Trying Tanzanian Food

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.

2015-03-27 15.56.27
Meku’s “Bistro” in Moshi. Yes, the restaurant, coffee shop and sports bar is adjacent to a gas station.

Ugali
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.

2015-03-27 15.14.33
Meku’s Captain Hot Chicken (spicy chicken with potatoes and vegetables)

Nyama Choma
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).

2015-04-03 13.27.04
The best way to eat it, I found, was to dip the meat into the salt along the side of the plate, put it with a piece of ugali and pop it in your mouth. Simply put: delicious.

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.

2015-04-03 13.54.43 HDR
Traveler Tip: Tanzanians tend to eat with their hands. (Not everywhere but certainly in more authentic or casual places.) If you see a something like this off to the side of a room in a local establishment, it’s for hand washing. So, before whipping out your Purell, wait until after you’ve placed your order. The Western equivalent of a server will come back to your table the water pitcher and bowl for you to wash.

Beverages
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.

2015-04-02 17.59.55
Cheers from Moshi!

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.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Moshi, Tanzania: First Impressions

It was only 9:00 pm local time when we landed at Kilimanjaro Airport in Moshi, Tanzania. But it felt more like a year’s air travel, and our exhausted expressions had that typical cloudy-eyed confusion that says “I just landed, where am I, which way to the luggage?”

Although it was dark, I could tell Moshi was larger than I’d expected it to be. The airport’s proximity to Moshi is similar to Regan National Airport’s distance to DC. Because we were climbing Kilimanjaro, I was expecting a smaller city, like Cusco, Peru, the gateway town for those hiking the Inca Trail. More importantly, I was anticipated landing in a place easy to navigate on foot (with shops, restaurants and a few sites to visit).

Moshi is not that. It’s spread out and visitors are encouraged not to walk around after dark. The hotels are happy to call you a taxi. Our guide confirmed it’s not safe, which is about where everyone left it. We didn’t contest that guidance. My number one, golden rule for Kilimanjaro is “on, or off the mountain, always listen to your guide.”

By day, we discovered Moshi hums like any large city: people walking to work, catching buses, people generally going about their lives. One thing you’ll notice about Moshi, is that westerners really stand out. Thus, be prepared for people to stare at you. It’s a welcoming and warm curiosity, but it can be intimidating if you aren’t used to it.

As a redhead, I’d experienced being stared at once before in India. It gives one a good idea of what a hassle celebrity must be.

Moshi is welcoming, but to get the most out of visiting make friends with your guide. A distant second recommendation is to keep on the lookout for ex-pats (who speak Swahili, the language of Tanzania). It appeared that most ex-pats lived in the “Shanty Town” neighborhood. Anyone familiar with that name knows it usually describes a poor area. In this case the name’s ironic.

Moshi is friendly, but staff in grocery stores, restaurants and banks don’t always speak English. Additionally, prices can mysteriously increase at grocery stores—if you argue, it’s nicely explained that you don’t understand. Now you understand.

Taxi’s can also be a source of frustration. The hotel will arrange transportation and provide a price. But it’s important to confirm things with your driver. What is called “Chaka-Chewa,” or funny business, is part of the experience.

For example, our first cab driver argued once we reached our destination that the price quoted was dollars, and the price in local currency is higher. I will grant this can become frustrating. But it’s also important to point out that—although you don’t want to be a sucker—ultimately you’re arguing over not a lot of money. We bickered because we didn’t carry a lot of cash—and you never use a debit card.

It helps not to look at Chaka-Chewa as dishonest, as much as opportunistic. Wealthy people take taxis—people who can afford that extra couple bucks that can make a big difference for the individual. It helps keep things in perspective, and maintaining that outlook prevents premature aging.

With that, here is a Travelers Tip: Before getting in a taxi, confirm your destination, number of passengers, repeat the agreed upon price and currency. Make certain the driver agrees to this before you get depart your hotel. That said, if the bill is 9,000 Tsh (Tanzanian Shillings), be a sport and let the person keep the change. Tipping is not part of the culture, but it is very appreciated and there is a growing expectation that westerners will tip.

I’ve focused on this point more than I’d expected to, so let me sum it up as follows. Consider it not so much as “buyer beware” as a “buyer be aware” thing, and plan accordingly so that you can enjoy your time prior to climbing Kilimanjaro or heading off on a Safari.

These frustrations are by no means unique to Tanzania. Do not get overly frustrated or allow it to ruin your holiday. Instead, write it off as local customs and ways of doing things.

Author’s note: My personal travel philosophy is never to write while I’m away. I do keep notes in a journal. Observations help me to remember my impressions and experiences for your enjoyment. To me, travel is about being in the moment, not documenting it on a computer.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Beg, Borrow or Buy

If you aren’t a hiker this is quite likely the most boring thing to read, and you may want to skip this entry. But, if Kilimanjaro is anywhere on your bucket list, I recommend you factor the above into your travel budget and planning. Sure some of these items—like hiking poles and sleeping bags—can be rented in Tanzania before you start climbing, but rental options can’t help you think through your weather personality and how best to prepare.

