Coffee, Java, Black Gold, Kahawa in Swahili, whatever you call it, my days start with two things: coffee and a trip to the gym. Take away the second and I’m grumpy. Take away the first and I am not fit for human company. It’s gotten to the point where I travel with a stash of acceptable coffee in case I’m someplace (gasp!) that does not serve coffee. (There is a certain irony to this. While I survive on coffee, I cannot actually make my own cup of coffee. Seriously, but that’s another story for another day). Thankfully this wasn’t an issue in Tanzania.
Following bananas, coffee is Tanzania’s second biggest cash crop, and it’s readily available. Granted, you won’t find Starbucks at every corner but coffee is at all hotels and restaurants. Curiously, coffee at the hotels is instant. Outside of coffee at hotels, there are coffee shops or cafe’s, such as Union Cafe, popping up for residents, ex-Pats and travelers.
But there’s more to Union Cafe than welcoming travelers and locals. It’s part of the Kilimanjaro Native Co-Operative Union. This is Africa’s oldest co-op and represents more than 60,000 farmers around Kilimanjaro.
The co-op’s main focus is helping more than 800 farmers secure a fair price, of 2500/Tsch per kg, for their coffee beans at auction. Before picking season, the co-op offers workshops to help farmers provide the best quality beans. It’s these beans that generate the best price. And the best price can be traced back to how someone picks, washes and dry’s their coffee beans.
For curious coffee drinkers, you can visit part of the co-op called Kahawa Shamba, for a tour. A visit lasts about 90 minutes. During the time you will learn boatloads about coffee: how it’s harvested, how to pick the beans, how to wash them, how to roast and grind them, and how to brew a cup of coffee. Following the tour, guests are treated to a traditional Tanzania lunch.
If you liked the coffee, I highly recommend buying a bag of beans. They are fantastic and the coffee makes a thoughtful gift. You can purchase these at the co-op or Union Cafe. And, here’s some expert advice from Epicurious about how to store your coffee so it stays fresh long after you are home.
Riding the bus in Tanzania was one of my favorite experiences. If that sounds strange, trust me, I know. It’s not as though buses are unique to Tanzania. And, living in a large urban area in the US, I am no stranger to public transportation.
I really cannot pinpoint why this experience was so much fun. Maybe it’s because at home buses confuse me. Conceptually, I know you go to the bus stop and look at the schedule for your particular line or route. But, I can never get my head around the cross-town versus up-town versus out-of-town and inevitably end up on the wrong bus. Laugh it up, I do. Perhaps my Tanzanian bus rides were so memorable because I got to conquer this strange bus phobia that I have developed since living in Manhattan.
Our guide showed up to take us to BBQ, declaring we would take the bus because “you must experience it.” So, three tourists walked down the street with our Kili guide, Israel. And we waited. To pass the time peppered Israel with questions:
How do you know when the bus will come?
How much does it cost?
How long do you wait?
What if the bus is crowded?
Why don’t you take a taxi?
This is another reason why Israel should be sainted. These are the silliest questions. If he had just met us, they probably would border on stupid. Or even offensive. But when you’ve spent six days camping (and in my case also having massive altitude sickness), you get to know people really well. He answered every single question, sometimes laughing at us, but answered them never-the-less.
Back to the bus. In Tanzania, buses are not the large motor coach style you see in the US or Europe. They are smaller, almost van like vehicles. If you are picturing a 70’s style Volkswagen bus you are on the right track. I’m sure there is a route but it’s not posted on a sign anywhere. Israel just brought us to the street and declared, “we wait here for the bus.”
Each bus has the equivalent of a ticket-taker who sticks their head out the window, scouting for passengers. Remember, there are not “official” stops. This person has eagle eyes for people waving down the next ride. Once passengers are spotted, they jump out, open the door and collect your fare. Sometimes, if there are lots of passengers, the ticket-taker will hustle everyone on the bus and collect the money inside. You can get a sense for this entire exchange with this video.
The first bus zipped right by, it was so packed they couldn’t fit any more standing passengers. But the second bus had our number. Albeit, a number for standing room only. And yet, packed in like sardines, the Yooner and I giggled like we were in kindergarten as we zipped through Moshi toward our BBQ date.
If you are uber-adventurous a bus ride through Tanzania is probably up your alley. For the rest of us, I probably wouldn’t recommend it. A lot of first impressions are (e.g., staring, chakachua) are prominent on the bus. One could easily wind up in parts unknown with no way home. The exception of course is if you have an amazing guide who is willing to share this experience. It’s not a magic bus in the literal sense or in reference to the song. But, its always magical experience to do something out of your normal routine.
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.