One of the things I worried most about before coming to Tanzania was how I would survive as a vegetarian. I’ve been a vegetarian for six years, so I don’t eat any meat or fish. Between the nine students on the program this semester, six of us have food restrictions. We have 3 vegetarians, 2 students with Celiac (gluten-free), 1 who is allergic to red meat, 1 who eats Kosher and another with various fruit and nut allergies. Despite each of us having different needs, we’ve generally found Tanzania to be incredibly accommodating and it’s often easier to be vegetarian here than in the States. So, to quell the worries of any future students with dietary restrictions or for the curious reader, we’ve compiled the ultimate guide to eating with dietary restrictions in Tanzania!
Being vegetarian has generally been very easy in Tanzania. Especially in Iringa, there’s access to a good amount of fresh vegetables, usually in the form of cooked greens, veggie curry or salad (but only at reputable places-- beware of uncooked veggies!). There’s also lots of fruit here, with watermelon, bananas, oranges and mangos being the most popular and found on nearly every street corner. For breakfast, we generally eat yogurt from a local grocery store or baked goods from our favorite fast restaurant, Clock Tower, such as chapati (like a Tanzanian tortilla), andanzi (fried dough) or even French toast. Lunch is usually at Clock Tower as well since it’s fast and inexpensive. All of us love the veggie curry which comes with cabbage, peas, broccoli and cauliflower, and rice--it costs about $2 USD. Other vegetarian options include chipsi mayai (essentially a French fry omelet), various types of pasta including mac and cheese or rice, beans and greens. For other meals, we usually alternate between a number of restaurants in town These include: Ruksanas that serves authentic Indian food including various paneer dishes; Sai Villa where a personal favorite is a delicious bean stew; Neema Crafts where you can get pizza, smoothies, sandwiches and breakfast foods; or Koffee Shop which has pizza, pasta, sandwiches and ice cream. Nearly every restaurant here has some form of veggie curry which is a staple in our diet and many restaurants also offer veggie burgers (some better than others, though). Overall, although being vegetarian here often consists of eating lots of carbs, I’ve found it to be easy and offering a good amount of variation.
For those with Celiac or others who are gluten free, it is also generally pretty easy despite there not being lots of variation. Breakfast for our gluten free folks is the hardest since breakfast here is almost always some sort of bread. They usually go for an apple or banana from the local grocery store or protein bars from home. Lunch, usually at Clock Tower, is usually also veggie curry (between the 9 of us, we eat so much veggie curry every day!), chipsi mayai or tandoori chicken with rice or fries. Other options include rice or ugali (a thick corn flour porridge almost like mashed potatoes) with cooked greens, beans, pea stew, fish or a variety of meat stews. The favorite dinner spot for our gluten free students is Ruksanas where they can eat nearly everything on the menu from curries to vegetable pakoras to papadums. They also enjoy the other restaurants around town where they often eat salads, sandwiches without the bun, rice or potatoes. While being gluten free often entails eating lots of rice, they find it to be relatively easy here!
Our Kosher student, who doesn’t eat pork, shellfish or meat with dairy, has no problems here. Pork and shellfish are both uncommon to find here and easy to avoid as are dairy products, so being kosher is very simple!
It’s very easy to avoid red meat here for those who are allergic or prefer not to eat it. While red meats are often options, chicken is much more common, and people almost always understand if you simply tell them you can’t eat it.
Veganism is probably the most difficult of the food restrictions to adhere to in Tanzania, but it is still really doable! When staying in a homestay village, there is generally no problem because almost all meals consist of rice, ugali or potatoes with greens or beans. In Iringa, it’s very easy to find these same foods. The downside is that other than this there’s not a significant amount of variation in the vegan food available. Most of the baked good breakfast items contain eggs, but there are lots of fruit and peanut butter at the local grocery store which can supplement this for breakfast. Lunch would likely consist of veggie curry and rice or rice or ugali, beans and greens. For other meals, good vegan options can be found at Ruksanas like aloe jeera (potatoes), lentil daal or veggie curries, sandwiches at Neema Craft or vegetable stir fries at Sai Villa or Koffee Shop. With veganism, other than the lack of variation, it shouldn’t present many challenges. Oil is more common than butter for cooking and meat is also not common so many foods are unintentionally vegan. However, eggs are often used as the main non-meat protein supplement and it can be hard to communicate at times because veganism is not well understood here. I would suggest a fair amount of flexibility when it comes to what you eat (i.e., lots and lots of rice) and making sure you know how to communicate your dietary needs in Swahili!
For those with food allergies, Tanzania can sometimes pose a problem. While many of the foods with common allergies such as peanuts, tree nuts and soy are not present in the diet here, there are others such as eggs which are more common. The biggest challenge would be that, at many restaurants, the staff do not speak English and so you will need a good understanding of how to describe your allergy in Swahili. Also, sometimes restaurant staff are unaware of certain ingredients in the food or avoiding cross-contamination which can be difficult for those with severe allergies.