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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sometimes The Rules Just Need to Be Broken

For those more cynical readers, prepare for an eye roll, but here’s the thing. Spring is probably my favorite time of the year, because it’s all about love and happiness, blossoming flowers and lush green grass. Spring is also synonymous with rebirth, especially cute bunnies, adorable ducklings and just baby animals in general. After the brutal winter we all just had, it was an especially happy time.

Which is why when I hit G by Mike Isabella to continue the self-appointed challenge to try every sandwich on Zagat’s “9 DC Sandwiches You Need to Try Right Now” I broke the only rule I made, which was trying every sandwich just it was written up by Zagat’s. You see, goat and particularly spiced baby goat, was just too..well. too much to stomach. So, technically this whole 9-DC sandwiches challenge has come to an end.

In the spirit of the challenge, and writing a blog post, it seemed silly NOT to get a sandwich. The sandwich part is really an overlay to get out and try new things. So with that in mind, I opted for the “fan favorite” falafel sandwich. This ridiculously large sandwich features falafel, sumac, hummus and pickled cabbage wrapped up tightly in a gyro. The result… to quote Mr Os, “you should not be a food critic.” I didn’t love it and am super thankful I have no real ambition of becoming a food critic. Because he’s right, I suck at expanding my food horizons. 

Stamps on my Passport
The “fan favorite” falafel sandwich at G by Mike Isabella

I give myself props for trying but unless someone beats me to the punch, I will openly admit that I’ve got food issues. My biggest one is texture. I literally cannot swallow certain textured food, like grilled eggplant or soggy eggs. After texture, my next big challenge is odor. If I happen to love a certain food and catch of whiff of something that smells “off,” forget it.

Since I was breaking (bending?) the rule, I figured I’d still try and expand my horizon a little bit. I knew the falafel and hummus were in my safe zone but the sumac and pickled cabbage were a stretch. Ok, a HUGE stretch. I used to work with someone who now handles Mr Isabella’s public relations. She swears the guy knows his stuff she certainly knows food. I don’t think she’s wrong, I think pickled cabbage is just not my thing.

The vibe at G was very laid back, more welcoming than SunDeVich. The walls were decorated with graffiti of vegetables which says to me they are focused on the food rather than trying to take themselves too seriously. It’s worth a visit and if you eat half the sandwich (which is really a whole sandwich) then you have dinner or lunch for the next day.

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Masks on these veggies give G a “we don’t take ourselves too seriously” vibe.

As for the “challenge,” yeah, I will continue. I’m certainly not the best food critic but that’s not what I’m about. I’m about getting out, exploring new things and making every day an adventure. Sometimes the adventure looks like a sandwich and sometimes it looks like a new stamp in your passport.

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D.C. Sandwiches You Need to Try (or Not): Sandwich One

 

Zagats, the gold standard of all things foodie, recently published it’s list of “DC Sandwiches You Need to Try Right Now.” DC is not exactly a food mecca, so anytime a restaurant other than Potbelly’s opens, we celebrate. The District is improving, and we have national caliber chef’s whose names are recognized outside the beltway. So, being an aspiring foodie, as I read the Zagats list I instantly decided THIS was blog fodder.

My plan: eat all nine sandwiches by Labor Day (hopefully sooner, but I’m balancing that with trying not to eat too many carbs, so I’m pacing). Readers and friends are welcome to join me. My only rule is that I have to order the sandwich noted on Zagat’s list, and take at least one full bite.

First up? The Kingston at SUNdeVich in the Shaw Neighborhood. Zagat’s describes the sandwich as, “the Jamaican-inspired flavors of jerk chicken, pineapple salsa, greens, spicy slaw and garlic mayo are the type of thing that transport you to a warmer happier place with each bit. Of all the sandwiches here named after cities around the world, this is consistently our favorite trip to take.”

