On Ibo island in the Indian Ocean, the sun beats down through deserted streets while coconut palms sway in the sea breeze. If this idyllic Mozambican isle didn't already live up to it's sleepy reputation, the subdued mood of its locals during Ramadan truly seals the deal.
The majority of the population on Ibo is Muslim, which can make life difficult for visitors expecting to eat out during the day while the month-long series of fasts takes place. But with a little forward planning and some patience, the experience is worth the wait.
The tiny island is situated off the northern Mozambican coast in the Quirimbas Archipelago. An important trading port for the Arabs and then the Portuguese, remnants of this troubled history are still apparent in the island's crumbling colonial architecture, not to mention in the melting pot of Arabic, Portuguese, and African influences on the local cuisine.
There's a rumour wafting around the island that a woman called Mariamo Amisse will prepare local cuisine by request. As it's Ramadan, foreigners are the only ones eating lunch, so I book the day before to ensure she's available.
There's no signage outside Amisse's whitewashed villa so it takes some local know-how to find out where I'm going. On arrival, I'm greeted with colourful capulana fabric adorning the tables, and it's here that I meet Amisse and her chef, Fatima Mahando. Amisse, like many Kimoani or "coast people," paints her face with a white paste derived from plants. She uses it to protect her skin from the sun and as a sign of beauty.
There's no menu at Amisse's restaurant today, nor on any day for that matter. Instead, she buys a catch of the day from the local fishermen who arrive on the beach at high tide. She goes out daily to see what they've caught and they weigh the catch right then and there with hanging scales. Luckily, some fishermen have decided to brave the windy conditions on the day I arrive and Amisse is able to buy fresh calamari. On another day, it could be fish or prawns.
Today Amisse prepares a dish called Luminu, an aromatic calamari, cassava, and coconut curry. What it lacks in looks, it makes up for in both texture and flavour.
Not much grows in the sandy soil on Ibo (even the cassava is imported from the mainland) but one ultra fresh and locally sourced element of Luminu is the freshly made coconut milk that underscores the curry. Coconuts hold such importance to the island's locals that if a husband returns home without one, his wife is likely to send him straight back out the door.
Amisse produces the fresh coconut milk with the help of an ingenious kitchen implement that serves as both a seat and grater. This coconut-grating device is called an Mbuzi ("goat" in Swahili), and is a simultaneously frightening and impressive contraption.
The Mbuzi seat is made of two pieces of wood that fold up for easy storage. On one edge of the stool is a lethal serrated metal ring used for grating out the mature coconut flesh. Juice oozes out of the flesh before water is added and then wrung out to produce the fresh coconut milk. The flesh is discarded and fed to the chickens. It's a laborious process but worthwhile for the resulting flavour.
After much boiling, everything but the cassava and the calamari disintegrates to a mush. Amisse tells me that all the residents of Ibo love Luminu for its flavour.
And it's hard not to love the double blessing of fresh seafood and fresh coconut milk, married in a spicy curry that melts in your mouth as you melt in the sun. Served, as always, with a good helping of fresh coconut rice.