James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Massive Pot of Gruel Is Your Best Option

A Massive Pot of Gruel Is Your Best Option

Porridge in Stone Town

Breakfast in Stone Town is a beautiful thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re alone, new, work in the area, have lived there all your life, or are just passing through. If you’re outside and hungry you can count on a myriad of offers anytime after 7:00 am, welcoming you to pop a squat on the curbside and tuck into a portion of piping hot porridge.

The ancient city of Stone Town—located on the main island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean, just off the coast of East Africa—exists as a dense maze of winding alleyways. If you weave through them after sunrise, you’ll inevitably encounter a few of the town’s many morning gathering spots. Pitched on staircases, in squares, and nestled along the street, they all come alive in the morning as groups convene for conversation and grub to start the day.

You immediately get the sense that this must be a family affair, which it absolutely is, but by virtue of community rather than genetics. Some spots fill with colleagues sipping some pre-shift fuel, others with nearby neighbors, some with friends, and a few with regular route-sharers stopping to grab a bite on their standard path to and fro. And, of course, always potentially joined by the odd newcomer, tourist or visiting family member.

Morning food options vary quite a bit, though most early gatherings are centered around a massive, steaming, communal bowl of porridge. In almost every case, you’ll find a mama sitting nearby, occasionally stirring and divvying it up into small porcelain or plastic bowls.

If you’re scouting a spot to try for the first time, it’s worth noting that not all porridges are created equal. You have options. To generalize, there’s a sweet version (which looks almost white) and a spicy one (a bit thicker and darker). I’m less partial to the sweet stuff, but was pleasantly surprised by the black-pepper spiced, millet-based alternative. It’s kind to your stomach, and will fill you up enough to tackle whatever’s next. Also, often on offer are mandazi: East African sweet fried donuts, perfect for dipping.

If you’re wanting a bit more, you’ll also often find many spots with chapattis being freshly rolled, a nod to the island’s Indian roots. If you’ve never tried one, think what would happen if a naan bread borrowed some flakiness from a croissant, was flattened into a chubby tortilla shape, slathered in oil, and then fried, flipped, and fried. Yeah, not so bad.

You can often grab these to-go wrapped in yesterdays newsprint, but, unless you’re in a rush, don’t. As far as breakfast goes, more so than any of Zanzibar’s food options, it’s the open air and open attitude that is worth experiencing.

That’s why porridge —which gives you no choice but to sit and join the crew—is best. Dismiss your doubts about consuming what might seem like a mixture of questionable texture brewing inside a massive pot. Then find yourself a morning breakfast family and take a seat.

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