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The Winds Of Zanzibar Blow Just Right For Spices


If you're like me, you like a little spice in your morning coffee - maybe a little cinnamon, a hint of vanilla. If you're feeling particularly daring, maybe a little nutmeg. But have you ever wondered where these delicious tastes really come from? NPR's Gregory Warner is about to take us on a sensory journey on the African spice Island of Zanzibar to uncover the origins of these three familiar spices.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: One of these is a being discovered in Mexico, another is a tree native to India and another, the seed of a fruit discovered in Indonesia. But today, they can all be found in any spice farm in Zanzibar, the East African island used as a spice plantation by the 18th Century Omani empire. Our guide is Fadhil.

FADHIL MOHAMMED: Fadhil Mohammed Zanzibar. You are welcome Zanzibar Spice Island.

WARNER: And the three spices that we will be looking at today?

MOHAMMED: Vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg.

WARNER: Now, we're going to start with vanilla because vanilla is a prima donna; a type of orchid, it flowers only once a year so no time for a bee to find it. A farmer has to pollinate it by hand with a stick, trumpet flower by trumpet flower.

MOHAMMED: Pollinate each and every flower, always early in the morning.

WARNER: And you only have one chance.

MOHAMMED: One chance.

WARNER: Because if this temperamental bloom has not been touched by noon, it dies just hours after it blossomed. And no pods will ever emerge, pods that after nine months of maturing need more careful work. They have to be boiled and then dried.

MOHAMMED: You have to dry it in the direct sun for only one hour, only one hour.

WARNER: Like I said, a prima donna, and thus, expensive. That's why the vanilla in your coffee is probably synthetic imitation made in the lab. But our next stop on the tour is, by contrast, a low-maintenance, fast-growing laurel tree. Scrape off her bark, you get delicious cinnamon - a digestive and antiseptic. While should you feel an oncoming cold or flu, just move down to her routes and chew on them. What do you taste?

MOHAMMED: Eucalyptus in it. Sweet basil in it. Menthol in it. So, Vicks rub. Look like Vicks.

WARNER: Is the cinnamon tree like the Giving Tree? Every part of it...

MOHAMMED: You can use it. Yeah.

WARNER: Our last spice on the tour is the most secretive. We walk up to a tree of what looks like apricots, but Fadhil tosses away the fruit and holds the precious pit. He strips away the waxy red webbing.

So you broke open the shell, and now you're digging out the meat...


WARNER: ...From the nut. This is nutmeg used in cake and coffee, of course, but also locally in nutmeg porridge; an alleged aphrodisiac.

MOHAMMED: This is a aphrodisiac. But you use this one, make sure your husband very close.

WARNER: Wait, you mean if your husband is not around.

MOHAMMED: If your husband is not around, don't eat nutmeg porridge.

WARNER: Such is the power of the nutmeg powder. The island of Zanzibar is a soil and climate ideal for spices, and it's situated in the crosshairs of ancient trade winds so it was a key stop on the spice route between Asia and Europe. But I ask Fadhil to choose one spice, his favorite, his desert island spice.

MOHAMMED: Zanzibar is Spice Island so we got to this name around 1818. We got this name because of the one thing - it's called cloves.

WARNER: Cloves used to be produced on this island in such number that arriving sailors used to catch their sent from giant warehouses by the harbor. Madagascar has now supplanted Zanzibar as the chief exporter. But Fadhil Mohammed says that cloves will always remind him of his home.

MOHAMMED: Zanzibar.

WARNER: Gregory Warner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.