Zanzibar’s history in a spicy bowl.
From parking lots to parliament, porches to palaces, no one can deny Zanzibar’s obsession with urojo, that spicy “Zanzibar Mix” beloved by nearly everyone who lives on the semi-autonomous islands of Unguja and Pemba along the Indian Ocean coast. Inside every bowl of urojo lies a vibrant and vast history of cultural connection between Zanzibar and India.
India’s links to Zanzibar stretch back to the 16th century, when Hindu traders first set foot on the shores of the Swahili coast. By the mid-19th century, the sultans of Oman had secured Zanzibar as part of their empire and shifted their seat of power from Muscat to Stone Town, establishing Zanzibar as a bustling commercial hub. In an effort to secure a ruling Arab elite, Sayyid bin Sultan encouraged Indian traders to settle in Stone Town and reinforce the area as the premier center of trade in the region. Carried by monsoon trade winds, these early Indian families traveled across the Indian Ocean on boats full of their own cultural histories, languages and culinary traditions.
Over time, Stone Town’s streets filled with the sounds of Gujarati, Hindi, Arabic and Swahili, the lingua franca of trade in the region. Indian culinary delicacies became interchangeable with Zanzibari cuisine, and urojo is the ultimate expression of this cultural exchange: a mix of crispy bagia (deep-fried lentil balls), kachori (deep-fried spiced potato), boiled potato and fried cassava chips, slathered with a rich and tangy mango or tamarind broth, and topped off with a tart coconut-based chutney and pili-pili (spicy hot sauce).
Today, urojo simmers on nearly every Stone Town corner, and Zanzibaris of all ages line up morning, noon and night to indulge in its slurping satisfaction. The business is dominated by independent women who spend hours mixing, grinding, boiling and frying all the various components of the complex mix, many of which have evolved over time to include such delectable add-ons as boiled eggs, shredded cabbage and carrots, mishakaki (grilled beef), and kachambari (tomato and onion salad).
Today, asking anyone in Stone Town about their favorite urojo spot triggers wild debate, but Bi. Rihana’s urojo opposite St. Joseph’s Cathedral emerges as a unanimous winner. Tucked into a small shop with painted light blue walls, Bi. Rihana wakes up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to continue an elaborate 30-year-old urojo business passed down by her 85-year-old mother, Sheban. After washing and praying, Bi. Rihana starts preparing her bagia, kachori and potatoes by 7 and opens her doors by 9; once open, she finds customers squeezed together on worn wooden benches eagerly awaiting her fresh vegetarian urojo, served in humble plastic bowls of varying sizes (starting at US$1.50).
“We close when the urojo’s finished, and every day we sell out because our food is fresh and clean,” says Rihana, sitting barefoot on a short stool tending to the flames of a coal stove. While keeping a close, kind eye on street life unfolding beyond the open door, she boasts that she does her urojo differently, revealing secrets like adding crushed cashews or peanuts to her chutney, and not including meat or eggs in her mix.
Rihana, who never married and never had children, lives for her urojo business and enjoys chatting with loyal customers while holding court behind her tiny wooden cabinet of cooking supplies. “What do I want with men?” she asks with a twinkle in her eye. “Me, I’m satisfied to drive my own business and cook what I know everyone loves — it’s the ultimate Zanzibari food,” she explains. Bi. Rihana’s family is of Indian origin, but she insists on identifying as a Zanzibari, easily fluctuating between Gujarati and Swahili in a heartbeat, depending on the customer.
While Rihana competes with other Stone Town urojo recipes of Bi. Sughra, Alawi Ali Alawi, Bi. Kihindi, Al Adhnani, Bi. Tumai and Binti Delicious, locals swear by a secret spot hidden in the depths of Darajani Market known as “Kijiko Mtendeni.” Here, in a single room with worn, colorful walls, Zanzibari women and a few men pack together around pink plastic tablecloth-covered tables to indulge in hearty bowls of urojo and wash it down with juci ya muwa (sugar cane juice). Customers eagerly pass plastic bottles of bright orange homemade hot sauce to dash into their bowls.
Juma, the current owner of Kijiko Mtendeni, quickly grills juicy kebabs in the bustling back room behind a greasy case stacked with bagia, kachori, kutlassi and finely shaved fried cassava chips in plastic packets. Each bowl is a collaboration with an extended community of women who contribute to the ultimate urojo vision. “We grill the meat here and make the broth, but we order everything else from women in the area,” Juma explains about the 50-year-old operation. Juma says he orders at least 40,000 bagia and 20,000 kachori every day, opening in the morning around 8:30 and closing when they sell out.
While Juma says life is hard and they don’t make a huge profit, he says he’s happy to take on a business with a great reputation that draws regular fans daily to the humble, busy spot. Asha, a 24-year-old university finance student, admits she comes to Kijiko Mtendeni whenever possible and always chooses this spot, even though there are at least 10 others to choose from in the vicinity. Another urojo fan sitting next to Asha confesses, “I eat here everyday. If a Zanzibari ever said they didn’t like urojo, we’d laugh in their face!”
Alongside Zanzibar’s established urojo legends, the tradition is fueled by everyday hardworking locals who see urojo as an economic opportunity to get by in a struggling economy. They know that stirring the savory broths and frying the delicious bites with a dollop of chutney or hot sauce will satisfy the demands of Zanzibaris and tourists alike, who crave the famous mix as a daily celebration of the island’s eclectic mix of people and cultures. A single bowl fills the belly with its heady, fragrant mix of fried flavors and spices. Taking one bite of this spicy dish is like taking a bite out of history.