Chappati Complaints and Biriani Cravings:The Aesthetics of Food and Diet in Colonial Zanzibari Institutions,

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Introduction. From 1920 through the 1960s, no other issue appears as frequently as food as a source of complaint among the wards of the British-run lunatic asylum and prison in colonial Zanzibar. Neither the poor cell conditions nor forced labor duties created the same level of dissatisfaction. The food being served in the prison and lunatic asylum was so important to wards that there were many strategies used to try to affect change. There are cases of individual hunger strikes; patients refusing to eat en masse; angry letters signed by dozens of prisoners and sent to officials; complaints made directly to visitors; letters from cultural organizations working as lobbying groups; and articles published in the vernacular and English language press. This paper examines prison and lunatic asylum diets in colonial Zanzibar not as examples of colonial-era ideas about nutrition, politics, race, or culture, but rather as actual food whose smell, taste, texture, presentation, and preparation are important. It also considers food as a symbolic marker of racial identity, social class, and even madness in Zanzibari society. This paper investigates food from the point of view of the consumer—the eater—and may even be termed an “eater’s history.” In this case, the eaters are prisoners and patients inside colonial Zanzibar’s central prison and lunatic asylum.