The sun always shines over the coral fringed beaches of Zanizbar’s coast, but high in the hilly central hinterlands, where spice plantations stretch as far as the eye can see, angry tropical clouds gather, and clump, then fitfully spit down sudden bursts of warm rain. We’ve taken refuge under the umbrella of an enormous banana leaf, but this shelter is partial at best - as the leaf fills with the heavy drops, little cascades form along the edges, overflowing to drench any part not securely ensconced beneath the centre of the palm. Fortunately though, the deluge is over as suddenly as it began, and with the coming of the sun, we spot our guide to Zanzibar’s spice fields emerging from a similar leaf shelter and walking over to meet us...
'You look spice’ he announces happily, directing this greeting at my travelling companion in an approving and enthusiastic tone. What is this a reference to exactly I wonder? Assumed knowledgeability regarding, or appreciation of spices on the basis of appearance? Or, perhaps just a comment on the jauntily-coloured beachwear favoured by said companion on holiday? I’m not sure, whatever was meant though, on an island famous for its spices, I decided that it could only be a good thing, and venture hopefully, ‘Do I look spice?’ A brief up and down appraisal followed by a short disapproving sniff. It looked like I was going to have to prove myself in order to earn my spice, so together we walked into the densely green plantation to begin a (much-trickier-than-it-sounds) game of ‘guess the spice.’
First stop, a wood of thick-trunked, tall trees with leaves of glossy dark green. Hanging high in the branches, little baubles of pale green and yellow fruit are just visible, peeking out of the dense foliage. ‘So, what do you think this spice is?’ our guide asks me. Is this a trick question? It looks like an under-ripe apricot. ‘Am I likely to be familiar with this spice?’ I ask doubtfully. Much nodding from our guide. I know it does not help my credentials, but I say ‘apricot’ anyway. I can think of nothing else, and perhaps it is some sort of native Zanzibar spice apricot or something?! Fortunately, he who looks ‘spice’ has no better suggestions with which to show me up, and our guide proceeds to cut the spherical fruit into two halves revealing a hard wooden seed, covered in a lace-like red filament inside.
Displayed thus, I realise that the seed is a nutmeg. But what is the lacy red covering? ‘Mace’ our guide supplies, nowadays little-used in European cooking, and mostly to be found in a ground form that quickly loses its flavour. ‘So, how would you use mace in Zanzibari cooking?’ I inquire. ‘It goes in everything’ our guide replies with an expressive extension of the arms, reeling off innumerable applications. Once slipped from the nutmeg and dried, I gather that Zanaibari’s use mace mostly to delicately flavour creamy dishes, both sweet and savoury, as well, interestingly, as using it to flavour baby’s milk. Spice consumption certainly starts young on this island!
The nutmeg itself is composed of two parts, a hard outer wooden covering (known as the nut), and the softer, slightly striated inner seed, or the meg, (this is the part we are mostly familiar with). Of course, the moment I got my Zanzibari nutmegs home and attempted to cook with them, I forgot all about this important distinction, and spent a good while dulling a grater on the hard outer nut, before remembering that the crucial meg part actually lay inside! Like mace, nutmeg is used in Zanzibari cooking to flavour sauces, but while mace lends a subtle and very delicate flavour, nutmeg is more powerful and tends to add depth. Again, nutmeg also loses flavours very quickly when ground, so it is best to buy whole, and grate into dishes as needed, a half or whole meg at a time. Interestingly, nutmeg has strong hypnotic properties, and is actually poisonous in large doses. It is also reputed to be the secret ingredient in Coca Cola, Coke being the largest single purchaser of nutmeg world-wide.
Grateful to be able to put my nutmeg naiveté behind me, the next spice we see is instantly recognisable as pepper. The peppercorn vine is parasitic, so is grown up along the trunk of a non-flowering host tree. The delicate peppercorn stems are harvested green, by hand and dried in the sun, giving the pepper its characteristic crinkled appearance.
My luck continuing, I am able to recognise the familiar shape of cloves in the fresh flower that our guide shows us next. Like a number of the spices so prevalent in Zanzibari cuisine, cloves are understood to be somehow old-fashioned, and largely side-lined, or restricted to a just few specific dishes in European cookery. With mulled wine, and a few other Christmas-y things the only uses to spring to my mind, I again inquire as to how Zanzibari cooks might make use of this spice. Like the mace, and nutmeg, locals find no shortage of dishes to flavour with clove, and once again, the sweet/savoury distinction does not apply – cakes, puddings, stews, curries, and roasts. Nor are they shy of quantity. ‘So, how many cloves might be used to flavour a meat curry?’ I venture, but this question only make sense if you intend to count cloves out, one by one, and on Zanzibar, as our guide’s answer unambiguously attests, nobody is counting individual cloves.
The bright orange colour of the next spice gives it away instantly. Turmeric, much like ginger, is a root, but one that, again, we usually see processed and ground rather than fresh. The turmeric has an intensely spicy and earthy scent, and a pigment so strong that it instantly and durably stains the hands bright yellow at the briefest touch.
