An array of different multi-coloured grains in sacks. These are in a market in Zanzibar and have different signs, most of which are prices (6000/5000 etc), but one says kunde za badia.
Spice markets in Zanzibar

Local Tanzanian Food Guide: The Best Tanzanian Food You Need To Try!

Table of Contents

Introduction

My husband and I have both lived in Tanzania and visited it many times. In our humble opinion, Tanzanian food is some of the best in the world, and it’s seriously underrated. From street food to entire meals, you will always be able to find something to enjoy. Tanzanian food, or Swahili food, is generally simple, but delicious, and actually very diverse.

Because Tanzania is an absolutely massive country, you will also find that the type of food you get varies from region to region. We’ll cover the best foods in each region we’ve visited, and what you can expect to find. Additionally, I have visited Tanzania as a vegan traveller many times, so we can give you a pretty comprehensive idea of the Tanzanian food you’ll be able to enjoy as a vegan or vegetarian traveller and, good news: there’s a lot of that too!

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The areas of the country we have visited are below:

Main meals

There are a few main meals that are always served as a standard combination, but in Tanzania, and most of East Africa, meals usually consist of a main and a side, which can be mixed and matched. It’s common for the main to be meat or fish, but restaurants don’t really bat an eyelid if you choose a vegetable protein instead.

It helps to know the Swahili names, as English isn’t commonly spoken everywhere – we have included them with pronunciation where it is not obvious.

So in terms of ‘the mains’, you have:

Kuku (pronounced like ‘cuckoo’)

This is chicken. This will be chicken wings or a leg usually, rather than breast meat. It is rare to get a very meaty piece of chicken, it does tend to be pretty bony, and does not usually come with any sauce. It’s often grilled or barbecued and can also be found as a Tanzanian street food too.

Nyama (un-yah-mah)

Nyama just means meat (it’s usually beef or goat). Tanzanian cooks don’t tend to remove bones or fat from meat in Tanzania, so you might find the style or texture is a little different from what you’re used to. Nyama is usually served in a meat sauce or soup with any of the side dishes below. Because the bones and fat are not removed prior to cook, it can be a little chewy, and gristly.

Ng’ombe (un-gom-bay)

This is meat also but specifically beef. It is served in a similar style to nyama, but more often will be barbecued.

A whole grilled fish cut into pieces and places on tin foil. You can see the whole fish head has been cooked, with the scales and eyes intact

Samaki (sah-mah-kee)

Samaki is fish. Depending on the region, it can be ocean fish, lake fish like Tilapia or river fish like Perch. Samaki is served whole, so this will usually be a full fish, with eyes, bones, brain and everything still in there! It’s usually grilled or barbecued. It’s also sometimes served in a stew but this is less common.

Maharage (Mah-hah-rag-eh)

Maharage are red beans. These are usually served in a thick soupy sauce with some vegetables sometimes like onions and carrots.

There are other ‘main’ elements to a dish too, including various other meats (like intestines and offal), but this covers the main bits you will probably try as a tourist.

Like we said, there are combinations that always go together too and these are mostly regional. This includes:

A table of food including cooked plantain, meat in sauce, chapati, naan bread and rice
Ndizi (bananas), chapati, naan, nyama and rice in Tanzania
Photo credit: @sociallywanderful

Ndizi (un-dee-zee) Nyama

Obviously you know nyama from the list above, ndizi means banana, and it actually refers to green banana, a type of plantain. This banana is usually served as part of savoury dishes in Tanzania. Ndizi nyama is a meat stew with green banana. It looks kind of gross and grey, but it’s actually really delicious! It’s really popular in the Singida and Dar Es Salaam regions of Tanzania.

Kiti moto (pronounced as it looks!)

Kiti moto is still kind of lesser known, except by locals. It’s basically pork, baked with a delicious vegetable sauce. The name actually means ‘hot chair’ and it’s a code name! Tanzania has a lot of Muslim inhabitants who, of course, don’t eat pork, but the dish is said to be so delicious that Muslims used to want to eat it. Instead of directly asking for pork as a dish, they used to ask for kiti moto so as not to make their request obvious to other Muslims.

