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the menu at the sultan's palace in Zanzibar

Dinner in Zanzibar

Emily Ruete

some details about the eating arrangements

Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar by Emily Ruete (born Sayyida, Princess of Zanzibar) is the only autobiography by a Zanzibari princess of the 19th century. The author was born in Zanzibar in the mid-1800s. Long ruled by Omani Arabs, Zanzibar had achieved hegemony on the coast of Eastern Africa and had grown rich on the harvest of slaves and ivory from the continent and spices (especially cloves) from Zanzibar island itself. Sayyida eloped with a German and had to leave Zanzibar. She moved to Germany where she was eventually widowed and alone. She wrote this book for her children, to provide them a record of her history. In it she describes life in the Zanzibar royal palace and plantations: traditions, customs, palace intrigues and overthrows, the harem, slaves, festivals, manners, the status of women, and so forth. In this excerpt she describes food:

Now came the second and last meal of the day, at which the family would assemble. Upon its termination, the eunuchs would carry European chairs out upon the broad veranda, but only for the adults; the small people stood up as a mark of respect for age, which is held in greater reverence there than anywhere else. The family gathered about the Sultan, while a row of smart, well-armed eunuchs lined the background. Coffee was passed round, as well as beverages prepared from the essence of French fruits. The conversation was accompanied by a stupendous barrel organ, the biggest I ever saw; by way of change one of the large music boxes would be set going, or a blind Arabian girl named Amra, who was gifted a lovely voice, would be ordered to sing.

In about an hour and a half the family separated, each following his or her own devices. Chewing betel was a favourite pastime. It is a Suahili habit, so that the Arabs of Arabia Proper find no pleasure therein; but those of us born on the east coast of Africa, and brought up among Negroes and mulattoes, took to the habit quite readily, in spite of derision from our Asiatic relatives. We chewed betel surreptitiously, however, while absent from the Sultan, who had forbidden the practice.

With the aid of miscellaneous diversions the brief space slipped by till sundown, announced by musketry fire and drumming on the part of the Indian guard. This also constituted a signal for prayer. But the fourth observance was the most hurried of the day, since everybody not intending to pay visits would be expecting guests at home--sisters, stepmothers, stepchildren, secondary wives. For entertainment there was coffee and lemonade, cakes and fruit, jesting and laughing, reading aloud, playing cards (but not for money or any other stake), singing, listening to the sese being played upon by a Negro, sewing, stitching, lace-making--just as one felt inclined.

. . .

Returning to the culinary department, I must give some details about the eating arrangements in my father's palace at Zanzibar. We had no special dining room, but took our meals on the veranda. There the eunuchs spread along sefra with all the food for the whole repast. A sefra somewhat resembles a billiard table in shape; it is only a few inches high, however, and around the top runs a wide ledge. Although we possessed a lot of European furniture--lounges, tables, chairs, and even a few wardrobes--we nevertheless sat down to eat in true Oriental fashion, upon carpets or mats next to the floor. Precedence by rank was strictly observed, the Sultan taking the head; near him were the senior children, the little ones (those over seven) coming at the end.

We had numerous dishes, often as many as fifteen. Rice formed a staple at each meal, and various preparations of it were in vogue. In the way of meat, mutton and chicken were preferred. We also ate fish, oriental breads and sundry pastry and sweetmeats. Contrary to the German system, all the food was placed on the table before anybody sat down. This obviated the need of service, and the eunuchs would step back, lining up at a little distance, ready to answer commands. Frequently the Sultan would send one of them, with a particularly savoury morsel, to a child not old enough to eat at the table, or perhaps to an invalid. I remember the special corner at Bet il Mtoni where I used to receive the platefuls he consigned to me. We mites got the same food as the grown-up people, but of course it was a privilege to have it selected by our father, who himself derived great pleasure from this.

Upon sitting down, everyone said grace in a low but distinct tone: "In the name of Allah the all merciful." After eating the formula was: "Thanks be to the Lord of the Universe." Our father was always first to take his seat, and first to rise. One plate to each individual was not the custom, all the dishes (except the rice) being served in a number of little plates standing symmetrically along the sefra, so that a couple would eat from the same plate. There was no drinking simultaneous with the eating, but afterward sherbet or sugared water was obtainable. Nor was conversation usual, excepting when the Sultan spoke to someone; the rest of the time silence prevailed--a good thing, too. Fruit or flowers were never to be seen on the sefra. A few minutes before and after the meal slaves offered basins and towels, in order that one might wash one's hands. We chiefly used our fingers when we ate solids, which came upon the table cut up into small pieces. For spoons we had employment, but knives and forks were not brought out unless to honour European guests. Persons of refinement scented their hands, besides washing them, to drive away the odour of food.

. . .

Our second and last general meal was at four in the afternoon, and since it corresponded exactly to the first I shall not describe it. We indulged in nothing else but light refreshments, such as pastry, fruit, or lemonade.

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