Ginger, vanilla, lemongrass, these are easy and I’m on a roll. The cinnamon tree, not instantly suggestive of it signature spice to look at, is easily guessed at upon examining the soft, sweet bark, and the even sweeter, almost sugary roots. I nibble at a piece of this root while we walk like a farmer chews a stem of grass in a field. Small sweet crystals of brown cinnamon are easily scraped from its fibres, and I think that, as delicious as cinnamon always is, the powdered jar stuff is just dust compared to these sugary, resinous roots with their aroma of fresh wood, and pure spice.
My recent string of correct guesses had gone some way towards redeeming me in the eyes of our guide. But one of the more difficult-to-guess spices had been saved till last. Low down, sprouting from near the base of a clump of palms, were a series of little juicy-looking beads, with purple and white orchid-like flowers growing along an arching frond. In this form, these look quite different to the dried pods we are used to seeing. ‘Cardamom’ I wager anyway (besides the green colour, and pod-shape, it’s the only spice we haven’t had yet!). Split open to reveal the black seeds inside, and with its unmistakable aroma, our guide confirms that cardamom it is, and my redemption is complete. ‘OK, OK, you spice,’ he concedes.
Five minutes later, in the tropical fruit tasting portion of the tour, I risk prompt demotion by suggesting that jack fruit, sour sop, and durian are virtually the same thing, some high arched brows warn me otherwise though, and after side-by-side taste testing I can confirm that they are not. Sour sop is delicious, jack fruit kind of nice, and durian bordering abysmal! Tasting of the famed spice cake though is saved for very last…
So, my first attempt at this (see previous post, link at bottom of the page), borne of an excess of tropical holiday excitement, had banana, chocolate, honey, marbling, a fancy cake tin, and almost a host of other ingredients too. The real thing, as served in Zanzibar, is (not unpredictably) all about the spices. No fruit, no chocolate, no honey, and just a plain old loaf shape. Tasting this version, as well as having sampled the fresh spices, it is fair to say that the cake can stand on the strength of the spices alone. So, it’s up to you– the previous version for some banana-chocolately tropical fun, or this pared-down version for a taste of the delicious spices that made Zanzibar famous.
Spice Island Spice Cake
(Makes a small loaf tin)
- 170g butter – cubed and at room temperature
- 100g soft brown sugar
- 70g caster sugar
- 3 free range eggs
- 170g self-raising flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon cloves
- 2 cardamom pods
- 1 vanilla pod
- 3 tablespoons of milk
To make this cake I have adapted a basic sponge recipe by introducing soft brown sugar in place of a proportion of the usual caster sugar. The balance is designed to give the cake a nice rich and grainy brown sugar appearance, while still keeping the mixture sponge-like and light in texture. With regards to the amount of spice you might wish to add – the amounts I suggest here give a good flavour, but this is using reasonably fresh spices. If yours have been sitting in the cupboard for a while, perhaps consider using a little more. This cake stores very well, and will taste fresh for up to 5 days after it is made if kept in an air-tight container.
Pre heat the oven to 180˚C, and line a loaf tin with baking parchment. I do this by cutting a rectangle just as wide as the base of the tin, but longer than you need to cover the base and long sides, so that there is a parchment overhang of approximately 2 inches over each long side of the tin. When you come to lift the cake out, the overhanging sections can serve as handles. Not having to line the ends of the tin with paper saves time, and the problem of having to fold or cut the paper to fit – instead, a small amount of butter to grease the exposed ends of the tin will suffice.
Cream together the butter and both sugars in a large bowl using an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing to fully incorporate after each addition. Sift in the self-raising flour and baking powder. Gently mix everything together until the flour is fully incorporated. (The mixture should be soft, but quite thick at this stage).
Using a mortar and pestle, grind the whole cloves to a fine powder. Remove the cardamom seeds from their pods by splitting the pod open at the bottom and popping the black seeds out. Discard the empty pods and add the seeds to the ground cloves in the mortar and pestle, continuing to grind until these are also reduced to a fine powder. On a clean cutting board, make an incision along the length of the vanilla pod, and, using a small knife, scrape the black seeds from inside the pod. Add the vanilla seeds to the cake batter, along with the ground cloves and cardamom, and the ground cinnamon.
Add the milk to loosen the batter slightly, and mix gently until the spices are distributed and the milk is incorporated.
Pour into the pre-prepared tin, and bake for 35 minutes, or until the cake has begun to come away from the tin at the sides.
Cool slightly on a wire rack before serving warm, with some ice cream for dessert, or enjoy in the afternoon with some tea.
If you are inspired to do some more cooking with spices, stay tuned for the next few posts, where I'll be experimenting with some more adventurous savoury recipes, starting with a trio of spice fields chutneys, and moving on (to up the spice ante even further) to a selection of Zanzibar-inspired curries...