Anyone who’s been to summer camp is no doubt familiar with the “packing lists” of recommended items. If you’ve hiked or climbed in another country, or traveled with a tour company, you know their overwhelming versions of packing lists are like summer camp on steroids. And that’s before all the necessary inoculations, medical clearance and Visa ordeals (more on my horrible Visa ordeal in another blog/rant).

As I prepare to ascend “Kili”, I realized the tour company’s recommended list of items is enough to dismay and intimidate even the most enthusiastic aspiring climber. Thirty-three clothing and toiletry items, including multiple shirts (long sleeve and short sleeve), rain jackets, ponchos, jumpers (aka sweaters), etc. That’s before the gear like walking polls, headlamp, and on and on. And “hiking gear” I’ve learned is expensive. When a pair of pants is more expensive than a pair of Prada’s, that’s saying something.

Facing this list, and it facing me, I asked myself a few questions. Firstly, what from all this stuff is necessary? Second, what do I have (that I don’t need to replace) as well as what might I borrow? For example, I’ll probably not use “walking polls” again, but heard they’re recommended. Third and final question, is there anything missing from the list?

The first question is worth noting because it translates to weight. Humping up a trail with a sixty-pound pack, and you’ll quickly identify what’s superfluous. The trick is to identify what’s important. Schlepping stuff across the globe that was never used is not only infuriating, it can be expensive.

Packaging lists are good ‘guidelines’ but other things also come into play. Checking the weather ahead of time can guide in knowing what you need to be comfortable. If you hate being cold, layers are important. If not, that’s a perfect place to economize. No matter where I go, and what the season, I always bring a scarf and/or sweater.

Kilimanjaro is a different trip. Sure, I’m somewhat familiar with long day hikes and what I need. This is the third time I’ll traverse multiple ecosystems, which requires more careful packing. What’s different is the length of the trip (LENGTH) and that this is an extreme variation in climates. From rainforest to what was guaranteed to be temps below freezing at least once during our climb.

After taking stock of my current hiking gear from Peru, I realized I was going to need to gear up. Once I got past the overwhelming length of the Kilimanjaro packing list (its nearly two pages), I identified the things I absolutely needed. I decided against rain pants after being in Peru for the rains. When it rains, you’re gonna get wet. I also nixed a few items that I knew I wouldn’t appreciate (binoculars—I have my camera) and travel pillow (folded sweater).

After ticking the “non-essential items” from the list, it was time to separate the remaining items into three categories: begging, borrowing and buying.

Begging

My family celebrates Christmas and exchanges gifts. Somewhere along the way we adopted the idea of exchanging “wish lists” so that gifts would be something the recipient actually wants. This year, I begged Santa to help me get ready for my trip.

And Christmas delivered this great Marmot jacket. I have an old ski jacket but it’s bulky (I also question the warmth, since it’s about 15 years old.) The Pertex Quantaum model I got is lightweight and lined with goose down for warmth. The shell is nylon and will be enough to resist moisture, or light rain.

Gear

Mr. Os went all out and treated me to Trail Tech Quarter-Zip from LL Bean. This was on my list because my hiking gear overall is lacking when it comes to long-sleeve items. I liked this shirt because it’s a wicking fabric (aka, it keeps sweat off your skin which in turn keeps you warmer). I also think it’s important to have one outfit to change into after a day of hiking, and this shirt is a good choice for that. I also got a Polartec Windbloc fleece jacket. With the above Marmot jacket, it might be overkill but a fleece jacket at camp is worth it to me, and the pair will be my go-to items after each day’s climb.

In terms of warmth, few things help more than long underwear. As a skier, I advocate for the Hot Chili brand. It’s a little more expensive, but they wear well and keep you warm. I recommend a pair with stirrups at the bottom (to prevent your long underwear from running up your calf).

Borrowing

I don’t usually borrow things from people. It’s partly because I’m a borderline germaphobe but also because I worry items will get stolen. I don’t want to have to explain to someone that his or her gorgeous, expensive backpack was ripped or ripped off. That said, unless I begin to focus on these adventurous climbs, I won’t need a backpack with a frame moving forward. Luckily, if you talk to people about climbing, sooner or later you will stumble across someone who has gear they will push on you because “it never gets used.”

Buying

With all of the above, it’s crazy that I’m not done acquiring gear for this trip. And yet…

Salomon hiking boots that have already gotten some decent mileage.
Salomon hiking boots that have already gotten some decent mileage.

