When my mother, Thuraya, was a kid in Burundi, she’d wake up every morning to the smoky aroma of timbered wood. She’d rush excitedly outside where she was met with the familiar sounds of crackling flames heating up a gigantic, oil-filled pan set atop the burning pile of tree branches. Her grandmother crouched beside it, preparing to make her favourite East African delicacy. Momma would sit there in her pyjamas, watching as grandmother emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray of tiny, triangular pieces of dough, which she’d carefully slide, one-by-one, into the boiling oil.
The pieces sizzled and swam amid the oil, and like magic, they would begin to puff-up like little balloons as they browned. Granny would gently ladle oil over them until they were the perfect golden colour, then quickly remove the pieces with a slotted spoon to serve piping hot for breakfast. Known by many names, from half-cake to mahamri, here in Oman these East African delicacies are most commonly called mandazi (andazi in singular). These staples of the Omani Zanzibari table originated near the Great African Lakes on the Swahili-speaking coast, finding their way to the Sultanate via the ancient trade routes.
It all began in small East African villages where there were no breads available for residents to have for breakfast, and there was no bookshop or internet where residents could search for recipes. So, the ladies in those little villages had to make it work, and collectively came up with their own recipes for pastries made using only a handful of easily attainable ingredients like cardamom, flour, vanilla, and sometimes coconut.
As my grandmother remembers of her ‘good old days in Africa’, she’d make piles of mandazi pastries and take them to a nearby souq to sell them to fellow neighbours for breakfast. Other times, she’d set up a stall right in front of her house. As times changed and it became easier for villagers to get a variety of breads from bakeries around the city, the love and significance of these breads remained strong, with local bakeries offering mandazis in a variety of forms. Though the home made versions, like the ones my grandmother sold from the roadside, remained the most popular.
At the time, many Omani gentlemen in the trading business had made East Africa their home, gotten married, built families, and adopted many aspects of the culture, including a love for the local foods. Even the traders who simply passed through the port towns of Zanzibar returned to Oman with a taste for these exotic foods.
Omani ladies in Zanzibar learned the art of making the puffy, cardamom pockets and Zanzibari ladies who travelled to Oman cooked these breads in their new kitchens from Nizwa to Sur. Finally, when most of the Omani families in Zanzibar moved back to Oman around the turn of the century, they brought the colourful, vibrant culture of Africa along with them, especially their rich cuisine.
Today, ladies of many different backgrounds in Oman know the art of mandazi making. For my family, the tradition of making these breads continues with my mother, who prepares them for us using the recipes and methods that were faithfully passed on to her from her grandmother.
Though making mandazi may seem simple at first, it actually requires a deft technique as simple mistakes can result in sad, weird-looking mandazi or, even worse, a dry, flat pastry. And what many locals don’t know is that there are not one or two, but four main variants of mandazi, all of which use somewhat similar ingredients, but employ distinctive cooking techniques. Luckily for me, my mother has mastered them all; her daily ritual of baking and frying imbuing our kitchen with a seemingly everlasting aroma of cardamom.
The African fried bread my mother grew up with was called mandazi ya Burundi or half-cake mandazi. As the name suggests, it originated in Burundi. Small in size, dense, and sugary, they are called half-cake because of the texture of the pastry, which is similar to that of a baked cake. The simplest of the four, half-cake doesn’t require any resting time; the dough is simply mixed, cut into small diamonds and deep fried right away.
When my mother’s family moved to Muscat, they were introduced to a new form of this bread, the most common type found here in Oman, called mahamri (some call it mahomori). These large, cardamom-scented, triangles originated in Tanzania and Kenya. The dough of mahamri is kneaded, left to rest, rolled out, and cut into large triangular pieces that are deep fried in vegetable oil. They require yeast instead of baking powder, and thus require more resting time to swell up. The resulting bread is light, airy, and only slightly sweet.
There’s a delicious, bread-like variant of baked mandazi known as oven mandazi that are huge in size, and taste similar to mahamri, but a bit sweeter. Some say they originated in Tanzania, but that is up for debate.
The most fascinating form of mandazi is also the least common, and its origins are disputed with some saying the recipe originated in Tanzania, while others insist it came from Burundi. The curiosity of this sweet bread begins with it’s name, saga manoti, which means “to grind or smash money”. According to my grandmother, the bread earned its moniker by being so sweet that those who consume it end-up eating more and more, spending all their money to satisfy their cravings for the bread. I have always found the name and the story funny, and almost believable, as they are pretty amazing. First two separate doughs are prepared, one made with sugar, one without. The dough is rolled into small balls, which are then rolled out into cylindrical ropes. A sweet rope and unsweetened rope are then coiled together like a snail before being rolled flat and cut into six pieces to be fried. The resulting breads feature a gorgeous, two-tone marbled effect. The hot triangles are soaked in a homemade sugar syrup that has been heated to the point that it will crystallise like powdered sugar on the surface of the pastry. Magical. All of these chewy breads are best consumed with cardamom tea.
For many Zanzibari and Omani families, mandazi is a treasured aspect of our culture, from the joys of watching it swim and inflate in hot oil to the moment it’s dipped in hot, milky tea for a perfect first bite. For me, it is a delicious and tangible connection to another world; an edible testament to my mother and grandmother’s journey home.
Order East African Mandazi from a pro
Call Thuraya Abdullah +968 9988 2891
Half-Cake, 50 baisa per piece
Mahamri, 100 baisa per piece
Baked Mandazi, 150 baisa per piece
Saga Manoti, 150 baisa per piece