Posted on March 18th, 2013
With dusk comes the feeling that this place is magic. A silent hum builds in the concrete walkways and swaths of lawn, vibrating up the legs of unsuspecting tourists. A man shows up with a folding table, then another with a large wheeled cooler; it’s beginning. Spotting the park intermittently at first, then in regular city blocks (which the narrow and winding streets of Old Stone Town are not), food vendors set up for the Night Market. People of every shade gather at the edges, gravitating towards the square as the sun sinks lower over the ocean, the small dhows anchored in the bay made sharply dark against the shimmering heat of the Indian Ocean. The light pulls back from the heavy stone walls of the Old Fort and the many balconies of the former Sultan’s palace, retiring the island’s long and fraught history for the spill of Taarab music and clatter of dishes from restaurants and bars lining the coastal gardens. Vendors shake out their blue and white striped tablecloths, light their charcoal fires, and don white jackets and tall white hats like so many French chefs. Swirls of Kiswahili, Arabic, Hindi, French, and English waft through the smoky glow of the propane torches. Families stake out their favorite benches, tourists wander with undisguised delight, and true to local habit, everything is “pole-pole” – slow, easy. Everything is romance and mystery.
Half of the tables are piled high with whatever came off the dhows that morning. Kabobs of every imaginable sort are stacked neatly along the front, huge prawns and chunks of various types of fish skewered and organized in colorful stripes, rubbed with each vendor’s special spice mixtures in a fragrant wall of fiery pepper, bronze cumin, and turmeric so yellow it could be ground gold. Behind them are piles of filleted fish, crabs and lobsters stacked neatly on top of each other, small whole squids, and heaps of octopus tentacles that curl back on themselves in saucer sized spirals, suction cups out like the crimping on a pie. To the side are heaps of breadfruit, a tumble of samosas, and a neat pyramid of twist-shaped rolls. The vendors compete with charm, not price, calling out to passersby with phrases that pull from the many languages of the island; “Hujambo, Mama! Karibu, karibu. It’s very good.” They load plates following a pointed finger, heat everything on one of the myriad charcoal grills that cluster in the center of the table blocks, and deliver the steaming pile in exchange for a five thousand shilling note and a round of “asanti sanas”.
The other half of the tables are draped in large banners announcing, “Zanzibar Pizza, sweet banana and chocolate, Welcome to Enjoy, PIZZA,” in several fonts and colors. These tables are flanked by charcoal fires in steel drums on which sit large, smooth, slightly concave circles of metal. Here, tireless chefs roll out thin circles of dough, paint on Nutella out of gallon plastic jars, layer on thin slices of banana, top with another circle of dough, and slip the sweet pizza onto the improvised griddle to fry a deep golden brown. The lines are long; no meal is complete without a Zanzibar Pizza – be it appetizer, dessert, or both.
Around the edges of the Night Market you can find drink vendors selling bottled water and soda, but most people opt for freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. Loaded with canes several feet in length, these bright blue carts are operated only by the most athletic vendors. They peel the stalks with small machetes and feed them through tin can rollers operated by a large hand crank, folding and re-pressing as the sugar cane breaks down. Juice runs down the machinery into a tub that begins the night holding a large block of ice which shrinks down to fist sized chunks over the course of hours, small streams of cane juice digging rivulets across its surface as the liquid is chilled. Lime halves and chunks of fresh ginger, tucked into the fibrous stalk folds, brighten and balance the sweetness of the juice. A handled, glass mug – incongruous away from dark bars and cold beer – sits under the tub drain. The drinker is delivered a glass, opaque and pale green, topped with a thin layer of agitated foam, and saved from elegance only by the ever-present plastic straw. Since mugs are drunk from standing or sitting nearby, then returned to be rinsed and reused countless times in a night, putting lips to glass is frowned upon.
In a way this juxtaposition of glass and plastic, chef hats and paper plates, the stones of the Old Fort and the luxury yachts in the bay, white and black and brown and tan and the dancing blue of the ocean before it is rusted red and gold by the sunset: this contrast defines Zanzibar. Among its old and its new; its many religions, cultures, and peoples; its slave and spice trade turned tourism; its buying and selling, eating and drinking, talking and singing, living and loving; Zanzibar just is.
The Night Market will be starting in a few hours, halfway across the world. If you’re there, get a Zanzibar Pizza for me, will you? Welcome to enjoy.