When most Americans think pumpkin, what comes to mind are holiday associations: either a Halloween jack-o-lantern or a Thanksgiving pie. In a variety of countries, including Spain and Mexico, pumpkin seeds are roasted or fried as a snack. For Balinese artist Tjokorda Gde Arsa Artha, pumpkins are a canvas—he uses Asian fruit carving techniques, coupled with the mythology of his homeland, to create art that wards off evil spirits. For those living on the island paradise of Zanzibar—an archipelago six degrees south of the equator in the Indian Ocean, where the main island of Unguja is popularly known as Zanzibar—pumpkin isn’t reserved for festive fall celebrations; it’s the main ingredient in a delicious spicy soup.
This island is a place where schools and offices shut down twice a year so everyone may climb trees and fill coconut baskets with piles of cloves. The sweet-smelling buds, dried by the side of the road, are an ingredient in both Zanzibar chai tea and spicy soups. I sampled such a soup on a recent trip to the Jewel Of East Africa, where I toured aromatic spice plantations. I discovered that Zanzibar isn’t called the Spice Island as a marketing ploy; it’s the real thing.
While exploring the Bahama Spice Farm in Kizimbani village, I watched my guide peel cinnamon from the bark of a tree and dig up the root of turmeric, revealing a golden interior. This key ingredient in Indian food is also mixed with honey to chase away a cough. I learned that lemongrass (also known as citronella) repels mosquitoes and banishes headaches if you boil the leaves and breathe in the steam. Clove oil relieves muscle pain and sore gums, while a recipe of ginger, cardamom and honey, when drunk three times a day, serves as a natural Viagra.
The farm also offers an assortment of fruit. Bananas in Zanzibar come in 25 varieties, and range in size from a finger to a forearm. Banana leaves multi-task as both umbrellas and plates. Star fruit, which is high in vitamin C and good for your eyesight, tastes delicious cooked with chutney. And papaya is the main ingredient for making “gongo,” a strong alcoholic brew, which my guide cautioned against for its impact on the liver. Jackfruit is one of the largest edible fruits in the world, but also functions as a trap for rats by forming glue when mixed with kerosene oil.
Swept up in the multiple uses of the fruits and spices, I was startled by an enormous breadfruit narrowly missing my head as it fell to the ground from a tall tree. Before my African safari, I was warned about malaria and cautioned about my proximity to the lions and elephants, but no one mentioned the danger of breadfruit as a weapon crashing down from the sky.
Trying to be more alert to the overhead falling fruit, I still soaked in spice lore. My guide, Hamadi (literally meaning “spice”), informed me that the anti-malaria plant neem is the same as quinine, and nutmeg—with strong stimulant properties—is considered a drug in some Arab countries. And I discovered that musicians, such as the taarab singers, chew cardamom and nutmeg before performing to “help create a soft voice.”
The spice tour was tantalizing, but, sadly, their restaurant was closed. (Some tours include lunch, so check beforehand). So we did some more sightseeing in this land where Africa meets the Orient, including a historic tour of Stone Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). An Arabian-style labyrinth with narrow alleyways and decoratively carved doors was interesting, as was a visit to the Maruhubi Palace, the sultan’s house for his 99 concubines and one wife, complete with a massage and hot stone bath area. Built in 1882, it’s now a ruin.
At the end of the day we finally returned to our quaint Mbweni Ruins Hotel and restaurant. Our rich reward at this adventure camp-style restaurant, in a garden setting filled with palms and decorated inside with a large model of a boat, was the taste of a m