Food in Tanzania is simple, yet tasty. Dishes consist mainly of carbohydrates and lots of starches (think rice, spaghetti, potatoes, savory bananas, and breads), with the occasional meats and veggies on the side. Spices aren’t as prominent as I had imagined in East Africa, and almost no food is prepared to be spicy–though pili-pili sauce (chili) is readily available as a condiment. Fresh fruits and veggies abound on every street corner, with large outdoor markets remaining very much a part of the culture. Best of all, local dishes are incredibly affordable, with many meals costing only $1-$2 USD for a heaping portion.
The national dish of Tanzania is a corn flour mush known as ugali. It resembles mashed potatoes, though has the consistency of day-old play dough. Alone, it is nearly tasteless so it is often paired with sauce along with veggies, beans, or meat. Though most food in Tanzania is eaten with utensils, ugali is almost ALWAYS eaten with the hands, where mushing the corn flour into balls before dipping them in a gravy-like stew is common. Another local favorite is kuku (chicken) served with sautéed spinach, a thin tomato based sauce, and accompanied by fries, rice, ugali, or chapati (an Indian-like tortilla bread).
Wali maharage (rice with beans) is a popular staple among locals, usually served again with a side of sautéed spinach or cabbage. My personal favorite local dish is chips mayai, which is essentially a french fry omelette. Doused with ketchup and garlic chili sauce, chips mayai is good for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a late night snack.
For drinks, I’ve come to be prepared to drink chai (tea) several times a day. This may take the form of plain spiced chai, or chai maziwa (milky chai). Sugar is used liberally, and if the chai has been prepared for you, expect a full cup of sugar to have been added to the batch (I personally, have no issue with this!). Soda is the other common drink to have with meals, with Coca Cola, Sprite, and Fanta dominating the market. In smaller villages, sometimes people will sell homemade breads and juices directly out of their homes. I can’t attest to the sanitation of homemade juice, but from this method I have found the best ice-cold avocado/mango/passion juice mixture on the planet. Not to mention, the mama who I buy juice from reuses returned bottles–yay sustainability!
Food culture in Tanzania is also something worthy of mention. When eating with a local family, as I did during my 3 week Home-stay in the rural village of Bangata, I learned to expect to be served portions of overwhelming size. Being large is respected, as it shows you have wealth, so the locals did their best to fatten us up with a plethora of hearty foods. Although breakfast would simply consist of a several slices of bread and butter, lunch and dinner could be a mountain of rice with beans, banana stew, goat meat, and spinach. Even after you have managed to finish as much as you possibly think you can stomach, local mamas with make sure to refill your plate, just as high–if not higher–as before.
In contrast to western etiquette, it is polite to leave a small amount of food on your plate instead of licking it clean to show you are satisfied. An empty plate signifies that you are still hungry, and you can expect to be served another dollop of rice if you make this mistake. “Nimeshiba,” or “I am full” became a popular phrase I used, often needing to argue that I indeed really was!
I truly believe that food is one of the great doors open to you for experiencing a new culture. By trying new things and dining as the locals do, it has allowed me the opportunity to not only taste exotic ethnic cuisine, but also to make friends. After eating several times at the same local lunch spot, the cooks and servers came to recognize me. And, simply by eating at the non-touristy food spots, I often found myself in conversation with other locals–they get a chance to practice English, and I get to work on my Swahili. There is no rush in the Tanzanian food industry, and fast service is non-existent, but if you learn to embrace the slow pace and take your time to enjoy your meals and interact with others, you may realize that finding a meal can be an incredibly rewarding part of each day.