A sure sign we must be nearing the coast is when I step off the bus in Mbeya and see a group of men standing over a table eating and talking animatedly. It’s dark by now and just one bright bulb suspended from a broom stick lights up a rickety wooden table, which on closer inspection is groaning with grilled octopus. The men crowded around stab little cocktail sticks into the meat before popping it into their mouths, others slurp what looks to be an octopus soup from brightly coloured bowls. I can’t believe my eyes – fresh octopus being served as a street snack at 20p a pop! I’m tired and grumpy after an unnecessarily long day of bus travel so the site of the octopus stand shines out like a beacon on an otherwise frustrating day. Dropping my bags, I head for the crowd, point at one of the bowls of soup one man is drinking and tell the stall owner ‘I want one of those’ Seconds later I am amongst the bustle, squeezing limes, spooning in homemade salsa and taking pinches of salt to add to my little bowl of heaven, all frustrations of the day forgotten about with the first mouthful.
To my delight, octopus soup turns out to be a common street food option on the coast and as I travel up through various towns – Mtwara, Mikindani, Lindi, Kilwa Masoko, Nyamasati, Mafia Island, Dar es Salaam – I come to expect the sight of octopus soup being sold in bus stations or at night markets. Like an addict I hungrily search it out, looking for my next hit.
It doesn’t end there though, street food has become technicolour since we have reached the Swahili coast. Arabic, Indian and African influences combine to create food that seems to have been cooked for pleasure, rather than just sustenance. The famous African chai has become spicier with more cinnamon, cardamom and ginger. Little kashata (like a peanut brittle) are served up alongside a small cup of espresso, a vast improvement on the instant coffee I’d been having up until now. Creamy curries that use an endless supply of fresh coconut and masala spices are now available; and fried fish ranging from the anchovy sized ‘daaga daaga’ to larger white snapper are neatly stacked up in piles for people to buy, eating them alone or shoving inside a fresh bun with more salsa for a Swahili style fish finger sandwich.
The reason for all this flavour and variety is due to the trading that has been happening between the coastal communities on the east coast of Africa and the rest of the world. Arabs first established trade routes even before the beginning of Islam in the 8th century and over the following centuries Chinese, Arabs and Indians all came to exchange spices, timber, sisal, slaves and other goods. These trading communities on the coast arguably had more in common with the people in Persia and Arabia, than Central African countries. For centuries trading made the communities along the coast of Tanzania rich and culturally diverse as Indians, Arabs, Chinese and in later years Portuguese, German and British came for business, often ending up settling. Swahili, translated from Arabic to mean ‘people of the coast’ can be defined as a coming together of Arabic, African and Indian cultures, and the signs of each culture are all around.
Octopus soup is apparently good for virility (which may give some explanation to why hoards of men crowd the stands) and insanely simple to make. When I asked someone if they could show me how it’s made, I thought they were missing out a large part of the recipe as I couldn’t believe it had so few ingredients. Because of its simplicity, the key to the deliciousness is down to the octopus being fresher than fresh. If you can’t get hold of a fresh one, don’t try this recipe. The recipe below is from chef Abu at Afro Beach Bungalows, if you would like a more complex version with tomatoes and coconut then check out Two Oregonians blog for another authentic Swahili recipe.
Recipe for Octopus Soup
Serves 2 – 4 (depending on your sex life)
2 – 4 Limes
Prepare the octopus by removing the head and thoroughly washing it to remove grit and any impurities
Place the while octopus in a medium saucepan and add the juice of one lemon and a splash of water. Place the lid on the saucepan and leave the octopus to cook on a low heat, during which time water will come out of the octopus.
After 15 minutes add enough water to cover the octopus and continue to cook for a further 15 – 30 minutes, depending on the size of the octopus. Add salt if necessary
Once the octopus is cooked through, remove from the heat and prepare it by cutting the meat into bite sized chunks. Place back into the broth and serve along with fresh tomato salsa, wedges of lime, slices of chilli and some salt. Enjoy!