The Kingston sandwich available at Sundevich
The Kingston sandwich available at SUNdeVICH

Now, let me preface the summary of my SUNdeVich experience by saying that Mr. Os., in his infinite wisdom, knew where this was going as soon as he read the description of the sandwich I ordered. In a preemptive move, he decided on “The Havana” (roasted pork, Gruyère, pickles and dijonnaise), since he knew there was no way I’d like my Kingston.

As soon as I opened my sandwich wrapper, I was overwhelmed with the smell of garlic. That was pretty much strike one, two and three. I’m not technically one of those super smellers, but when I catch a whiff of something like that, its instant dislike. But in the spirit of this challenge, I picked up the monstrous sandwich and took a massive bit. And then it was over for real.

The sandwich was advertised as spicy, I mistakenly thought it would be something I would enjoy (or at least tolerate). Not so much. If you are spice averse, skip this one. You’ll thank me later. Since I fulfilled my challenge rules, I happily swapped sandwiches, and enjoyed the Havana. Mr. Os., by the way, gave both sandwiches high marks, along with the restaurant.

Shaw is a neighborhood in transition, but I think it’s worth a visit. Especially if you happen to be in town for a conference since it’s just up from the Washington Convention Center. That said, at $24 for two sandwiches and one soda, it isn’t cheap. Also, the vibe is very “neighborhood.” While our money was politely accepted, we were clearly not considered locals, based on the reaction of the staff.

Sundevich is technically off 9th Street, so keep an eye out for this wall sign.
SUNdeVICH is technically off 9th Street, so keep an eye out for this wall sign.

My overall verdict: definitely an instance where Zagat’s suggested sandwich was not in line with my tastes. But these sandwiches are absolutely worth seeking out if you’re interested in trying something new and different.

 

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Eating In and Making New Friends

I love to eat. Food is, for better or worse, a large part of how i socialize, open up and talk with people. As someone who loves to eat, it will hardly surprise you to know that I enjoy eating out, especially when i’m on vacation. However, eating out three times a day can get on my nerves when i’m on vacation. There just comes a point when you want a home cooked meal.

This ideology is what brought me to Not Just A Tourist. This local tour operator offers a variety of intimate and unique tours of Seville, one of which happens to be a cooking class. The class features 3+ hours of our host, David’s time, including a tour of the Seville market, homemade sangria and then hands on instruction in preparing and cooking three Andalucía dishes.

Why Andalucía? This area, being so close to the Mediterranean and Middle East, blends dishes and flavors from both regions to create some really delicious food. I actually forgot how good one of our dishes was until i started writing this.

The idea of spending this much time with strangers while being forced to cook, might seem daunting and hardly something you’d want to do on holiday. But we found David put any concerns to rest. While soft spoken, he is instantly likeable because he is so warm and friendly. He doesn’t criticize while you are cooking, and takes time to talk and engage you throughout the process.

While touring Mercado de Feria (that’s the Seville market) we were got more great “insiders tips.” For instance, you should not visit a market looking for seafood on a Monday. The shops have sold out and sent their boats to fetch more. That seems obvious but in the US, we don’t visit markets daily for food. (Yes, we should but that’s someone else’s story).

After agreeing on our likes, dislikes for food, purchasing ingredients and some AMAZING olives, we headed back to David’s kitchen.

Oh my, the most delicious olives!
Oh my, the most delicious olives!

Along the way David wove around the streets, pointing out noteworthy sites and offering suggestions on things to visit for the remainder of our stay.

David showed us another group of Cloistered Nuns, these sell great marmalade.
David showed us another group of Cloistered Nuns, these sell great marmalade.

