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Tanzania's Tastiest Local Dishes Every Traveller Should Try

Written by Milly Whitehead on 27 / 11 / 2014

Gap Year Advice

Tanzania is one heck of a country. Home to approximately 120 tribes, it also boasts the largest concentration of wildlife per square kilometre of anywhere in the world - more than four million wild animals. That’s a fair few, wouldn't you agree?

But did you know that it's also regularly identified as the African country that most values its native food? For that reason, Tanzania is a great place to go travelling if you’re looking to sample some authentic East African delicacies.

This shouldn't be a total shock - humans first began migrating here almost 4,000 years ago, continuing ever since with an unending procession of explorers and colonialists from all over the world. So in a way, Tanzanian food has been developing for thousands of years. At times it almost seems as if every one of its tribes have their own different traditional dishes. Whether that's true or not, what cannot be argued is that Tanzanian cuisine is widely varied.

The Main Influences of Tanzanian Food

Historically, one of the largest migrating populations living here has been the Khoja people. For hundreds of years, people in Southern Asia sailed down the coast of East Africa during the northeastern monsoons.

Many of these early sailors stayed behind in Tanzania to take advantage of opportunities in commerce and trade. Later, many Khojas living in India migrated to East Africa in the 1840s, leaving India behind for the prospect of better financial opportunities in Africa.

As a result, much of the country’s food has been influenced by Indian cuisine and you will find several Indian restaurants in Dar es Salaam in particular.

There is also both a strong British and German influence in the cuisine. When slavery was abolished in 1873, the Germans and British fought to control Tanzania, bringing with them boiled vegetables and tea (in the case of the Brits) and coffee (in the case of the Germans).

Nowadays, those that reside in the coastal regions of Tanzania tend to eat a lot of fish and rice cooked in coconut milk, with the spice level cranked right up, while dishes on the mainland more typically plantain- or maize-based with meat and beans.

Which Savoury Dishes Will You Find in Tanzania?

Perhaps one of the most traditional of Tanzanian dishes is makubi, which consists of wild spinach, sweet potato leaves, tomatoes and onions cooked in a creamy, peanut butter sauce. Is it just my mouth that’s watering?

Makubi isn't just delicious, though. It's also purported to have medical benefits, helping to fight off various dietary ailments. Perhaps that's just folklore - but all those lovely veggies aren't going to do you any harm, are they?

You could try making your own to bring some of that African warmth to these chilly winter nights, using this traditional makubi recipe. And if that doesn’t whet your appetite, perhaps one of these other tasty meals will...

Supu Ya Ndizi Is a Delicious Breakfast Soup

As such large quantities of plantain are produced in Tanzania, the country’s inhabitants eat more of it than any other starch food and plantain-based meals are consumed regularly, particularly in the north.

Plantain soup, which is simply mashed plantains cooked in chicken stock, is generally served in large bowls with salt and pepper and consumed at breakfast time. Want to try making your own? Find out how with this supu ya ndizi recipe.

Vegetarians Will Love the Coconut Bean Soup

Tanzania borders the ocean, meaning it has a constant, fresh supply of ‘beach’ foods like as coconut and fish. This sweet and spicy soup made from coconut milk, beans and shredded coconut is another simple but delicious creation that is rich in nutrients.

An excellent option for vegetarians, coconut bean soup can either be enjoyed as a starter or main course and is wonderful served chilled too. Check out this coconut bean soup recipe and try it for yourself.

Ugali: A Staple of the Local Diet

Ugali is a simple starch made from cornmeal and water, resulting in something that resembles a cross between gnocchi and polenta. It might not sound all that appealing, but it acts as a wonderful and filling accompaniment to most Tanzanian meals.

The traditional way to eat ugali is to roll a lump into a ball and dip it into a curry or stew, using it as your only utensil - this may take some getting used to, but is undeniably a lot of fun!

Ugali is a staple dish in Tanzania and the one food that you will see everywhere in the country. Ask a Tanzanian expat what they most miss from home, and they're bound to mention this. Know any Tanzanians living in your country? Why not surprise them by making ugali to go with a homemade dinner.

Nyama Choma Is So Good, It Has Its Own Festival

Nyama choma is another quintessentially Tanzanian dish, which translates as ‘grilled meat’ in Swahili. It is prepared by taking fresh chicken, fish or goat and slow-roasting it on a grill, before serving it with plantain and ugali.

The Tanzanians love this dish so much that they even have a Nyama Choma Festival (see the video below). It takes place every four months in Dar es Salaam and showcases cooks with a variety of barbecuing skills, who serve up hefty portions of nyama choma.

On top of this there is a giant beer garden, where you can enjoy a drink (more on that in a moment) and music from some of the city’s best DJ’s. If you're heading to Tanzania this year, see if you can't get your trip to coincide with this event - experiences like these live long in the memory.

Be Sure to Try Mchemsho, An Expensive Speciality

Mchemsho, literally ‘something that is boiled’, is generally a meat or fish soup mixed with a variety of ingredients, including carrots, potatoes, aubergine, cabbage, onions, plantain, peppers and spices. Because so many ingredients are needed to make mchemsho, it can be quite expensive compared to other local meals and is therefore seen as a speciality dish rather than something that is consumed regularly.

That said, it's also healthy and delicious, so be sure to visit a restaurant that serves mchemsho during your time in Tanzania, such as Hugo Bar and Kruz in Park, both in Dar es Salaam.

