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RE-ENVISION: Swahili food

RE-ENVISION is an ongoing series of research memos produced by our associates at Appetite. We trace the cultural genealogies of food from around the world to challenge commonly held beliefs about origin and authenticity. 

The Swahili Coast runs from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique along the Indian Ocean, and includes several islands such as Zanzibar and Comoros. The Swahili people are an indigenous group that have readily taken on cultural aspects from the variety of people that have made contact with their land since as early as 1400 BC.1 The early Swahili mostly dwelled in city-states, which were cosmopolitan, politically separate, and proficient at trading.2 It is the deep cultural mixing brought on by centuries of trade which has shaped modern Swahili culture.

The people of the Swahili Coast traded with Greece, Rome, Egypt, Assyria, Sumeria, and Phoenicia as early as 1400 BC, but their greatest trade era came later.3 During the 8th century, a system known as the Indian Ocean trade developed, under which the Swahili people bartered with Arab (specifically the powerful Omani), Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian peoples.4

The trade route along the Indian Ocean was larger, wealthier, and had a larger diversity of participants than the famed Silk Road, though it is much less well-known.5 Traders sold across the Indian ocean, reaching the Persian gulf region, India, and East Asia.6 As far as goods, “exports from Africa included ivory, gold, and slaves in exchange for beads, cloth, ointments, perfumes, oils, syrups, spices, and decorated bowls from the Middle East, Indian subcontinent and the Far East.”7 The trade was driven by natural monsoon winds, which propelled ships latitudinally across the ocean before more technologically advanced sails were invented.8 The network was at its peak from the 12th to 15th century CE.9 This period of contact with a diversity of people fundamentally shaped modern Swahili culture, which is seen as a mix of African, Arab, and Asian cultures. 

The historian P. Curtis notes that, “The Muslim religion ultimately became one of the central elements of Swahili identity.”10 This is largely due to the 19th century Omani occupation of the region. The Arab power had traded up and down the Swahili coast for hundreds of years, prompting them to seek greater dominance over the area’s trade routes. The Omani eventually moved their capital to the island of Zanzibar in the 19th century.11 Their pursuit of greater economic influence led to a cultural presence as well, driving the Islamification of the coast and its hinterland. Consequently, alcohol and pork are taboo in Swahili culture.12 Fish and shellfish are important replacements in the Swahili diet, both due to religio-cultural preferences and the regions’ proximity to the ocean.13

From Muslim and Hindu Indians, many foods have become part of Swahili culture. This is due both to the historical presence of Indian traders, peaking between the 12th and 15th centuries, and the large Indian diaspora in the region. The diasporic population arrived after the construction of the British railroad in the 19th century, initially under indentured servitude and later due to increased trade opportunities prompted by the railroad’s construction.14 Swahili people use many spices of Indian origin, like cardamom, coriander, clove, and cumin, and sometimes even ginger, turmeric, garam masala, and saffron.15 As far as dishes, take the kachori, a thick triangular or circular pastry filled with spiced potatoes, peas and other fillings. A popular, deep-fried, street snack, the kachori closely resembles a samosa, and is found in other places with Indian diaspora.16 Pilau rice is another common Indian holdover. Nearly identical in name and composition to rice pilaf, both versions feature cardamom, cumin, and ginger.17

Although its origin is unclear, coconuts are an important food to the region.18 Some speculate that coconut palms were introduced by European traders going westward on their way back from India, while others argue the fruit was brought to Madagascar either by the Arabs or people from the Malay archipelago. Both groups were journeying to trade with the East African coast.19 Either way, coconuts had arrived in the region by 1333 AD and have been important in the food culture ever since.20 

One popular street food makes use of coconut, as well as Indian spices. This is the mandazi, a spicy, airy yeast doughnut made with coconut milk, cardamom, and grated fresh coconut or coconut flakes. Mandazi can be eaten for breakfast when accompanied by chai, or enjoyed straight from the frying pan as street food. Some people also dip them in savoury dishes like curry or beans.21 