My old hiking boots would not make the trip. Of any single piece of gear, these are probably the most critical piece of gear to get right. I finally settled on a pair of Salomon’s, but I tried on about five different brands and several styles in each brand. Simply put, buy the most comfortable—your feet are worth the investment.

Tip: Go to an REI or other outdoor store. Spend a ridiculous amount of time talking to the staff about where you’re going. Earlier I mentioned the expense of hiking pants. One associate was insistent that I needed wind pants AND rain paints. But in passing I asked another sales associate. An avid hiker, turns out she leads tours throughout Southeast Asia. I explained my concern over the expense of dropping a small fortune on pants I might not wear much after my return. Without batting an eyelash she asked me to think about what makes me more miserable/cold – rain or wind. Oooo, good question! She pulled out two recommendations from a pile of pants and I walked about with this crazy expensive black diamond water resistant, wind-stopper pants.

It’s important once you buy your outfits that you begin wearing them immediately. First, you want to make sure there are no problems with the items. Second, you want to get used to them. We’ve been “blessed” with some crappy weather in the past month so I’ve given the pants and boots test runs while walking dogs. I’m pretty happy with my purchases and will keep the pants in my daypack for sure.

IMG_8527
One thing I will never go hiking without: the Nike wicking running shirt

My final purchase was a Nike wicking long sleeve running shirt. I’m not a runner but these shirts made a quality-of-life difference when climbing Macchu Picchu. They’re lightweight and pack easily and keep one warm in damp, humid climates.

I will leave you with one final travel tip. This applies to both hiking as well as traveling with a guided tour. You’ll notice a fair amount of color among my jackets and fleece. In fact, the gear I already own ranges from blue, to orange to purple. Especially climbing Kilimanjaro at the time of year that I’m going, colored jackets are strongly recommended. Many people gravitate to subdued colors, if not all black. But color makes it easier for your guides to spot you. This is important for your safety especially in potential situations where the weather quickly changes.

*Authors note: the above items were all purchased, given or loaned to me. No company or brand provided these items in exchange for a “review.” The thoughts and opinions reflected are my own and should not be considered a professional endorsement.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Finally, Officially… Heading to Kilimanjaro

Question: How many conference calls with your BFF does it take to book a trip to Tanzania, Africa and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro (especially when your family and friends are worried about the risk of Ebola and suggesting you not go)?

Answer: Four. One for us to discuss pro’s and con’s of the trip. The second to learn about travel insurance from the travel agency. The third to go over follow-up questions about travel insurance. The final, fourth call to finally book the trip, and begin preparing for “wheels up” go time.


If nothing else is true about me, let it be known that when I commit to something I am ALL IN. And let me tell you, I am ALL IN when it comes to my Missing Stamps list.

The number one item on that list is to visit Tanzania and climb Kilimanjaro, or “Kili” as it’s affectionately referred to. While it’s been stuck in the number one spot for a while, it is not for lacking of planning. I have been reading up on gear, training, and had long-standing plans to make the trip several times—the latest being this year. But, life happens, and the trip had to be postponed.

A month ago, in the midst of the Ebola outbreak (but before all the media hypochondria) the Yooner (for new readers, this is my BFF and travel buddy), decided it was a now-of-never kind of moment. We officially booked the trip for early 2015.

Of course after we told friends and family that we’d finally decided to pull the trigger, reactions ranged from, the more casual “What?” to the more direct “Are you <expletive deleted> nuts!?” The common question about why involved one question. What about Ebola?”

As of this publication, Mr Os has gone the way of New York and New Jersey, and declared that I will have to quarantine myself for 21 days upon my return. Where is yet unclear. And, mind you, Tanzania is nowhere near Nigeria or Sierra Leone.

Also, consider that Tanzania has not had a single case of the virus. Certainly, things could change between now and March regarding the crisis. But as of now, I don’t buy into the fear mongering and think this succinctly sums up my risk of catching Ebola.

Instead, I’m focusing my energy on the things that actually matter: gear and training. I’m starting an inventory this week to assess what equipment and clothing I already have from previous treks, and what I will need. It’s better to accumulate equipment and clothing over time. Not only can you watch for sales, it helps avoid the last-minute crunch of buying crap you don’t need. And importantly, if you collect gear over a few months, you have plenty of time to break it in and get used to it—that’s especially important with hiking boots. It’s even more important for longer-term hikes.

Candidly what I am a bit worried about is physically preparing. I injured my knee riding in the Trek Across Maine this summer; who knew you could over train? I’ve been sidelined from any cardio workouts beyond a simple walk for two months. It’s driving me a bit nuts. I’m still hitting weights at the gym and physical therapy is starting to have an impact. But, having asthma, I know reaching the summit (and, heck yeah, I WILL summit Kilimanjaro) will come down to training. So, I’m anxious for clearance to start doing more strenuous exercise. Wish me luck! And if you have suggestions, I’m all ears!

Follow my blog with Bloglovin