We arrived an an open kitchen space and David had us begin preparations for lunch, patiently walking us through the instructions for preparing our dishes:

  • Salmorejo. This tomato based soup combines egg, olive oil, bread, garlic and salt for a delicious result. You can also also sprinkle jamon on the top for an even more decadent dish. Absolutely my favorite thing from our lunch!
  • Espinacas con Garbanzos. Served as an entree this dish features a lot of cumin, paprika and garlic with spinach and chic peas. It is incredibly filling and as a picky spinach eater, i can say, this too was suprisingly fantastic.
  • Pisto. Served along with the Espinacas con Garbanzo, this is another vegetable based dish that includes onions, peppers, zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes. This was my least favorite but only because i personally don’t care for eggplant. Mr Os thought is was spectacular.
  • Polea. Last but not least, dessert! This would be a real crowd pleaser if you were preparing a traditional Spanish meal for friends and was a great finale for our lunch. It’s a milk and bread based dessert seasoned with cinnamon and sugar. Yum.

There was so much food, i had to take a “pause” at one point to make room for dessert. I think David thought i didn’t care for the food, which is completely wrong. (I have a minor stomach problem so i have to pause often to avoid issues.) I really look forward to making these dishes at home, especially when the ingredients are back in season.

Cooking espinacas con garbanzos
Cooking espinacas con garbanzos.

If you are in Seville, i recommend looking up David regardless of whether or not you want a cooking class. We found him to be charming in all the right ways and really committed to helping visitors enjoy everything Seville has to offer. You really would not be in bad hands. If you feel the same way i do about food, i would strongly recommend his cooking class. You’ll spend about a half day with David but you’ll come away with a very unique memory and a new friend!

Trivia Time: The Oldest Restaurant in the World Is…?

This is a quick and fun thing in Madrid that will appeal to chefs and foodies more than anyone else. Restaurante Botin, an unassuming restaurant behind Plaza Mayor, actually holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the oldest restaurant in the world. You’d never know from walking by. It looks a bit boring and breaks probably half of Gordon Ramsey’s “Kitchen Nightmares” rules with the busy windows, etc.

Restaurante Botin
Restaurante Botin

On a tip from James (yes, that guy again. I’m not kidding when i say he made our time in Madrid spectacular. Seriously, what are you waiting for? Book a tour with Madrid Food Tour already!) we made a point of stopping by. See, James may or may not have mentioned that if the restaurant is closed, you can ask nicely and the staff often let people in to see the oven.

The oven is an enormous old school, real brick oven. Not one of those ovens some chef constructed because it’s the Top Chef trend of the hour. This baby has been around, and you can tell.

This original brick oven can be found in bison. Yes, those are real pigs.
This original brick oven can be found in Botin. Yes, those are real pigs.

It’s located in the corner of a room on the main floor and juts out so it really takes up this entire space. Above the brick oven is the chimney flute with ceramic detailing. It’s impressive to think this oven has been in use for literally hundreds of years.

People debate if this is the longest operating restaurant. From what i heard, it is. The devil is in the details – this restaurant has never closed or changed location. We didn’t stay to eat, as it was closed, but it was certainly worth the quick peak.

{Author’s note: my editor is sick with some bubonic plague. I decided it was more important to stick with my posting schedule than to wait for his revival. With that in mind, please excuse any horrible typos or grammatical errors. Hopefully he’ll be back on his feet soon!}

Chocolate y Churros

America’s got doughnuts, Spain’s got churros, and unless you could leave this earth without ever tasting a doughnut, I promise you that you don’t want to miss these. If you’re unfamiliar with the churro, it is a doughnut-like pastry very popular in Spain. The churro can be six to twelve inches long, and generally about an inch around with grooves and sometimes sprinkled with powdered sugar. Across Spain, churros are served with a thick hot chocolate.

You will see chocolate y churros offered throughout the country, but for a real bonafide, authentic experience i recommend going to Madrid’s Chocolateria San Gines. It’s located in central Madrid (technically Old Madrid, i believe), in an alley close to San Ginés church, What makes this one so special? For one, this semi hidden chocloateria has been open since the 1890s, making it one of the oldest. It is also open 24/7, but most frequented around 6:00 a.m. when club goers are coming home from the bars, and looking for something to help get them the rest of the way home.

