Swahili Food and Cultural Festivals in Tanzania

The United Republic of Tanzania is one of East Africa’s largest and most diverse nations. Discover the foods and festivals that Tanzania is famous for, from spice farms on Zanzibar and savory Swahili dishes to soul-stirring cultural events.


Photo © iStock.com/EirikE

With more than 120 ethnic groups in 31 regions, Swahili is the lingua-franca of Tanzania, a country which takes immense pride in its food and cultural traditions.

The Aromatic Wonder of Coffee and Spices

Tanzania runs on kahawa (coffee in Swahili). As the nation’s largest export crop, it’s always brewing at bus stations, cafes and on street corners. Don’t hesitate to sit with locals and sip the strong black coffee which is served in small porcelain cups.

Union Cafe in Moshi serves up fresh coffee grown by the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union, a collective of small-share farmers. Coffee curious? Book a walking tour through Chagga country, on the southern slopes of Kilimanjaro with Kahawa Shambani Coffee Tours, and learn about coffee production from seed to simmer.

Follow your nose to the so-called spice islands of Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago off the coast of mainland Tanzania. An array of alluring spices and herbs, appreciated for their culinary and medicinal value, awaits. Take an intoxicating walk through Kidichi Spice Farms and wander through the ruins of the nearby royal Persian Baths, which date back to the 1850s.

Vegetable market in Zanzibar. Photo credit: iStock.com/borchee

Savory Swahili Food

Dig your hand into a steamy heap of ugali (cornflour) before dipping it into mchuzi wa rosti ya maini (roasted liver stew).

Eating the ubiquitous staple, that keeps East African bellies full, feels like a warm hug.

Tanzanians fiercely debate the best nyama choma (grilled meat); goat, cow, or chicken – the secret is in the pili-pili (hot sauce). Find out more at the quarterly Nyama Choma Festival, a celebration of barbecuing, held in Dar es Salaam.

In October, the Stone Town Food Festival, in Zanzibar’s UNESCO World Heritage city, features the best of Swahili coastal food in a celebration of food and culture.

While in the islands, don’t miss culinary classics including mzuchi wa pweza (octopus stewed in coconut sauce), cardamom-infused, vitamin-rich kisamvu (cassava leaves), and urojo, a bowl of crispy, fried goodness served with a tangy mango broth and spicy coconut chutney.

Women fishing in Zanzibar. Photo credit: iStock.com/Nicole Moraira

Festival Fever: Mwaka Kogwa to Sauti za Busara

Tanzania is home to many festivals to stir the soul.

In Zanzibar, there are many festivals including Sauti za Busara (Voices of Wisdom) which bring thousands of visitors to Stone Town every February for four days of live African music. In July, the Zanzibar International Film Festival screens compelling films and holds workshops celebrating African filmmakers.

July's Mwaka Kogwa (Year’s Cleanse), is a traditional Persian new year celebration held in the rural village of Makunduchi, Zanzibar. With communal ritual battles and a hut-burning, this festival dates back to Shirazi settlers who arrived on Zanzibar’s shores in the 10th century.

On the mainland, head to Bagamoyo, home of the Bagamoyo Arts and Culture Institute, an hour north of Dar es Salaam. Soulful Bagamoyo hosts the Bagamoyo Festival of Arts and Culture every September, and the Karibu Music Festival held every November.

In Dar es Salaam, the Nafasi Art Space hosts Wikiendi Live, a series highlighting traditional beats and fusion is held bi-monthly at the sprawling art space. Check out MUDA Africa, in residence at Nafasi, presenting Time 2 Dance, a once-a-year contemporary dance festival.

Want to find out more about Tanzania? Listen to the World Nomads podcast. Hear about the wildebeest migration, rated as one of the world's most spectacular natural events, what it means to smell popcorn on safari, and traveling with a disability.

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