I couldn’t find cookies and cakes in Zanzibar.
And yet, we were not in Tanzania for a cake hunt. We were here to celebrate the high school graduation of our daughter, who would have preferred New York where boutiques lined the sidewalks and the city brims of youthful action. Instead, we offered her a once-in-a-lifetime trip in a country she probably would not have chosen or will ever return, because for most people, a trip to Africa is often dreamt of, imagined until your soles touch the soils that promise safaris, red dirt roads, dishes that don’t resemble our own, magic and mystery, a challenge to your comfort zones, and exoticism with another definition.
On the seventh day of this monumental trip in an East African archipelago where the two hemispheres meet, where the sun and moon have each 12 hours of their own, the gift of cake was omitted.We were in Nungwi, the northernmost tip of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, where sultans and princesses once ruled and where cloves and slaves vied for the highest bidder in the ports that welcomed British, Portuguese, Arab, German, and Persian sailors, merchants and colonizers who survived the crossing of the Indian Ocean. It was easier to find cardamom in farms resembling a jungle of spices or octopuses camouflaged in the colour of sand, struggling to be invisible in probably one of the world’s most beautiful beach.
Sure, this was her gift but why not hitch up my own celebration after graduating (too!) from a three year course from Bread and Pastry School. Those late nights at school, twice a week, four hours on your feet, keeping up with professors and classmates younger than me, merited some rewards. But a trip without a cake?
“Can I live without a cake?” said one postcard, and the line continued “ Yes, I can, but then life would be uninteresting.”Nungwi has a long stretch of breathtaking white sand beaches and a rustic village that relies heavily on fishing. It is a village full of tourists but lacking in amenities: one supermarket the size of twenty British red telephone boxes, a small currency office, and a bakery that sells two kinds of bread, one small, one big.Our afternoon walks have brought us to the ends of this island, admiring anchored dhows and turtles swimming in a private natural pool and one day, as we walked back to the main road, we stumbled upon an improvised kitchen along the paved highway that cuts across Nungwi. There were no sidewalks and where there was space for one, it was crammed with shops that sold fruits and vegetables, phone cards, handmade baskets, and food stalls. This one had a lady cook crouched in front of an improvised three-rock stove, fueled by sticks of wood and heating a meatless stew of potatoes and tomatoes. I was not sure if it was for a family meal or “dinner for the public,” but the mound of golden brown bread and sugar coated rolls, spread in abundance on coloured newspapers, indicated that food was for sale.There was a promise of something sweet. The rolls were coiled perfectly like rose petals and coated with crystallized sugar. It was tempting, but at the first bite, proved to be a deception: tasteless, tough, and steeped of recycled vegetable oil. I unwrapped the second crumpled, greasy paper pack, hiding the golden brown triangular bread. There was no pretension, just a plain, puffy bread that gave a hint of cinnamon and sugar. I later learned that the locals call this simple fried bread Maandazi or Swahili buns or doughnuts that resemble the Chinese Mantou (steamed, filled, fried wheat buns). My mounting frustrations made me so imaginative, I decided to call them the African virgin doughnuts. One can have them plain for breakfast, dusted with sugar or cinnamon for snacks, and prepared just a bit salty as a side dish for dinner of beef stew and ugali (rice porridge). I decided to buy more…for midnight snack.My love affair with Maandazi started here. And though, it sated my sweet hankerings, I still longed for cake. I realized that if you want a cake, you have to bake it, too. We navigated our way back to the hotel, through pot-holed streets and muddy alleys, passing by the tiny supermarket to buy butter, flour, eggs, sugar and a plastic bag. I had to pay a fortune for the butter and begged for a plastic bag to wrap the dough. They don’t hand out plastic bags in Tanzania so I got a weird look when I asked for one, the cashier scavenging from a pile of souvenir t-shirts. We rushed back to the hotel to keep the butter fresh and I went directly to the kitchen to announce to the young cook that I was going to teach him how to bake cake. He stared at me for a long time, unsure if guests were allowed in the kitchen but was too shy to shoo me away. I ignored his hesitation, began giving out orders, checked the cabinets for baking tools (but didn’t find any), and started to lord it over.I thought of tropical-inspired recipes: banana cake, pineapple upside down cake, carrot cake. The ingredients were easy to find; buy local, eat local. But there was no equipment in the kitchen except an old oven and two rolling pins. This was the greatest challenge as everyone says that baking is an exact science. This required converting the recipes to US measurements, cups instead of grams; estimating the baking time (we gave it minimum 30 minutes for each cake and kept checking every 15 mins), and used whatever utensils were available; corrugated tin bowls, crooked forks, a ceramic mould that we were not sure would survive the high, uneven heat of the oven. The cakes came out nicely done, except for the pineapple upside down which literally fell upside down when we tried to unmould it. By this time, the young cook Ahmed, looked happy, the knitted brows have left his face and a timid smile began to form.
I will never know if they were good nor got the chance to take pictures. I left to dip in the pool while the cakes cooled but when I came back, the cakes were gone. And in the kitchen formed a row of smiling faces, of the cook, the receptionist, the two chamber maids, the gardener and the security guard. They never thought that I could bake a cake and want to eat it, too.The next recipe were croissants and I insisted that the baking will have to be done early the next morning. I taught Ahmed how to knead, how to fold, how to resist eating the dough. The croissants were not perfect, they were tiny, perhaps the proportion of the yeast was not enough or the oven didn’t have the right temperature but they were buttery, crisp, airy and warm for breakfast. I was getting close to pastry.It was time to go back to Stonetown, the old part of Zanzibar where coral stone buildings, reflected a rich influence of colonization yet typically Zanzibarish type of architecture, that earned its title as a World Heritage Site. It’s cultural importance, however, has been embroidered by the fact that Queen’s Freddie Mercury was a Zanzibari.
There were palaces and mansions to visit during the day but the night market at the Forodhani Gardens was the destination for twilight dinners of skewered meat, grilled seafood, local breads, and the Tanzanian pizza, prepared with dexterity from tiny dough balls to flattened, flipped-over, folded crepes. Finally, it looks more like a crepe than a pizza. If they would have put layers of crepes together, that would have formed a cake but this was supposed to be a pizza and not a cake.It would be unfair to say that there is no cake in Zanzibar. Stonetown was the main city, touristic, with restaurants and cafés that catered to sweet-toothed tourists like me. The narrow, pedestrian streets of Stonetown, prowling around them feels like a mouse in a maze for the much-coveted cheese, lead to some coffee shops where pastries are home-baked, such as the Zanzibar Coffee House in a renovated Arabic house built in 1885.
The interiors were decorated with antique furniture; open windows were lined with colourful, rich fabrics; the aroma of freshly roasted beans emanating from the small roasting atelier at the back, and the refrigerated counter displayed a large choice of tropical-flavoured cakes like the Lime Tart and the Passionfruit cake. On our last day, we ventured into the market to buy violet beans, spices and a mosquito net. We didn’t find the mosquito net but found a bakery with local cookies, shaped like flowers, palets, squares, oblongs; covered in sugar, dried fruit or chocolate; flat, holed or textured. I took a sample of each but the winner were the shortbreads. They melted in the mouth, smelled of butter, and survived the boat trip, the taxi ride, and the 25-hour expedition on a very, very slow Tazara train that took us to central Tanzania where once again, the hunt for cakes began.