The phrases “culinary mecca” or “haute cuisine” are probably not phrases one instantly associates with East Africa. You aren’t wrong. But I’ve always thought that, to truly experience a country, it is important to experience everything possible—especially the local food.
The day after we arrived in Tanzania we met up with an ex-pat and new friend (more on that later). After spending the morning with her at a local school, she asked if there was anything we wanted or needed before dropping us off back at our hotel. I’m reluctant to ask favors of strangers but my travel companion happily announced, “Judi really wants to try Tanzanian food.” And that’s how we found ourselves at Meku’s Bistro.
The bistro, as our host noted, is not a “bistro” in the Western sense. It’s actually a casual restaurant, coffee bar and cocktail lounge located right next to a gas station in Shanty Town. It was there where we were introduced to Ugali (pronounced “Oooh-Golly”). I liked it very much.
Ugali, is a cornmeal porridge, and it’s probably the closest thing you’ll find to a National dish. It’s eaten at most meals (even when other carbs are present). It is a bit like polenta in that it is a stiff, sticky starch (not.as dense as sticky rice). Ugali itself is quite bland side, but that’s actually a good thing because when it is served with vegetables, meats, and sauces it soaks up the flavors of what it accompanies.
Meku’s Bistro has an entire menu page devoted to local dishes. Our host suggested the Makange (a dish of chicken, ugali, rice, salad and vegetables) and the Meku’s Captain Hot Chicken (spicy chicken with potatoes and vegetables). The Hot Chicken was good, but not nearly as hot/spicy as it was spiced with flavors. These days one can find good African restaurants, but even if it’s the exact dish it just tastes differently in the place that originated the style of food.
Most of the online blogs and “resource” sites I researched said Tanzanian’s don’t eat a lot of meat and it’s generally saved for special occasions. Certainly restaurants are a special occasion, and it stands to reason that there is meat offered. But having read that, I was surprised by the amount of meat we saw offered at little roadside stands all over Moshi—especially grilled meats. Grilled meat is called Nyama Choma locally, but westerners would recognize it as barbeque and kehabs, of goat, fish or chicken accompanied by barbecue bananas and (of course) Ugali.
After climbing Kilimanjaro, we kept in touch with our guide. Because ours was (we found out) he would not be going back up the mountain for six weeks. We took advantage of that and requested he show us a restaurant that he’d describe as truly traditional to Tanzania. He confirmed we wanted someplace we wouldn’t be able to otherwise experience. He suggested his favorite restaurant, and promptly took us to a local restaurant to eat Nyama Choma.
As advertised, the place we went was in an area that was not somewhere I could ever find again on my own. It was also not a place a tourist would ever be, unaccompanied. However, we were in good hands. This was the best BBQ I have ever tasted, and I’m including Nashville, Texas, and the U.S. east coast. When we got there, the pit master asked us how much we wanted. You order in kilograms. We were offered two cuts, both options were pork. One style was had more fat—it was recommended we try both. For four people, we ordered 3.5 kilograms, which left four people extremely well fed and satisfied. We also ordered sodas, and one large Kilimanjaro beer (more on that later). The BBQ is served in a sauce (versus dry rub).
The only thing more amazing than the wonderful food (best meal of our trip) was the price. Total, it was about $20.00. That was with tip, which we checked with our guide to ensure it was generous, but appropriate. Tips are not the norm, but it’s at the point where people expect it from visitors. And it is a relatively poor country, so of course you should tip—in my opinion.
Coffee is Tanzania’s second biggest cash crop, following bananas. An upcoming blog will touch on my visit to a coffee plantation. Suffice it to say it is abundant. For that reason, it surprised me that at hotels and cafes you are most likely to find Africafe—an instant coffee. If you need a jolt of caffeine it does the job. However, it’s not as flavorful as a freshly ground cup of beans. Seek out a restaurant that uses local beans, you’ll be happy you did and you’ll most likely be supporting small farmers who make the majority of the coffee.
Soda is very prevalent as is bottled water. Tap water is plentiful, but—no surprise—travelers are strongly advised against drinking it.
There is a saying “those who can’t climb Kilimanjaro, drink it.” This is a reference to the most popular beer, named after one of the most popular destinations in Tanzania, Kilimanjaro. The lager is easy drinking with a nice flavor. I liked it more than the Serengeti (another popular tourist site named after a beer…joking). Alcohol, especially beer, is considered very expensive in Tanzania (2500 Tsh), so locals who do drink are considered well-to-do or have a drinking problem (seriously). In terms of cost, it’s equivalent to about $5 USD, but that’s an entire meal here. The alternative that is more popular among Tanzanians is banana beer. You can read more about that wonderful concoction in soon.
Tanzanian food was not the exotic “Parts Unknown” culinary adventure I imagined it would be. But, to be honest that was also a bit of a relief, as I am a finicky eater who can be very sensitive to textures, tastes, combinations and other things. ,I was very satisfied with my mini food adventure. Everything was good and nothing got me sick (the last part cannot be understated, especially for those about to embark on conquering the mountain that made Tanzania the Number One Missing Stamp on my Passport.
One final note of appreciation, I’d like to extend a special thanks to our guide, Israel, with G Adventures, who came into Moshi after our climb to take us out for BBQ. We were incredibly touched that he did this on his day off. It was just one of the many “extras” that made our trip so memorable and fun. I’ve used G Adventures twice now—the first time when I climbed Machu Pichu, and I will use them again in the future.