But What About Dessert?

With the exception of fruit, desserts are rarely served in Tanzania but when they are, they tend to be simple ones, like pies. One example is the Fruits of Africa Pie, which is prepared with papaya, guava, apricot nectar and lemon juice on a piecrust, before being topped with whipped cream, coconut and peanuts (yum yum YUM!).

Aside from the pies, there are pancakes (or chapatti majis), which are thinly baked and prepared with sugar, honey and cinnamon. Other desserts that you might come across in Tanzania include the following...

Mandazi: A Donut Unlike Any Other

Mandazi is a form of fried coconut bread, often referred to as 'East African Donuts.' But, unlike the donuts you or I are used to, they don't contain any icing or filling.

These delicious sweet treats, which have a fluffy texture and are usually triangular in shape, can either be eaten at breakfast with tea, for a snack, or as a dessert. Once you’ve seen pictures, I can guarantee you won’t be able to resist trying your hand at making mandazi!

Date Nut Bread Has Religious Significance

This is exactly what it says on the tin - a type of bread made from dates and walnuts which is both nutritious and delicious. Date nut bread is a recipe that reflects the huge cultural diversity found in Zanzibar’s cuisine.

Also known as 'break the fast date nut bread', it's commonly eaten when fast is broken during Ramadan - a time when the country’s Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset for one lunar cycle.

In Tanzania, dates are a sweet symbolic treat to remind the consumer of his good fortunes. Have a go at making date nut bread yourself here.

Healthier Treats: Ndizi Kaanga & Sweet Potato Pudding

Yes that’s right, another plantain dish! Ndizi Kaanga is a very simple dessert that is enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. It's usually prepared unsweetened, but a light sprinkling of sugar can be added to the butter and plantain to bring out the sweetness.

Another low-sugar but very enjoyable dessert is sweet potato pudding. This is a healthy dish made from sweet potatoes and other local produce, including cardamom and saffron.

Something to Drink? Try The Banana Beer

Mbege, or 'banana beer' comes from the slopes of Mt. Kilamanjaro where it’s brewed by the Chaga people, the third-largest ethnic group in Tanzania. It's composed of bananas - which ferment to produce alcohol - African millet and bread.

The drink is then bittered like beer using the bark of the Mseswe tree to give it its unique flavour. Tree bark flavouring might not sound as tasty as a pint of Heineken (or your beverage of choice), but unlike the beers we're used to back home Mbege is rich in protein, Vitamin B, potassium and naturally gluten free. Not a bad companion to have with you on that hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro!

Chai Will Become a Normal Part of Your Day

Tea plants were originally introduced to Tanzania by us Brits in the early 1900s and today, Tanzania is one of the biggest tea growers in the world. Chai (i.e. spiced tea) is Tanzania’s most widely consumed drink and is enjoyed at breakfast time, throughout the day while socialising with family and friends, and occasionally during dinner.

There are a number of tearooms you can go to drink chai in Tanzania, such as Akberali Tea Room in Dar es Salaam and House of Spices in Zanzibar. To be a true local, be sure to accompany your chai with a typical Tanzanian snack like mandazi or chapatti (fried bread).

Forget Tropicana: Try Mango-Orange

In Tanzania, mangoes and oranges are two of the most popular fruits, along with bananas, pineapples and pears.

Mango-orange is a traditional Tanzanian beverage of mashed mango mixed with orange juice, diluted with water and sweetened with sugar - creating the perfect refreshment on a hot day along the coast.

Needless to say it's mango-oranges all round when The Leap organises your birthday bash...

For Something Stronger, Tanzanians Drink Konyagi

Konyagi is one of the oldest and most famous spirits in East Africa and, along with climbing Kilimanjaro and going to the Serengeti, sampling this drink should be on every visitor’s must-do list. Warning: it's as strong as it is cheap. You'll be tempted to buy plenty of the stuff to mix with Coke or Fanta - just be sure to pace yourself!

That said, miraculously Konyagi rarely leaves you with a pounding head the next morning, so it’s a good drink to opt for if you’ve got numerous activities lined up for the following day and want to avoid a hangover.

Tanzanian Table Manners & Eating Out

So now you know what to eat and drink, what about the actual act of sitting at the dinner table itself? At social gatherings, the Tanzanian way is to use your hands from communal dishes in the centre of the table (don’t worry, there will always be somewhere to wash your hands first!).

Food is shared but drinks are not, so you will have your own glass of soda or water. When there's a toast, people say 'ayfa!' meaning, 'to your health!' and when you finish your meal you say 'chakula kitamu' - a local way of showing your appreciation and gratitude for the food.

There are plenty of street stalls if you’re out and about and just want to pick up a snack or cheap meal, which is very common in Tanzania. Locals prefer to eat on the run, though there are of course many restaurants, which cater mainly to tourists. In these types of restaurants, you should be sure to tip around 10% but in a smaller local establishment it’s ok to simply round up the bill.

Ready to Try It for Yourself?

Are you drooling after reading this article and desperate to experience Tanzanian cuisine? A great way to see the country, sample its delicacies and make a difference is to book yourself onto one of our gap year placements in Tanzania, where authentic local meals are included!

I’d love to know I’ve missed anything off this list, so if you’ve been to Tanzania and have a favourite dish that hasn’t been mentioned here, be sure to let me know in the comments below.

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