Meet the Chinese ‘tambi’ noodle-makers of Zanzibar

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Unguja, Zanzibar – On a rainy morning on the predominantly Muslim islands of Zanzibar, 48-year-old Howingkao Howai bounds into Kariakoo Noodles Producer with pep in his step. 

As the holy Islamic holy month of Ramadan draws to an end, Howingkao and his team are in the thick of a noodle-making frenzy.

In Zanzibar, Ramadan is not complete without the sweet promise of tambi (noodles in Swahili) at iftar – the evening meal to break the daily fast.  

One of Zanzibar’s most popular Ramadan dishes, tambi is made of fried vermicelli noodles and dark raisins simmered in sweet coconut milk with dashes of cardamom, vanilla and cinnamon.

The noodles, made in small batches by Chinese family-owned noodle factories in the sister islands of Unguja and Pemba, are a testament to Zanzibar’s long-standing history of trade with the Chinese dating back to 1000 AD.

Amid the buzz and boil at the Kariakoo Noodles in Unguja, Howingkao explains: “I was born in Zanzibar, and I come from a family of seven children. I started working at the noodle factory as a young man, and I’ve been working here ever since. This [noodle-making] business is in our blood.” 

Howingkao’s father, Hojofat Howai, was born in southern China in the Cantonese port city of Guangzhou. 

In the early 1930s, he travelled with his father (Howingkao’s grandfather) by sea to Pemba where the family found work trading cloves and sea cucumbers. The Howai family briefly considered moving back to China in the 40s, but World War II meant times were lean and transportation by ferry or plane nearly impossible. 

With a growing family of four sons, Hojofat Howai and his wife decided to stay and establish a noodle-making factory in Chake Chake, Pemba. 

The Chinese introduced tambi [noodles] to Zanzibar, but Zanzibaris made it their own.”

Howingkao Howai, noodle maker

When Zanzibar’s 1964 revolution triggered a mass exodus, the Howai family once again considered leaving Zanzibar, but Howingkao’s father decided it was better to stay.

They relocated to Unguja to open Kariakoo Noodles, which Howingkao and his older brother Hing manage today. 

Five different Chinese family-owned noodle factories with generational roots in Zanzibar currently operate in Unguja alone, with a few other noodle shops in Pemba. Howingkao’s cousin Kao also runs a noodle factory around the corner, but they operate as independent businesses with competitive yet similar prices.  

“The Chinese introduced tambi [noodles] to Zanzibar,” Howingkao explains, “but Zanzibaris made it their own.” 

A family business

Mrs Chen, Howingkao’s cousin in her late 60s, believes it was her father, Chen Nang, also from Guangzhou, who first popularised the flour-based noodle in Zanzibar. 

In the 1920s, Chen Nang travelled by sea to Zanzibar to make a living in the sea cucumber export business. He moved around Unguja a lot and noticed Swahili villagers labouring to make small batches of rice flour noodles by hand. 

“This was hard work – a struggle from start to finish,” Mrs Chen remembers her father telling her. 

In Zanzibar, Ramadan is not complete without the sweet promise of tambi [Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein/Al Jazeera]

In the 1930s, Chen Nang returned to Guangzhou, got married and returned to Unguja with his wife and a hand-cranked noodle machine. 

“When my father returned to Zanzibar with that machine, it changed a lot of lives. A long time ago, without electricity on the hand, this way of making noodles became very popular. Everyone started asking for this tambi. And the rest is history!” says Mrs Chen. 

The history of ancient maritime trade and cultural exchange with China dates back thousands of years. Chinese Admiral Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was born into a Muslim family but worshipped Tietan, the patron goddess of seafarers and sailors. 

He reached East African shores on impressive fleets in the early 1400s – long before Vasco de Gama – trading porcelain and silk for ivory and ostriches with traders along the Swahili Coast.

