A few decades ago, Zanzibar, the tiny island just off the coast of Tanzania in east Africa, supplied almost 80% of the world's clove spice. While that number is down to 7% these days, due to government involvement and stiff competition from Indonesia, the island still produces many of the world's most widely consumed spices. Rooted in almost 100 years of history, the island and its food reflect this love affair with spice.
Most of us are used to seeing spices dried, bottled, and sitting on a grocery store shelf. Here in Zanzibar, the spices are picked from the trees, trimmed from the bushes, and dug up from the roots. The different parts of these spice plants have different flavors—for instance, the leaves, the vine, and the berries from the black pepper plant all have their own distinctive flavors. Even the berry from that plant has five different color stages, and corresponding with them, five different flavors.
Spices here aren't used exclusively for flavor. There are a few that lend mainly color to the island's curries, such as turmeric. The root can be used either dried or added fresh to lend a vibrant yellow color to soups or curries.
An array of curries are offered in beachside restaurants. One of my favorites features tomato, tender lobster tails, and heavy amounts of cinnamon bark, cumin, cardamom, black pepper, and garlic. Green curry uses fresh curry leaves for color and flavor, which are picked from a tree. I've found them floating whole in seafood soups, and dried, then powdered, to mix with other spices. In many cases the lipstick fruit is used in red curries—a large, furry, emerald shaped pod is cut open to reveal small bright red seeds. (Imagine an opaque pomegranate seed that, when popped, contains a melted crayon.) The seeds from inside the lipstick plant are used to turn curries bright, lipstick red.
The island grows spices of more delicate flavor as well. Transplanted from Mexico to Zanzibar, the vanilla bean, a type of orchid, grows quite easily in the tropical climate. The island lacks a specific bee found only in Mexico, so for each vanilla bean that is produced, hand pollination is required—making vanilla production on the island very labor-intensive.
Check out the slideshow to see how these spices look as they grow.