My best meal in Zanzibar found me through a thicket of seaweed.
It was low tide on a November morning at Jambiani village, on Zanzibar's south-east coast. Out into the horizon, women were either bent over picking or walking back to shore with giant sacks of seaweed on their heads. Patches of the stuff were sorted by hue and laid out to dry in front of many of the concrete and coconut-leaf-thatch huts in the village, like bonsai astroturf lawns.
What did they do with so much seaweed?
Our hostel manager said the seaweed was used for food. The dude who took us sailing and snorkelling on his dhow the next day concurred.
Fabulous. A locally foraged delicacy. Get me some-o-dat.
Except our hostel chef looked at me like I was crazy. He asked me how to cook it. How ever the villagers cooked it, I said. He didn't know, he said, he'd never cooked it before. He didn't know anyone here who ate it. Maybe I could show him what to do with it.
But...the manager said...
"No no no we don't eat it," now said the manager. "They sell to Asia. China. Japan. Asia people eat."
Tsk. If anything not fillet-able is coming out of the sea in large quantities, it's probably going to us bloody Asians (ok and maybe the Spaniards). Later in my research I found out the seaweed out here is farmed, not foraged. And it gets sent off to processing centres like Singapore to be turned into agar (vegetarian gelatin) and food stabilisers that go into all sorts of processed food, and toothpaste.
The things that happen to your food right under your nose! I had grown up on Grandma's agar jellies. So this is where they came from. But was brushing my teeth the only way I'd get to taste some seaweed while I was out here at the source?
Another walk the next morning, this time north to Paje. Much more real estate development here, but a similar seaweed scene. All that fresh, crunchy, briny sea-mineral-filled goodness, just going far far away to Asia. Bah.
Out popped this guy on the beach. A Captain Hadji, and a pitch for a fish lunch at his home-restaurant.
How much, I asked, wary of a fat bill no one agreed on after the meal.
7,000 Tanzanian shillings. (~£3.20) Very fresh, he said.
Can we see the fish? Babs asked.
"Fish not here yet," he said. "I wait for fishing boats. High tide they come back. They come, I buy fish, I cook, 30 minutes, lunch."
"Can we come with you to the boats?" I asked.
"Ok, you come, you come," he said.
One last hurdle. A long shot: "Do you know how to cook seaweed? Can we have some? With the fish?"
Captain Hadji chuckled at me.
"You like our seaweed! Yes I know. Yes ok I get some for you."
And so Babs and I sat on the beach and waited for the tide. And sure enough, at noon, the fishing boats came, dragged through the shallows up to shore by their various captains and 1-man crews. Captain Hadji waded out to meet them. Babs and I waded out after him.
No one had nets or lines. Just fishing spears. Little piles on reef fish. One boat had a baby shark. Fwah!
"Ok I have your fish. I go get seaweed. You come at 1pm for lunch," said Captain Hadji.
"Fine. Great," I said, still gawking at the shark.
I was happy to have some fellow gawkers for company onshore. Various villagers came to gather round the 50kg shark, including a blind boy who squatted with it, running his hand along its cool leathery skin and its many pointed teeth.
Then came the next course of entertainment and education. Next to the shark, fishermen from various boats came up with sacks and buckets and emptied out piles upon piles of beautiful giant starfish. Our little patch of Paje turned a gentle acid-trip of technicolour.
What do you do with the starfish? I asked each villager until I found someone who spoke enough English. My heart was clenched, ready to break if they said they sold it as curios to tourists.
"For fish. Catch fish. Put in traps. Fish eat. Catch fish," someone finally told me.
I still didn't feel great about what that meant for the coral reef. But it beat putting them on a shelf so that some idiot could brag to their friends about how at one they felt with marine life at some exotic location.
It was 1pm. Time for the main course. Babs and I trooped over to Captain Hadji's porch, soggy, sunburned and starving.
He was just getting to putting the fish on his charcoal grill. It was white snapper and red snapper today, he said. Marinated in salt, pepper, ginger, garlic and lime juice. With rice cooked in coconut milk.
I recognised the spots on the "red snapper". It was actually red garoupa, a premium fish in Chinese restaurants prized for its sweet, delicately flaky flesh. My Dad and I are both mad fans. Good Lord, everything in the water here must be heading for the far east.
Babs and I wolfed everything down, picking through each crevice of the heads, the cheeks and the eyes with surgical precision. Captain Hadji wasn't kidding about "very fresh". I still don't know when I'll get to eat fish this fresh again, barring joining a fishing expedition and cutting up some sashimi or ceviche on the boat.
And he did good on the seaweed. It came stir fried with a little garlic, a little tomato, a touch of masala. Crunchy briny magic. The two Swedish women who had also signed up for lunch didn't get any. They had asked Captain Hadji to remove the fish heads from their lunch, so they didn't deserve any, in my mind. I wish I had overheard them at the time. I would've demanded to rescue their fish heads. I hoped at least this meant Captain Hadji and his family would eat them.
The bill for the fish was as agreed. We both had soda. "Pay what you want for the seaweed," said Captain Hadji.
So we put in 10,000 TZS each. Our best meal in Zanzibar cost us a grand total of £9. The food and the service were both ten out of ten. The ambience, something I don't usually don't pay much attention to... in this case... out of ten... scores... to be conservative... about a million.
Captain Hadji Suleima Hassani
Paje Beach, Zanzibar, Tanzania
+255 77 883 1384