The Ultimate Guide to Tanzania Traditional Cuisine

What You Should Know About Tanzanian Cusine

Tanzania Local Travel Expert

Tanzania Food

For the main part, Tanzania cuisine consists largely of stodge filler with beans or a (tough) meat sauce and is really just survival food for the locals — maximum filling-up potential at minimum cost. It is still possible to eat cheaply and well although the lack of variety becomes tedious after a while. People with carnivorous habits are far better served by the local food than vegetarians.

The most basic local eateries (often known as hoteli) hardly warrant being called restaurants. These places usually have a limited menu and are open only for lunch — the main meal of the day. If you’re on a tight budget you’ll find yourself eating in these places most of the time. However, if you have the resources, even in the smaller towns it’s usually possible to find a restaurant that offers more variety and better food at a higher price. Often these places are connected with the mid-range and top-end hotels.

Preparing your own food is a viable option if you are camping and carrying cooking gear. Every town has a market and there’s usually an excellent range of fresh produce available.

Fast food has taken off in a big way and virtually every town has a place which serves food that rates high in grease and low in price. Fried chips with lashings of lurid tomato sauce are a basic filler, but sausages, eggs, fish and chicken are also popular. In Arusha, there are literally dozens of these places, and they can be handy places to pick up a snack.
The only place where any sort of distinctive African cuisine (other than nyama choma or barbecued goat’s meat) has developed is on the coast where the Swahili dishes reflect the history of contact with the Arabs and other Indian Ocean traders — coconut and spices are used heavily and the results are generally excellent.

As might be expected with a large number of Asians in Tanzania, there are also large numbers of Indian restaurants. In addition, many hotels are owned by Indians and the choice of food available on their menus reflects this. If you like this cuisine, you’ll have no problems even in the smaller towns though most of these restaurants are confined to Arusha and Dar es Salaam as well as Mwanza.
Vegetarians are not well catered for. Away from the two main cities, there are virtually no vegetarian dishes to accompany the starch. Beans are going to figure prominently in any vegetarian’s culinary encounters in Tanzania! Buying fresh fruit and vegetables in the market can help relieve the tedium.



Sambusas are probably the most common snack and are obvious descendants of the Indian samosa. They are deep-fried pastry triangles stuffed with spiced mince meat. Occasionally you come across sambusas with vegetable fillings, but this is usually only in the Indian restaurants. If you can find them freshly made and still warm, sambusas can be excellent. However, more often by the time you get them they are at least several hours old, are cold and have gone limp and greasy from the oil saturation. Another item that fits into the pure starch category is that curious beast known as the mandazi. It is a semisweet, flat doughnut and, once again, when they are fresh they can be very good. They are usually cooked and eaten at breakfast time — often dunked in tea. Should you decide to eat one later in the day, chances are it will be stale and hard.

Something that you don’t come across very often but which makes an excellent snack meal is mkate mayai . (literally ‘breadeggs’). This was originally an Arab dish and is now found in countries as far ranging as Tanzania and Singapore. Basically it’s a wheat dough which is spread into a thin pancake, filled with minced meat and raw egg and then folded into a neat parcel and fried on a hotplate. The Naazi Hotel in Arusha is a good place to try this snack.

Seemingly on every second street coner, someone is trying to make a few bob selling corn cobs roasted on a wire grill over a bed of hot coals. You pay only a couple of shillings for these. Another street-corner snack is deep-fried yams, eaten hot with a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkling of chilli powder.