It’s more popular in Dar Es Salaam area, but one of our favourite places to get kiti moto is in Seuri Bar in Arusha. It never disappoints!

Pilau

Pilau is a common dish in most of Africa and lots of South Asian countries but it’s pretty popular in Tanzania. It is normally served with meat in Tanzania, but some places will have it with vegetables.

Vegan Tanzanian Food and Vegetarian Options

Of course, a lot of that food seems pretty meat heavy, apart from the beans, but to reassure you, there are a lot of vegan and vegetarian options in Tanzania. The first time I visited Tanzania, I was vegetarian and having returned twice in recent years I’ve been vegan. It’s one of those countries that people always seem surprised I am able to eat easily there, but it honestly is not at all difficult to get by. Foods do vary by area but there are some which are available throughout.

We mentioned maharage above, which is a really common dish across all of Tanzania. People will not find it odd if you order this instead of meat. In fact, locals regularly eat beans as their mains too, especially if they’re having a cheaper month, so they don’t find it strange at all!

It is worth noting that most East Africans do associate meat with wealth, so you may be offered meat by locals a lot, as a sign of good hospitality, but it is not normally considered rude to refuse if you explain your reasons. The only time we ever had issues was when we were out in the bush with only non-English speaking Maasai, since meat is really the only food on offer. They still did not mind much when we refused the meat after explaining the situation, they just didn’t have anything else for us to eat.

Basically, you probably won’t be affected by that, but if you’re vegan or vegetarian, you might need to have a back up plan for food if you’re spending some time out in the bush. This doesn’t include safari lodges, which will have plenty of options for vegetarians and vegans. Vegetarianism is becoming more and more common/widely accepted in Tanzania as a whole, especially as the country’s Islamic communities grow larger.

In addition to maharage, here are some main meals you can find in many places in Tanzania as a vegan or vegetarian.

Chipsi Mayai (chip-see my-eye)

Chipsi Mayai is one of those truly bizarre dishes that is so obvious you wonder why it’s not a thing everywhere, and also where on earth it came from. Put simply, it’s a chip omelette – the potatoes are fried up and then served in a bunch of eggs (sometimes as many as 3-4 or more) and sometimes cabbage, chilli sauce or ketchup. This is really common everywhere, but in many places you’ll find it served on the side of the road as take-away food for those on road trips or bus journeys.

Njegere (pronounced un-jeg-air-ay)

Njegere is basically a bowl of curried peas OR split peas/yellow lentils. In Northern Tanzania it’s generally green peas. As with most meals in East Africa, it’s usually served with a hefty portion of rice, a chapati or ugali. This isn’t readily available everywhere. We tended to find that most places would service EITHER njegere or maharage, but we could usually get one or the other.

Side dishes

By chance, side dishes in Tanzania are usually vegetarian. These are the sides that will be served with the ‘main courses’ listed above.

A picture of two chapatis on a plate, folded over into triangles. Murray has a cup of milky chai in the background and he has spilt some. Chapatis are a staple Tanzanian food.
There is nothing better than chai and chapati for breakfast

Chapati

Though often thought of as an Indian carb, chapatis are extremely popular in Tanzania and throughout East Africa. They’re more commonly served in the mornings in Tanzania with chai (basically a spiced tea). Chapatis themselves are made with wheat flour, water and oil (they are quite oily in Tanzania!), and are best when they’re piping hot and fresh out the pan.

Ugali (pronounced oo-gah-lee)

Ugali is a staple in all of East Africa as well as most of the rest of the continent (though sometimes known by other names, such as pap). Essentially it’s ground maize meal, and looked a little like mashed potato. In East Africa, it’s generally perceived as a sharing dish and so the portion sizes can be absolutely ginormous.

Wali (wah-lee)

Wali is simply rice and again, it can be served in huge portions!

A bowl of curried green peas and carrots next to a chapati. Emma is dipping her spoon in the bowl.
Njegere and chapati

How to order Tanzanian Food

With a mix and match option, it’s really easy! You just simply pick your side first, and then pick your main.

