Growing up, I’ve always been curious about Tanzanian culture. My parents grew up there, before moving to the UK, and many of my relatives still live there now. I knew Tanzanian cuisine was rich in diversity, but were there any undertones of plant-based diets? Do vegan restaurants even exist in Tanzania? Is it even part of the vernacular?
That food diversity stems from different cultural influences. You can find more than 120 ethnic groups in Tanzania, as well as people from European, Asian and Indian origins. With such a large Indian community in Tanzania, which prominently eats vegetarian food, being vegan is not difficult — it’s instead all about being adventurous. It may sound surprising, but there are several who have led the lifestyle and adapted to what the locals provide. There are a lot of hidden gems, especially in the city of Dar es Salaam.
Amongst the rich culture in Tanzania, the country offers a variety of eating options, from traditional cuisines to Western and European restaurants. The food culture takes advantage of the local produce to create hearty, flavourful dishes.
Tanzanian cuisine is mainly meat-based, and this is due to locals preferring a staple meal. There is a tendency to focus on having a big meal once a day, the meat keeping them full for a long period of time. A traditional dish starts off with a massive portion of starch which is normally ugali (local polenta or rice).
The meat-based dishes are either beef, chicken or fish. In the local language, Swahili, this could either be mshikaki ya (skewered meat), kuku (chicken), nyama (meat), ndizi na nyama (bananas and meat), samaki wa nazi (fish and coconut), and pilau ya kuku (rice pilaf and chicken).
Chandni Asher, a vegetarian living in Dar es Salaam, explains that it is more convenient to have a meat-based diet for affordability as well. She says: “A platter with staple food, say ugali, maharage (beans), kuku, mchuzi (sauce) and a fruit will be charged at [the equivalent of] £1, which in the UK would not matter, but makes it a big deal in Tanzania.” She adds that Tanzanian locals are mainly labourers and need strength throughout the day, therefore preferring a diet that consists of a combination of meat and dairy produce.
However, Asher explains that traditional meals can easily be made vegan. Although meat is the staple, it is accompanied by strength-providing sides such as spinach, beans and lentils, and so the meat can easily be substituted.
Asher runs an Instagram page to showcase mainly vegetarian hotspots in Tanzania. Additionally, she shares simple homemade recipes (vegetarian and vegan) and food facts to educate people on healthy living and having a balanced diet, focusing on her target audience of locals but also those who want to visit Dar es Salaam and Tanzania in general.
Most Tanzanian dishes include ingredients like coconut, plantains, bananas, beans, rice and maize – all very vegan-friendly ingredients and thus the majority of Tanzanians do inadvertently consume vegan meals. For example, a common lunch or dinner will consist of beans, some greens, and ugali or rice.
In Tanzania, the knowledge of veganism is not as it is in first-world countries, and a huge number of the population may not be aware of the plant-based lifestyle. However, due to the increasing global awareness about veganism as well as the diversity of people in Tanzania, vegan options are served in certain restaurants and available to purchase in supermarkets. But considering the income levels of Tanzanians, affordability may be a reoccurring issue.