Taste of Zanzibar is a humble and tiny mom-n-popper, but it offers some of the best values on interesting food around.
Cinnamon, cloves and cardamom are some of the tastes of Zanzibar. Located in the Indian Ocean, the East African islands of Zanzibar are part of the famously exotic Spice Islands. For centuries, traders from India, Europe and the Middle East chased after the highly prized, food-improving spices found along routes that passed through and to Zanzibar.
Closer to home, on an unlovely commercial strip within shouting distance of Easton is Taste of Zanzibar, the restaurant. It's a humble and tiny mom-n-popper, but it offers some of the best values on interesting food around.
Inside, there's not much to look at. Done up in Steelers yellow with black trim, it has a couple of tables covered in ultra-thin, peach-colored plastic. Otherwise, ambience-wise, there's little else besides a unique glassed-in kitchen area. This makes Taste of Zanzibar an excellent takeout option.
Zanzibar's little menu contains a few items that'll look familiar to fans of Indian eateries -biryani, sambusas (samosas) and pilau (pulau). But many of its dishes have less recognizable titles like Mshkaki, Ndizi Mbichi, Katlesi and so on.
In general, all of those aforementioned spices - especially cardamom - find their way into much of Zanzibar's cuisine. Also prevalent are long-cooked onions, tomato sauce and coconut milk. This results in provocatively aromatic food that's both intriguing yet highly approachable.
A great starter, and the best $1.75 you'll spend this week is that Katlesi. With a menu description that doesn't capture its captivating allure, it's a mass of canned tuna and potatoes punched up with cumin, onion and tiny bits of jalapeno fried into a sort of croquette. Believe me, it's much better than it sounds.
Listed as a side dish, the Zanzirosti ($4) was more like a smallish main course. It was a bowl of delicious chicken chunks immersed in a smooth-eating tomato, onion and coconut milk sauce. This was best enjoyed with Zanzibar's delicate, buttery, thin and flaky chapati bread (about a dozen triangles for $2).
Another outrageous deal was the Mshkaki ($4). A huge skewer of large beef chunks, onions and green peppers had a mild marinade and a deep, crusty sear. Though kind of chewy, the meat - served with a perky sort of salsa - delivered a lot of great, homey flavor.
On the "big ticket" side was the wonderful Samaki Kukaanga ($13). A Moby-Dick-sized whole tilapia was expertly deep fried and slathered with a tomato sauce enhanced by diced sweet onions and coconut milk. I loved the tilapia's ungreasy, crackly, dark-brown, fried chicken-like exterior and the way the thickish sauce elevated the fish's tender meat.
Also highly recommended is that Ndizi Mbichi ($9), a weekend-only special. Confusingly called a "banana gratin" on the menu, it's a huge serving of coconut milky, mildly spicy and thoroughly addictive stew made with chopped plantains and super-tender beef cubes.
Zanzibar's generously sized side dishes include mild pinto beans (Maharage) and killer spinach (Mchicha), both with coconut milk and both $3.50. These go great with a rice dish like Pilau ($9).
Frustratingly, sometimes menu items weren't available and the credit card machine was down. But a comforting dessert like the sweetly restrained, cardamom-scented Maandazi (a puffy, dense cross between doughnuts and Parker House rolls, three go for $2.50) eaten with unsweetened cardamom-y Chai tea (just as instructed by the delightful server, a proud ambassador to Zanzibar) quickly melted away those little frustrations.