While affordability and accessibility are major obstacles, Tanzania’s traditional cuisine can easily be moulded into vegan culture.
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, she says: “Vegan options are served in certain restaurants and available to purchase in supermarkets.”
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.
Patrizia Ponti is a vegan body confidence coach as well as the account and marketing manager for two hotels in Tanzania. Born in Italy, raised in Tanzania, her mother is half-Indian and half-Tanzanian, and her father is Italian. For her, Tanzania is where she calls home.
Having lived and worked in Dar es Salaam for seven years, Ponti got a feel of what it is like being a vegan in Tanzania. She says: “It was hard because I didn’t know anyone around me that was vegan at the time. Social media wasn’t as popular back then and my family is very traditional.”
“Being a vegan in Tanzania, I felt alone. I didn’t know where I could eat, where I could find products, and whether or not there was a community of vegans in Dar es Salaam.”
However, she learned to really take advantage of all the great produce Tanzania has to offer. Nevertheless, plant-based staples such as seitan, mock foods and vegan cheese are not always available or are extremely pricey. “Cow’s milk will go for about 4,000 Tanzanian Shillings (£1.34), and almond milk can be up to 38,000 (£12.69).”
She has noticed an increase in vegan products in stores, but they do come at a questionable price, so buying plant-based milk or tofu is seen as a treat rather than being a necessity in your groceries. Regarding accessibility for fresh products, there are many stalls and markets, locally called duka la mbonga, where many vegans buy products.
Ponti says: “I like the fact that veganism in Dar is still in its purest form. In the sense that you can be vegan but in a healthy way.” Veganism in Tanzania can be intuitive, as traditional foods can easily be made vegan, which is also extremely economical. Unlike vegan-centric countries, the shelves aren’t full of plant-based junk food alternatives and there aren’t a lot of fast-food chains where you can grab unhealthy food that is still vegan.
Like Asher, Ponti loves cooking vegan cuisine at home and shares recipes and restaurants on her Facebook page for local vegans, but also allows them to post in Swahili to help the growing vegan community. She says: “I know exactly what’s going in my meal, and that’s important to know in Dar, since you can never be 100% sure what goes on in the restaurant kitchens due to the lack of knowledge of the word ‘vegan’.” She even has little cards with ingredients that she cannot eat to give to waiters when eating out in Dar es Salaam.
Ponti points out that there are no restaurants that are completely vegan in Dar es Salaam. However, Kind Earth Eatery is one that focuses on solely vegan and vegetarian food.
I spoke to Velisa Delfosse-Ingleton, who works at Kind Earth Eatery. Eleven years ago, she opened Velisa’s,Tanzania’s first restaurant serving Jamaican cuisine. The Rastafarian community in Jamaica, which is largely vegan and vegetarian, has a major influence on Jamaican food culture. So naturally, when Delfosse-Ingleton opened up that aspect of Jamaican cuisine in Tanzania, many vegan options were available.
“Having embraced a vegetarian way of life for over forty years, our end game was to open a full gourmet vegan raw vegetarian restaurant with our original recipes.” Delfosse-Ingleton tells me. Kind Earth Eatery was opened in March 2016, and she explains that she has not found it difficult to obtain ingredients for vegan cuisine, arguing that it is not difficult to be a vegan in Tanzania. “90% of Kind Earth’s customers are meat-eaters, not remotely vegan or vegetarians, which is a very encouraging fact.”
Kantama Aloyce Jacob is the founder and head chef of That Place Restaurant, located in Dar es Salaam’s Kiwalani neighbourhood. The eatery is rather new, having been open for three months, and offers several vegan options. “We make it simple, affordable, fresh and with a pinch of passion and love for food and people,” he says.
In his restaurant, he provides a vegan main dish (vegetable curry and mseto, a mix of legumes and rice), but can also combine a few side dishes or snacks with some sauces to make a full meal. That can include fried rice, stir-fried vegetables, different fresh salads, spring rolls, bruschetti and Kiwalani-style sandwiches. Additionally, when offering food to vegans, Jacob adds: “We are not strict and cook just based on our menu. We will ask you what you would like to eat and what your food preferences are, and then we will create something for you.”
Regardless, he adds: “If you want to be vegan in Tanzania, I recommend you invest time in learning how to cook for yourself. In the end, I strongly believe this is the healthiest option for you and for the planet.”
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.
Ponti, as a vegan body confidence coach, also explains there is a growing rate of diagnoses for Tanzanians with obesity, diabetes, cholesterol and cancer that are not genetic and can be controlled by what they eat.“There is definitely a lack of knowledge, and without knowledge, people lack the power to make the right choice.”