananas. In a country that produces 10.5 tones per year - ranking third after rice and cassava as staple foods - you’re sure to find them in your food; pizzas, curries, rice or even fermented to make a local beer called pombe – it’s a sweet and powerful potion, as likely to cause blindness as intoxication. Don’t try it.
We do however recommend you bite into these:
- Shoki shoki (rambutan) -these are hairy and alien-like pods filled with the juiciest, sweetest snack on the island, related to lychees. You can pick them up roadside or in Darajani market, Stone Town.
- Stafeli (custard apple) – it tastes nothing like custard or apples but the amazing and sour pulp of the stafeli was my grandmother’s favourite for a reason. Darajani stock a large supply when in season.
- Pera (guava) – nobody warned me that guava fruit has a laxative effect, and I ate six the first time I tasted them (they are habit forming). I haven’t done that again. You’ll need to ask around to get guava in the markets.
- Papaya (papaya/paw paw) - As common as coconut, papaya is also highly prized for its nutrients and healing properties.
- Bungo (bungo) – bungo fruit is used to make a very sweet and sour cordial. You’ll often spot local women chewing on the yellow fruit and spitting the seeds out.