The Arabian peninsula has also made its mark on Swahili food. Most notably, coffee consumption has been heavily influenced by Arabic traditions. Coffee is referred to as kahawa, reflective of the Arabic language, which names coffee as gahwa. Although coffee is often served with dates in Arabic culture,22 dates are reserved for the fast during Ramadan on the Swahili Coast, as they have to be imported and thus are an expensive commodity. Kashata, a peanut brittle with cardamom, cinnamon, and coconut, is enjoyed with coffee instead. Kashata’s mix of Arabic cultural context and Indian flavours reflects the Swahili Coast’s multi-cultural tendencies.23 

The Europeans made contact with the Swahili Coast long after most traders, starting with the Portuguese occupation in the early 1500s after finding gold in the region.24 This occupation, beginning at the height of the Indian Ocean trade, set the stage for centuries of Portuguese conquest. However, other European powers came to rival Portugal on the Swahili Coast. The British took formal control of Zanzibar in 1890, ousting the Omani from the region,25 and the German East African protectorate was established in modern-day Tanzania in 1889.26 As the European powers established political control over important parts of Asia, turning Indonesia, India, Malaya, and much of Southeast Asia into colonies, reciprocal trade began to dissipate. Goods moved increasingly to Europe, while Asian trading empires consequently lost economic stability. Due to European imperialism, the two-thousand-year-old Indian Ocean trade network began to weaken and collapse.27

Historian Louise Rolingher describes how, “Swahili traders in the nineteenth century took on Western ‘manners,’ namely introducing wine and forks into their eating repertoire, in order to impress and please those potential partners” during the era of European imperialism. 28Adding to such European culinary influence, British medical missionaries in the 1930s attempted to introduce eggs into the coastal diet. Their most successful attempt is mkate wa mayai, meaning “bread with eggs” in English, a cake which appears in multiple cookbooks from the colonial era.29 While today eggs are mostly found in or accompanied by breads and doughnut-like pastries (labelled keki in Swahili), the fact that mkate wa mayai has its own name in Swahili demonstrates the cultural acceptance of the spongecake into the culinary canon of the region.30

Several other groups throughout history have made small indents on the Swahili food scene. The Goans make an appearance due to their shared Portuguese colonisation, and the Yemenis and Parsis from the Arabian peninsula and the distant Chinese all played minor roles during the Indian Ocean trade.31 These groups are mostly represented by minor dishes, such as Chinese fish, chicken, goat and beef recipes.32 Dishes also feature local African ingredients, such as the pono fish.33 Known as the marbled parrot fish in English, pono is small, green, flaky, and tender.34 However, most important ingredients are exogenous to the region.

Neither rice (mchele) nor cassava (hogo), the two main staples of today, are native to the Swahili coast. Rice came from Southeast Asia, and cassava from Latin America. While a variety of rice was probably indigenous to West Africa, the variety grown today in East Africa arrived around 1000 B.C. in Madagascar. It may have travelled from there to the East African coast, or potentially came directly to the Swahili people as a result of the Indian Ocean trade. 35 In the 1300’s, rice was largely a special, imported dish from India reserved for visitors. However, by the 1500’s it became much more common in people’s homes, eventually reaching staple status.36 Swahili food’s other staple came much later in the region’s history. Cassava first made its way to East Africa with the Portuguese during the 19th century. The European power used cassava to feed their enslaved population, who they took from the colony of Mozambique. It was then introduced to the Swahili coast to feed the enslaved people there, who were made to cultivate sugar plantations.37 Cassava can be dried and sliced (makopa) or cooked down (muhogo), and has six different varieties such as blue (kibuluu) and bitter (mndunga).38

Swahili food is marked by distinct histories of trade and colonisation. The region’s rich and complicated history has created a culture much the same, and its spices, dishes, and customs reflect food’s ability to convey both conflict and communication.

Annotated Bibliography

Rolingher, Louise. “Edible Identities: Food, Cultural Mixing, and the Making of Identities on the Swahili Coast.” PhD diss., University of Alberta, 2009.

“Edible Identities” is a PhD dissertation in History discussing the long history of the Swahili Coast and its effects on food culture there. Louise Rolingher uses primary source material to track certain foods in the region throughout the ages. Attempting to create a more nuanced understanding of Swahili identity, Rolingher’s historical narrative is used to explore the current relationship between food and identity on the Swahili Coast. Her dissertation helped tie the history of trade in the region directly to its edible components.

Govender-Ypma, Ishay. “Swahili Food: Taste of the Swahili Coast.” Food and the Fabulous. July 30, 2016.