Main Dishes

Basically, it’s meat, meat and more meat, accompanied by the starch of some sort. The meat is usually in a stew with perhaps some potato or other vegetables thrown in and is often as tough as an old boot. Beef, goat and mutton are the most commonly eaten meats. The starch comes in three major forms: potatoes, rice and ugali. The last of these is maize meal which is cooked up into a thick porridge until it sets hard. It’s then served up in flat bricks. It’s incredibly stodgy, almost totally devoid of any flavour and tends to sit on the stomach like a royal corgi, but most Tanzanian swear by it. It’s certainly the equivalent of mashed potato for the Poms or sticky rice for the Chinese and Koreans but it certainly isn’t a culinary orgasm. Freshly cooked it’s palatable; when stale, just about inedible. Naturally, you must try it at least once and some travellers actually get to like it, but don’t hold your breath! The only thing it has going for it is that it’s cheap.

Roast chicken and steak are popular dishes in the more up-market restaurants of the bigger towns. Food in this sort of place differs little from what you might get at home. Cooked red kidney beans are always an alternative to meat and are widely available in local eateries.
Menus, where they exist in the cheaper places, are usually just a chalked list on a board on the wall. In better restaurants, they are usually just in English.
The following food list gives some of the main words you are likely to come across when trying to decipher Swahili menus or buy food in the market.

Useful Swahili Food Words 

boiled      –  chemka

bread       –  mkate

butter      –  siagi

cup​          –  kikombe

curry​​​       –  mchuzi

egg(s)     –  yai (mayai)

food       –  chakula

fork        –  uma

fried       –  kaanga

glass      –  glasi

hot/cold –  moto/baridi

hot (spicy) – hoho

Indian bread – chapati

knife – kisu

napkin – kitambaa

pepper – pilipili​

plate – sahani​​

raw – mbichi​​

ripe –  mbivu

roast –  choma

table – meza

teaspoon –  kijiko cha chai

salt –  chumvi

sauce –  mchuzi

soup –  supu​

sugar –  sukari

sweet – tamu

yoghurt – maziwa mgando

Vegetables & Grains

aubergine – biringanya

cabbage –  kabichi

capsicum – pilipili ya kupika

carrots –  karoti

cassava – muhogo

garlic – vitunguu Saumu

kidney beans – maharagwe

lettuce – saladi

maize-meal porridge mashed plantains & maize –  ugali

onions –  vitunguu

plantains – ndzi

potatoes – viazi

rice – wali

spinach – sukuma wiki

tomatoes –  nyama

vegetables –  mboga

vegetable stew – mboga

Meat & Fish

beef  – nyama ya ngombe

kebabs – mshkaki

meat – nyama

meat stew – karanga

mutton, goat – nyama ya mbuzi

pork – nyama ya nguruwe

steak – steki

crab – kaa

fish – samaki

lobster – kamba

squid – ngisi


Tanzania Fruits


This is where Tanzania really excels. Because of the country’s varied climate, there’s an excellent array of fruits. The tropical ones are especially good. Depending on the place and the season you can buy mangoes, papaya, pineapple, watermelon, oranges, guavas, custard apples, bananas (many varieties) and coconuts. Prices are cheap and the quality very high.


Tanzania Tea & Coffee

Despite the fact that Tanzania grows some of the finest tea and coffee in the world, getting a decent cup of either can be difficult.
Tea (chai) is a national obsession and is drunk in large quantities. It bears little resemblance to what you might be used to but as long as you look on it as just a different hot drink and not actually tea it can be quite good. Be warned that it is generally very milky and horrendously sweet. Chai is made the same way in Tanzania as it is in India: all the ingredients (tea, milk and masses of sugar) are put into cold water and the whole lot is brought to the boil and stewed. Finding a good honest cup of tea is virtually impossible outside the fancy restaurants. For tea without milk ask for chai kavu.
Coffee is similarly disappointing. Instant coffee is generally used, and in small quantities, so, once again, you’re looking at a sweet milky concoction. However, as each cup is individually made it’s somewhat easier to order one tailored to your own liking.


Soft Drinks

All the old favourites are here, including Coke, Pepsi and Fanta, and they go under the generic term of soda. As with beer, prices vary depending on where you buy. In most places, you pay around US$1 per bottle but in the more exclusive places you can pay up to US$3. There are no such predictable prices for freshly squeezed fruit juices which range from US$0.50 to US$2 per glass.