Tambi is made of fried vermicelli noodles and dark raisins simmered in sweet coconut milk with dashes of cardamom, vanilla and cinnamon [Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein/Al Jazeera]

Chinese immigrants have since settled in Zanzibar in waves during the 1930s, 1960s and 1990s, adapting to Swahili culture while maintaining ties to their own, often speaking Cantonese at home and fluent Swahili for business. 

While tambi is not regular fare in Swahili cuisine, it is a unique Swahili delicacy eaten especially during the holy month of Ramadan. 

Howingkao, who converted to Islam when he married a Muslim Zanzibari 20 years ago, thinks tambi is so popular during the holy month because “when we fast, we are looking for affordable ways to fill up at night, and tambi is much cheaper than cassava (a starchy root) or bananas. Think about it! You have five children. One bunch of bananas is 4,000 shillings ($2), but you haven’t purchased the fish yet! With tambi, you fill up fast. Buy a kilo at 2,000 shillings ($1), and it lasts you and your five children at least two nights.” 

‘Ramadan is really our season’

Inside the steamy Kariakoo Noodles shop, with bright purple walls and white flour strewn everywhere, the team can barely keep up with demand, producing a year’s worth of tambi during peak season. 

“We’re open year-round, but Ramadan is really our season when we make noodles around the clock, 24 hours a day, in 12-hour shifts, for nearly four months. After Ramadan, tambi is still available because we store it for retail or wholesale until it runs out.” 

Howingkao stops mid-step to consider the maths. 

“In a year, we use … 96,000 kilos of flour.”

The team produces a year’s worth of noodles during peak tambi season [Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein/Al Jazeera]

Jumanne, a 50-year-old noodle maker who has worked for Kariakoo Noodles for eight years, explains how the sweet spiced tambi dish begins with vermicelli noodles made from a simple mixture of water and white flour. 

The dough is mixed in a small room filled with stacked flour sacks. 

Two young men run the mixer then carry the dough by hand to a machine that flattens the dough into thin ripples. Another team directs the long rivulets of dough through an extrusion machine, and a lone young man waits on a chair at the end of the line, ready to catch the long noodles in his hands as they slice through the blades. 

He then slings the noodles onto wooden sticks that are transferred quickly into a large contraption full of boiling water heated by a blazing fire.  

Jumanne says it’s essential for the noodles to boil and steam under a burlap cover for 30 minutes before transferring them back to mobile drying racks. 

His face glistening with sweat, he grabs a string or two and takes a bite, nodding his head in approval before another team wheels the racks of steaming noodles into the main storefront with the doors flung wide open onto a busy street scene. 

 It is vital for the noodles to boil and steam under a burlap cover [Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein/Al Jazeera]

Here, a group of energetic young men stand around tables chatting while they fold the piping hot noodles into little bundles resembling balls of messy yarn, placing them carefully on wooden-framed mesh trays. 

Usually, hundreds of tambi bundles dry in the hot Zanzibari sun, but this year’s monsoon season has seriously dampened noodle production, prompting Kariakoo Noodles to stack the trays in a coal-burning sauna-like room, where temperatures can reach up to 60 degrees Celsius, to dry.

“Really, that’s the hardest part, standing in that [heated] room, it gets really hot in there, but I’m used to it,” says Jummanne. “Throughout Ramadan, there are about eight or 10 of us here, and we’re always working, up to 12 hours a shift. Even my son worked with me for a while. It’s good work while it lasts.” 

Even in the rain, a steady stream of tambi customers flows into Kariakoo Noodles all morning. 

Ali, originally from Zanzibar and now living in the United Kingdom, stops in and leaves with five kilos of tambi. 

“We have a big family, they’ll be happy now,” he says. 

Mohamed, who lives in Dar es Salaam, rides up on his motorcycle, picks up 20 kilos of tambi in a large striped bag and secures it tightly to the back of his bike. 

“Half [of the tambi] will stay here in Zanzibar, and half I’ll take to Dar es Salaam on the first ferry tomorrow morning,” he says putting on his helmet before riding off into the rain.

Tambi is an inexpensive sweet treat and therefore a hit for families with children [Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein/Al Jazeera]

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