With her blog “Food and the Fabulous,” South African journalist Ishay Govender-Ypma attempts to interact with the world around her through food. Her work combines the perspective of a curious outsider with the expertise of established locals. Govender-Ypma creates useful narratives which contextualize culture and politics using food. Her blog post was useful in understanding modern food culture along the Swahili Coast.

Morgan, Joseph R., Philomene A. Verlaan, and Viktor Filipovich Kanayev. “Indian Ocean: Study and Exploration.” Encyclopedia Britannica. September 26, 2018.

Encyclopedia Britannica offers an in-depth look at the Indian Ocean. The encyclopedia has put together a detailed timeline of trade history, useful metrics pertaining to hydrology and wind conditions, and a list of current economically important activity, just to name a few. These details spanning multiple disciplines help readers understand the variety of factors influencing the culture and trade around the Indian Ocean.

Cartwright, Mark. “Swahili Coast.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. April 1 2019,

Scholar and journalist Mark Cartwright assembles another useful encyclopedic account of the Swahili coast. His piece spans from the beginning of trade along the Swahili Coast to the arrival of the Portuguese, providing much detail about the region’s early economic, cultural, and political context. Referring to multiple encyclopedic sources helped me fill in knowledge gaps between sources while ensuring the information was reliable. 

Written by Clara Zervigon.


1 Felix Chami. “East Africa and the Middle East relationship from the first millennium BC to about 1500 AD.” Journal des Africanistes 72, no. 2 (2002): 23.  

2 ER Services. “The Swahili Culture.” Lumen Learning.

3 Chami, “East Africa and the Middle East,” 23. 

ER Services, “The Swahili Culture.”

5 John Green, “Int’l Commerce, Snorkeling Camels, and The Indian Ocean Trade: Crash Course World History #18,” YouTube video, posted by “CrashCourse,” May 24, 2012,

6 Steven Zucker. “Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania.” Khan Academy. February 4, 2016.

7 Edward Pollard and Okeny Charles Kinyera. “The Swahili Coast and the Indian Ocean Trade Patterns in the 7th–10th Centuries CE.” Journal of Southern African Studies 43, iss. 5 (2017): Abstract.

8 Indian Ocean in World History. “Indian Ocean in World History Overview for Students: Selections from Each Era.” Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center

9 Mark Cartwright. “Swahili Coast.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. April 1 2019,

10 Mark Cartwright, “Swahili Coast.”

11 David Robinson. Muslim Societies in African History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 36.

12 Govender-Ypma, “Swahili Food: Taste of the Swahili Coast.”

13 “Dishes.”,

14 Mungai, “15 facts about the Indian diaspora in Africa.” 

15 “Swahili Coast: Customs.” Thirteen by WNET.

16 Govender-Ypma, “Swahili Food: Taste of the Swahili Coast.”

17 Ibid.

18 “Swahili Coast: AFRICA – Explore the Regions.” Thirteen by WNET.

19 Lucas Brouwers. “Coconuts: not indigenous, but quite at home nevertheless.” Scientific American. August 1, 2011.  

20 Indian Ocean in World History, “Indian Ocean in World History Overview.”

21 Imma of Immaculate Bites. “Mandazi (East African Doughnuts).” Immaculate Bites. September 13, 2013.

22 Govender-Ypma, “Swahili Food: Taste of the Swahili Coast.”

23 Ibid.

24 Robinson, Muslim Societies in African History, 36.

25  Louise Rolingher. “Edible Identities: Food, Cultural Mixing, and the Making of Identities on the Swahili Coast.” (PhD diss., University of Alberta, 2009), 57.

26 Library of Congress. “Tanganyika (German East Africa).” World Digital Library. November 14, 2017.

27Kallie Szczepanski. “Indian Ocean Trade Routes.” Thought Co.. August 9, 2019.

28 Rolingher, “Edible Identities,” 255.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 Ishay Govender-Ypma. “Swahili Food: Taste of the Swahili Coast.” Food and the Fabulous. July 30, 2016.

32 ER Services, “The Swahili Culture.”

33 “Swahili Coast: Customs.” Thirteen by WNET.

34 Swahili-English Dictionary. “Pono.” Academic. 2013.

35 Rolingher, “Edible Identities,” 183.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.