São Tomé – a place where each sense is evoked in the best way possible, a place where you remember to breathe, a place where you can feel life emanating from within. The motto of Santomeans is leve leve, which loosely translates to ‘easy, easy’, and it gently seeps into everything they do – including what and how they eat. Yes, food is a large part of the São Tomé experience. On this island, it’s almost an art. After a few tantalizing and unhurried meals, visitors too begin to grasp the true meaning of leve leve. With each delicious morsel, they begin to shed their uptightness, their big world tension, and their rush.
It’s São Tomé , after all. Nothing should ever be rushed… especially a meal.
A haven for vegetarians and pescatarians
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – São Tomé is the greenest place I’ve ever been to, more lush than my wildest imagination. It also boasts waters that are the bluest of blue. So, on such a fertile island, it only makes sense that there’s an abundance of vegetable, fruit and seafood.
Vegetarians (and even vegans) will delight in the variety of plant-based food items on offer here. Similarly, those with a liking to seafood will certainly not be disappointed.
(Are you a meat eater? Don’t worry, you’ll find your fuel too, although meat is more expensive here so the locals don’t indulge in it daily.)
Oh, and many restaurants offer foreign cuisine as well, so if an Italian food craving strikes, you can find spaghetti bolognese and pizza with ease. But you know me, I prefer to eat what the locals eat as much as possible. For me, that’s a huge part of truly exploring a land.
In São Tomé City
In the limited time I spent on the island, I was able to try an impressive number of places – this fact in itself is a testament to the quality of food in São Tomé! Here’s a quick round-up of some of my fave places in the city.
If you happen to be in the city on a Thursday evening, head over to Cacau where you’ll find live dancing and music, along with mouth-watering food. They have a fantastic buffet with local dishes, lots of fish, plantain, flavorful vegetables… did I already mention how São Tomé is the perfect destination for vegetarians? It was here that I tried passion fruit mousse with fresh fruit for the first time and I was blown away.
Another gem is Camões, a fantastic and rather small restaurant that has incredibly good food. Try the oven dish with fish. Yum… the stuff of dreams!
Speaking of fish, Embaixada de Sabores is great, too. Pescatarians, take note! I think they have pizza as well (and an impressive 5/5 rating on their page).
If you’re scouring the area for finger-licking local food, Papa Figo is a must. It’s bustling most of the time, but that’s always a good sign, right?
And although it’s almost impossible having favorites here, Dona Tété would definitely make it to my top three picks (if not the first). This place doesn’t have menus (yup, you heard that right), just super fresh food daily and you gobble up whatever the cook serves. The variety of items in the shared plates is crazy. I honestly don’t think anyone can actually finish the amount of food they give! Since it’s not right next to the main streets, you might have a tiny bit of trouble finding it… but Google Maps to the rescue!
O Pirata is another brilliant restaurant that will leave you satiated and happy. Oh, it turns into a discotheque at night!
If you’re after something a bit different, Restaurante Casa Museu Almada serves tasting lunches. Enjoy several plates of local food that lives up to the highest standards. Bonus points for the welcoming atmosphere. The place also boasts a fantastic view and the terrace is dotted with beautiful, colorful flowers. Here, too, you don’t have to deal with the confusion of picking from a menu. The yummy plates will just keep arriving… and each plate will make you more and more content. This is also one of the few places where you’ll definitely bump into a few other travelers.
On the way to the South
It is in the stunning town of São João De Angolares, on the east coast of São Tomé island, that I had the best meal of my life. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can compare to Roça São João.
Let’s just say I’ve been to a lot of places – from Michelin starred restaurants to famous street food markets in Asia. I’m not a crazy foodie, but I do enjoy the experience of good food with a variety of tastes and textures. And this has been my very best culinary experience until now.
Why? The local food is extremely fresh, you can actually touch it as you see the chefs cooking live. The views of the lush greenery and the sparkling ocean are magnificent. It all starts with an awesome tasting experience as they prepare your taste buds. You chew fresh cocoa, a single strand of fresh pepper, fresh ginger and some strong local chocolate… what a rollercoaster, no? All this is washed down with some divine Portuguese wine. And then, dish after dish comes out to blow you away. Around 14 dishes will cost you EUR25 and it is SO WORTH IT.
The restaurant is owned by celebrity cook Joao Carlos Silva, born and raised on São Tomé’s plantations, and all the cooks from the local village are trained within the premises. Silva is a world-renowned chef who also has his cooking programme and is quite a star when it comes to São Tomean culture. His belief – that the” slow, simple pleasures [of life] filter into the nation’s cuisine” – is fully manifested at this restaurant. Many of the dishes take hours to cook, so it’s only fair to take your time and savour each bite when you sit down to eat. Savour. Sense. Sit back and enjoy.
When in São Tomé, it would be a travesty to not try the national dish, calulu. This dried smoked fish is cooked in a luxurious soup with a motley of herbs and vegetables. It is also a perfect example of the slow cooking this island champions and takes around eight hours to prepare. Many places serve it, so I doubt you’ll have trouble ordering a bowl or two.
And that’s all for the day. Just writing about all these delicious experiences has me longing for another trip to São Tomé soon… who can forget those delectable and tantalizing flavours? Certainly not me!