Fit for a Queen

As readers are no doubt aware Freddie Mercury would have turned 60 years old in September this year, had he survived to see it. It is a mind-bending exercise to hazard a guess as to what the diva might have chosen from his wardrobe as he headed out to join the party planned for Saturday 2nd September on the beach in Zanzibar, as it is there, surely, that he would have chosen to mark the occasion,
It is the one fascinating fact about Zanzibar that every islander will tell you. Freddie Mercury was born in one house or another in Stone Town. (There appears to be some doubt as to exactly which one). He stayed there, apparently, until he was six years old and his real name was Farrokh Bulsara. One wonders why he changed it.

From the celebrations planned, you would have thought that he had lived there all his curtailed life. A few despotic politicians apart, Freddie remains the Spice Island’s most famous son and the party of the decade was to consist of big screen videos and Queen’s music until dawn on the beach in front of the eponymous Mercury’s pub. This fine establishment is, for now anyway, despite its impending demolition in a land reclamation project, the only monument to Freddie on the island, complete with moving tribute at the front of the menu, naff T-shirts and terrible coffee.

Just down the quay, however, another party takes place every evening of the year, where the beautifully dilapidated Forodhani Gardens are transformed nightly into a huge walk-through seafood restaurant. Ignore the out-of-place Maasai selling bracelets, carry on past the ubiquitous curio dealers and head for the front, stopping only for a chilled glass of maji wa sukari, made from freshly squeezed cane with ginger and lime, on the way.

The lawns and benches are strewn with people and the kanzas and bui-buis of local fashion, interspersed with the odd bemused French tourist, add even more colour to the already exotic scene. The sun sets behind a perfectly-positioned-for-a-photograph beached dhow. The heady, local taarab music plays in the background, interrupted only by the call to prayer and the buzz of Vespas. The scene is lit by dozens of kerosene lamps and the air is thick with the smell of fresh spices, sizzling prawns and frying chapattis.

At first sight the dockside kitchens can be slightly off-putting. Table after table is laden with dead crustaceans and staring fish of every description. Everything is cooked in front of you on a charcoal burner and served up on a paper plate whilst a bored youth uses a spare plate to wave away the flies.

But Ali and Juma are masters of their art. Their newspaper-covered stall is decked with sosaties of calamari, shrimps, white snapper, lobster, shark, clams and mussels or you can choose grilled langoustines, marlin steaks, sea perch, bean fritters, samoosas or crab claws with baked cassava.

Everything is delicious, cooked to a turn, juicy and lightly splashed with their excellent pili-pili sauce. It was the best meal I had on the island, finished off with a thick Swahili coffee, flavoured with cardamom, from a nearby stall. The whole meal set me back only R40.
Ali and Juma will have been in the Forodhani Gardens on 2nd September, selling their octopi and prawns, probably blissfully unaware of that great tribute to a legend going on just up the beach. I know where I would have been – but I am sure there will have been plenty of fat-bottom backpackers to make their rockin’ world go round at the other venue.

Maji wa Sukara
(Cane juice with ginger and lemon) Makes one glass

Ingredients:

18 inches raw sugar cane
1/2 lime or lemon
1-inch thick slice of fresh ginger

Method:

Peel the sugar cane with a knife or a potato-peeler until the white is exposed. Squeeze the cane with an old mangle, if you can find one, passing it through the squeezer again and again and occasionally passing the lemon and garlic through with it. Catch the juices in a glass, straining carefully two or three times and serve with ice. (If you cannot find a mangle, or if your rollers are too close together to accommodate the ingredients, you could use a food blender instead, in which case chop the cane into manageable pieces and throw it in with the other ingredients and blend on a slow speed, sieving several times before serving).