The History Of Spice In East Africa

written by Nduati Githae 29th December 2017

Nduati Githae takes us on a journey that sees the Bantu settlers of East Africa radically change their eating habits over the course of half a millennia.

Just after 500 BC, a company of bedraggled Bantus from the Congo happened upon East Africa’s coast. At the time, food was more a necessary evil than a magical journey through gastronomic wonderlands. Bantu diet consisted mainly of bananas, plantains, sweet potatoes, millet, wild vegetables, berries and arrowroot, prepared with all the imagination of a municipal by-law on drainage – boiled to the taste equivalent of the colour white and the consistency of old, lumpy toothpaste. This blasé attitude towards food, however, was about to be turned on its head.

Spice has run the world nearly as long as money has and historically, the Far East is where it came from. Before the first century, the Kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia and the Indians pretty much owned the Red Sea spice route that ran from as far afield as Japan, along India’s coast, along Arabia’s coast and into East Africa.

Around 500 AD, the Arabs had taken over this spice route and were instrumental in establishing the East African coast as an important trading region. Along with their spices, traded for gold, ivory, slaves and timber, they brought with them their culinary influences.

Pilaf – a savoury rice and meat dish made with a battalion of spices that are cooked whole to create an intensely flavoured broth, and that unexpectedly explode in your mouth made its way here and morphed into pilau. Cloves, saffron, black peppers, cardamom and cumin blend seamlessly creating a heady, intoxicating aroma that is instantly recognisable as quintessential Swahili.

Centuries later, the Arabs ditched their old, fun gods and introduced their new one along with some new ideas into the nascent Swahili culture. New spices were introduced and some things declared haram. Indian merchants also began to arrive and another East African coastal staple, curry, made landfall. But it wasn’t the only Indian food to be appropriated.

Chapati, a kind of fried unleavened bread, originally made with atta, a type of whole wheat flour, is another fan favourite. Atta has since been replaced by regular wheat flour. From Sofala to Mogadishu, a raft of prosperous cities sprang up. Kilwa in Tanzania, Stone Town in Zanzibar, Mombasa and Malindi emerged as the big, important trading ports. But as they grew, so did their squabbling. Soon, it was every Sultan for himself.

In 1499, the Portuguese, cruising past on their way to India took one look at the ivory, stacked high, bustling trade going on, the squat dhows, heavy with booty and promptly put their India plans on hold. Vasco Da Gama, with gold bars in his eyes, convinced the King to give him more ships and returned with 19 ships. He dominated the bickering East Africans, and, having proceeded to Calicut, India, broke the hold the Arabs had on the spice trade. He brought with him maize (by way of their newfound territories in Brazil), lemons, lime, cassava, chillies and pineapples.

In the 1900s, Europe descended on Africa. Millet and Sorghum were still the default starches for the masses until World War 1 when a mysterious disease swept through the region decimating harvests and leading to famine. Maize, which had slowly been inching its way inland got the foothold it needed. Additionally, labourers in the White Highlands were paid in bags of maize who in turn transported it to their rural homes which then gradually replaced the more traditional grains.

Thus, in the early 20th century, ugali replaced pounded millet and sorghum in the family kitchen and became a “traditional” food that is consumed in frightening quantities with vein-popping concentration and a selection of legit traditional vegetables.

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