Chocolateria San Gines: *the* place for churros y chocolate in Madrind
Chocolateria San Gines: *the* place for churros y chocolate in Madrind

If you can, grab a seat outside for some people watching while you enjoy your treat. The inside also has a great vibe: lots of white and black tile, old wooden tables and people in various states of sugar shock. The service is brisk, at times brusque and efficient. 

It’s not an all-day excursion, rather a leisurely and tasty break from a day of sight seeing. As for what it tastes like, be forewarned that these are not as light and airy as they look. 

The chocolate is not as sweet as American chocolate but also not as bitter as European chocolate can be. It’s always in liquid form and combined with the deep-fried churros, which have a slight crunch (perfect to hold up to the chocolate dipping) it’s an insane treat. 

In a word: decadent.
In a word: decadent.

You can avoid the guilt from this snack by walking your butt off, or dancing at the clubs, or just not worry about it because you’re in Spain (we went for one and three). Alternatively, you can share one order. The portions aren’t huge but it is a ton of sugar for one person.

This is the churros to try first, and the one to measure all other churros by.

Satiating Your Sweet Tooth

Thanks to our Tapas and Taverns tour with James, we were tipped off about the Monasterio de Corpus Cristi in Madrid. These are cloistered nuns who have no contact with the outside world. One of the ways they support themselves is by selling various types of cookies…almond, lemon, etc.

In truth, there are probably hundreds of nuns in cloisters all over Spain, and most, I’m guessing, make sweets of some sort or other. We “discovered” another cloister in Seville that sold wonderful orange marmalades. But I digress. I’m sure you can find the Madrid cloister in guidebooks but i missed that page. Which was almost too bad because it was a really fun thing to do.

Different internet pages say the nuns have been cloistered since the 17th century, some give the date of since 1605. (Note: that is not fact checked, but i’m confident they have been cloistered for a long time). As I mentioned, in order to support themselves the nuns make sweets for locals and tourists.

Before i get into the sweets bit, it is worth noting that a cloistered nun has taken a vow to give her life to God. However, the decision to actually become a cloistered nun is one i don’t think most of us truly appreciate. Cloistered nuns live a life without television, radio, or their family. Their life is also organized strictly by bells and prayer. For different perspectives, i found this article and this blog post interesting.

Okay, back to the treats. To get to the cloistered nuns, head to Plaza Conde de Miranda in Old Madrid. You are looking for this large brown wooden door (which i believe is number three). Press the top bell and state your business: “galleta’s por favor/cookies please.”

Door to the cloistered nuns.
Door to the cloistered nuns.

You will be let in and trusted to follow the signs, but for the record it’s a short walk straight back, to a small open courtyard, turn left, down and around a corridor.

 

Cookies are just a little bit further off.
Cookies are just a little bit further off.

 

Less than a minute of walking and you will come to a small hallway with this lazy susan built into the wall. To the right is the day’s selection of treats.

The lazy susan, before placing your order.
The lazy susan, before placing your order.

After you’ve made your decision, announce yourself to the nun on the other side with a simple “hola/hello.” 

She will acknowledge you and turn the lazy susan until cookies appear. Select the kind you want, leave your money and turn the lazy susan back.

Cookies in exchange for money.
Cookies in exchange for money.

Personally, i’ve never experienced anything like this. The entire transaction is entirely in Spanish and you will never see the nun. It’s awkward, frustrating and fun all at the same time.

Shortbread cookies!
Shortbread cookies!

When we were there, they were open from about 10:00 a.m. until 1:00, and then re-opened from about 4:00 until 8:00. Times may change, as many places seem to have summer/winter hours. The cookies, by the way, are not inexpensive. I think we paid 10 euro for a bag of cookies. But then again, we didn’t just buy cookies, we helped nuns, had a mini adventure, and I got a short blog out of it. Plus, those cookies tasted pretty heavenly.

(Note: if you’d like more specific directions to Plaza Conde, message me.)