Tanzania Alcohol and Beer

Tanzania has a thriving local brewing industry and formidable quantities of beer are consumed. It’s probably true to say that beer is the most widely available manufactured product in the country. Go to just a tiny group of Duka (local stores) by the side of the road somewhere and chances are one of them will either be a bar, or it will stock beer. Sure, it won’t be cold, but then even in the most up-market places beer is available both chilled and warm. ‘Why warm?’ you might ask as your face wrinkles in horror! The answer is because most Africans appear to prefer it that way. You will hardly see them drink cold Beer though you’ll Occasionally see a Tanzanian drinking cold Safari Larger or Serengeti beer.

The beer names are Safari, Tusker and Kilimanjaro and Serengeti (all manufactured by Tanzania Breweries Ltd) and they’re sold in 500 ml bottles. They are basically the same product With different labels (though there is a discernible difference in taste) but most people end up sticking to just one brand. The same company manufactures export-quality 300 beers — Export and Premium respectively and these are slightly stronger and more expensive. Guinness is also available but tastes and looks nothing like the genuine Irish article as well as other imported beers like Heineken, Castle larger and Windhoek beer from Namibia.
​Lastly, Serengeti Breweries has also brought ​out a light version of Serengeti which is very ​good and available in many places, Check the price before ordering — in some places it’s cheaper than the bottled variety; in others, it costs more (sometimes considerably more).
Beers are cheapest bought from a supermarket where a 500 ml bottle will cost you around US$0.50. Bought from a normal bar, you are looking at US$1 to US$3. Bought at a bar in a five-star hotel it can cost you up to US$3. This would be exceptional but, as there are no price controls on beer — bars and hotels can charge what they like.



Tanzania has a fledgeling wine industry and the Dodoma wines are said to be quite good. This is something that cannot be said about the most commonly encountered Tanzanian wine. It tastes fragrant and even the smell is bearable. On the other hand, you can get cheap imported European and even Australian wine by the glass for around US$5 in Arusha restaurants. This is expensive when compared to the price of beer but is actually not too bad.


Local Brews

Although it is strictly illegal to brew or distil liquor this doesn’t stop it going on. Pombe is the local beer and is usually a fermented brew made with bananas or millet and sugar. You may get the chance to sample it here and there and it shouldn’t do you any harm. The same cannot be said for the distilled drinks, known locally as Gongo, as these are often very effective poisons — inefficient/amateur distilling techniques ensure various percentages of methyl alcohol creep into the brew. They’ll blind you if you’re lucky; kill you if you’re not. Leave it alone!


Things to Buy

Tanzania is an excellent place for souvenirs, although much of the cheap stuff available is just pure junk mass-produced by hand for the
tourist trade. Look carefully at what’s available before parting with your money. Arusha and Mto Wa Mbu are the main centres but many of the items come from the various regions, so it’s often possible to pick up the same at source, although you then have the problem of transporting it. The best buys include Makonde carvings, sometimes made from ebony (but often softer woods stained with boot polish), kikapu (woven sisal baskets), jewellery and tribal souvenirs, including colourful Maasai beaded jewellery, the decorated calabash (dried gourds) and spears and shields. There are also batiks, local sarongs (kangas and kikois), soapstone carvings from Kigoma in the west of Tanzania, and paintings.

It’s possible to pick up something which will look good in your living room back home without spending a fortune but, these days, something of genuine quality and artistry is going to cost real money because there are many skilful artists around who produce works of genuine art (as opposed to tourist tat) and know that there are quite a few tourists around who are very discerning and will pay big bucks for quality. This particularly applies to Makonde carvings, jewellery and paintings. In some cases, you can be talking about thousands of US dollars. If you’re interested in quality artwork, spend time doing the rounds of the shops and galleries which deal in it.


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