FROM MOMBASA TO MUSCAT
A Zanzibari restaurant in Ghubra offers a rich taste of the past
Story and Photos: Salim Al Afifi [email protected] | 8 January 2016
From defeating the Portuguese in Mombasa, now known as Kenya, to establishing a Sultanate on the island, the history of connection between Oman and Zanzibar goes back centuries. The cultural exchange between the two was vast, from Omani-inspired architecture in Zanzibar, to the African kuma cap that has become part of Oman’s national dress, to the local taste here in Muscat for coconut milk and chillies. Ali Nasser Al Harthy, the owner of Zanzibar Island restaurant, had a keen desire to share his passion for African foods, and in that way, also sharing his heritage through a menu of both local Omani specialities and Swahili favourites.
Zanzibari cuisine, much like Omani cuisine, is influenced by the foods of many cultures, thanks to a prime location on the trade route. And there is no doubt that African cuisine has a distinctive taste with vegetables, fish, and meats enhanced with rich coconut milk, chilli, and the spice for which the island was most famous: cloves.
As an Omani born on the oft-called spice island, Ali Nasser moved to Muscat in 1975 and over the years, began developing a unique vision for preserving his heritage and teaching the younger generations about Omani culture in Zanzibar by enticing crowds with delicious, inexpensive Zanzibari-Omani food and hospitality. A visit to the restaurant is more like a visit to a museum with the red and zebra print walls packed with mesmerising vintage photographs and paintings of the Omani royal dynasty and the Sultans of Zanzibar, as well as pottery and handcrafts. The exterior decor is a bit more subdued, a collection of simple metal tables surrounded by mangroves that give the place an exotic, yet traditional, Omani ambience.
Ali’s greatest act of cultural preservation happens in the kitchen where ingredients such as beans, flour, and the famous chilli called PiliPiliMoni are imported from Tanzania, Burundi, and Congo, and spices and meats are obtained locally. Ali monitors the preparation of the cuisine every day for dishes that truly have a homemade taste. When newcomers enter the restaurant, Ali will walk over from his usual place at the long table in front of the register, and he’ll meticulously take their menus, asking if they want African or Omani cuisine. If the request is for the former, he will return with plates teaming with specialities like mohogo, a mild, creamy dish of white cubes of the starchy root vegetable cassava simmered in coconut milk with hot chillies; kisamvu, a green mushy dish made from cassava leaves blended and cooked with coconut milk, palm oil, or peanut butter; and maharagi,a rich curry dish made of kidney beans cooked with coconut milk and mixed vegetables.
These dishes can be served with white rice or African chapatti, a light textured bread made with flour, and then rolled and folded with ghee. Other items on its extensive menu include mandazi, also known as ‘Swahili bun’, a sweet, cardamom-flavoured, fried triangular bread. Clove-heavy Zanzibari chicken and fish curries served with rice, deep-fried crispy chicken and fish, as well as Zanzibari snacks like meat sambusa, a fried pastry filled with either spicy chicken or meat; kachori, a tart mash of potato, chilli, and lime dipped in chickpea flour and fried; and fish cutlets, a steamed mince of fish, spices, potato that is shaped into cutlets and fried. The snacks are served alongside sweet, tangy Zanzibari achar, a mango chutney. The restaurant also makes Omani dishes like qabuli rice, which is cooked in the broth of meat or chicken and tossed with spices; malleh salted fish served with lemon and onions, and biryani with chicken, meat, or fish.
Thanks to Ali’s ingenious vision, Zanzibar Island is a place full of nostalgia, history, and great food, where locals, expats, and tourists alike can gather in celebration of the cultural gifts that remain.
Ali Nasser Al Harthy, Zanzibar Island Owner