For example, if you wanted rice + beans, you would order wali maharage. Alternatively if you wanted chicken and a chapati you would say chapati kuku. Note: it’s always done in that order side + main, not main + side.

You can really have any version of this you like: Chapati Maharage (Chapati and beans), Ugali Nyama (ugali with meat in sauce), Wali Samaki (rice and fish) etc.

Tanzanian Street Food

Tanzanian street food is incredible, and there’s a really wide range of it! Here are just a few options you can try.

Chapati

So yes, this can go with a meal but it also definitely counts as a snack food and I absolutely used to have this two or three times a day when I lived in Tanzania. Bear in mind, these are usually served around breakfast time as mentioned above.

Vitumbua (pronounced vit-oom-boo-ah)

You have officially died and gone to heaven because this chewy, delicious little ball of fried joy IS naturally vegan (AND normally gluten free)! Vitumbua are fried dough balls, normally only made with three ingredients: rice flour, coconut milk (or water) and cardamom. They are then fried to perfection and served toasty hot for a delicious street snack. They’re pretty common in a lot of East Africa (and we also found them in Madagascar) under different names, so keep an eye out for them for a tasty treat!

A bowl of beans cooked down to a soup, next to a huge mound of rice and some nafu (green vegetable). There is a sparletta (ginger beer in a glass bottle) in the background. These are also popular in Tanzania.
Wali Maharage is a popular lunchtime food

Maindi (pronounced my-in-dee)

Maindi is genuinely the food of the gods. Everybody loves corn (it is a known fact that cannot be disputed) and in Tanzania, corn is barbecued on grills before your eyes and it is a thing of pure beauty. At a certain time of day, all the Maindi sellers set up shop and all you can smell around the area is grilled corn. This does very around the country, but we found it usually starts around 5pm, and carries on well into the night. Try to get yours before sunset, as tourists shouldn’t really be wandering round after dark most places in Tanzania except Zanzibar.

It’s truly a wonderful thing, plus it’s usually ridiculously cheap! You can expect to pay around 500 TSZ (around 20p/25 cents) for a full ear of corn (unless you’re in Zanzibar, where it’s scarce, so it’s quite a bit more).

Mishkaki (meesh-cack-ee)

This is one for the meat eaters. Mishkaki is basically a grilled beef or goat kebab. Just like maindi sellers, mishkaki stalls will set up around 5pm each day, and you can smell it all around town. Many stalls will have giant barbecues with all different types of meat, fish and other street foods.

Mandazi

There are a few different types of fried dough or pastry in Tanzania, some of which look very similar to each other. The main one is called a mandazi (also known as a puff puff). In Tanzania, I’m reasonably confident that they’re made egg- and milk-free also, but a lot of online recipes do call for eggs and milk, so I can’t be 100% certain. Either way, they’re soft and kind of like a doughnut, though not as sweet. They’re best served hot, otherwise they can be a little stale, and you’ll find them all throughout the day (at their best in the mornings!) at dukas (locals shops).

Half Keki (pronounced half cakey)

A half keki is another form of deep fried cut of dough, that’s basically the leftover dough from the morning chapatis (hence, only half a cake). It’s usually made without any eggs or milk and isn’t very sweet at all. However, it is crispy, chewy and delicious. They’re a nice little snack, and often served for breakfast. Note: they can be a little dry when not served with chai!

A Tanzanian man wearing a chef's hat and apron standing behind a sugar cane press, which looks a bit like a trouser press (two heavy cylinders which are turned together to squeeze the juice out of the canes). He is smiling at the camera and grinding sugar cane.
Watching the street vendors make the sugar cane juice from scratch is amazing!
*Always ask permission before taking photos or videos of locals

Ubuyu (Oo-boo-you)

Ubuyu look a bit like raspberries and, for about 10 years, I was pretty sure they were raspberries! However eventually a Tanzanian friend corrected me and recommended I try them and WOW was I wrong.

So basically, they are baobab seeds, which have been boiled so the fruit doesn’t go mouldy, dyed red and then covered in a spice mix of sugar, salt, black pepper, cardamom, and vanilla. They are sugary but also have a seriously sour kick! Don’t forget to spit out the seeds when you’re done sucking, as they’re not for eating.

You will see them in a lot of places in Tanzania. The best ubuyu are found in Zanzibar but you’ll also see them in other spots around the country

A barbecue full of corn/maindi. They are all toasted to perfection and look delicious.
Maindi is one of the most delicious street foods in Tanzania

Kashata

Kashata are so delicious – they’re basically little peanut brittle bites, usually served in giant plastic tubs on the side of the road, but 100% worth stopping for. They are sugary sweet and crunchy, and you’ll definitely end up going back for more.

Fruit (Matunda) stalls

Fruit stalls are really common too and depending on the season you’ll find: ndizi (bananas – pronounced un-dee-zee), maembe (mango – pronounced mah-em-bay), nanasi (pineapple – pronounced nah-nah-see), tarehe (dates – pronounced tah-ray-hay) served either dry or fresh, fenesi (durian/jackfruit – pronounced fay-nay-see), machungwa (oranges) and plenty of others.

Fresh dates in a plastic bag. They are a deep purple, almost black and look very juicy.
These are fresh dates

Nuts

There are plenty of options! You’ll often find unroasted peanuts, deshelled and still shelled. They’re served in little packets by street vendors and will cost you nothing, really living up to the phrase ‘costing peanuts’

Food in Zanzibar and the surrounding area

Food in Zanzibar is very different and actually most Tanzanians believe the food in Zanzibar to be the best in the country. Nearby Dar Es Salaam gets very few fresh fruits and vegetables, so food there is not as fresh as it is in other cities, such as Arusha, Mwanza, Moshi and Tanga. The foods listed in this article are still pretty readily available there, but might be more expensive (for example, corn/maindi is a lot more expensive in this area).

Zanzibar also does not have a lot of vegetables, and it’s difficult to import them, so again, they can be very expensive there. One of the most popular places to eat in Zanzibar is the night markets in Forodhani Gardens (you can find out more about them in this article). There are some unique foods you don’t easily find elsewhere in Tanzania that you can try there, such as:

  • Zanzibar pizza – this is actually not a pizza at all! It’s a sort of savoury pancake, filled with eggs, mayonnaise and any other fillings you might want and then fried on a hot plate. It’s actually delicious
  • Shawarma meat stalls – these are pretty common world-over, but not found in many places in Tanzania besides Zanzibar
  • Some pretty interesting fruits like breadfruit (which is actually savoury!)

Regarding vegan food, no vegan could really struggle in Zanzibar. There are so many Western cafes, most of which understand the concept of veganism really well. For local food, my favourite restaurant in Stone Town in Zanzibar is Lukmaan’s – it’s a huge buffet, which pretty much serves every type of Tanzanian food you can imagine, with plenty of vegan options. They also have some delicious smoothies and desserts.

Food in Zanzibar is generally considered to be excellent. You can try this Zanzibar Street Food tour if you’re interested in food in Zanzibar.

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Tanzanian Drinks

Zanzibar coffee

A bit like a Turkish coffee, I personally find Zanzibar coffee very drinkable without milk! It’s an acquired taste maybe, but definitely one to check out. It’s more commonly found in Zanzibar or Dar Es Salaam area than elsewhere.

Sugar cane juice

This is an absolute staple in Tanzania and varies a little in taste from area to area. It’s most commonly served ice cold over ginger and lemon. What’s really fun is you can watch the vendors grind it down from scratch, it’s a great thing to watch too. Fruit juices are always delicious in Tanzania as well, so try what you can find!

Chai

Most people know chai from South Asian countries, but it’s really popular in Tanzania too, especially at breakfast time. Basically it’s spiced tea, and in Tanzania, it’s usually served with milk, though you can ask for it bila maziwa (without milk) if that’s your preference. Be aware that it’s generally very sugary, unless you ask for it bila sukari (no sugar!).

A mango juice and chai sitting on a counter with a view of Arusha opposite the bus station
Chai and mango juice from our favourite cafe in Arusha

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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