Food forms a central part of the activity, rhythm and conversation of daily life in Madagascar.
Its importance is because preparing meals is a lengthy and communal affair, food takes up the majority of income so is appreciated and food is a resource that people can share. And Malagasys like to share
Working together to produce a meal
The combination of finding fuel, ingredients and water, keeping a fire going, preparing ingredients and cooking takes considerable effort; effort which is normally shared.
Most of the cooking effort happens in the morning with enough food being left over from lunch for dinner. Fresh rice may be cooked in the evening, some of which is often left for breakfast the next morning.
In contrast to Europe, there isn’t a kitchen for a solitary cook to be tucked away in. Preparation usually goes on outside the house in full view of everyone. In areas with more rain, there is often a separate house just for cooking. Whether inside or outside, you’ll end up involved if you’re sitting around.
So food preparation is also a sociable affair. In a country where many people don’t leave their homes each day to travel far to an office (although some do), food preparation can form the backdrop to life.
The fact that food preparation is lengthy and on display helps explain why most Malagasys are competent cooks, both men and women. It’s not possible to grow up without being involved in the cooking.
Malagasy cuisine is often delicious although the cooking isn’t in fact that complicated. However, it is all done with basic ingredients and equipment.
There are few labour saving devices, freezers or fridges and there’s no cook-in sauces or packet food. This means planning meals well in advance in order to leave time to find ingredients at least once a day.
On the other hand, Malagasys are used to making do with whatever ingredients they have and can rustle a meal out of a few ingredients.. They would laugh to see Europeans standing in a kitchen full of food saying ‘There’s nothing to eat’.
It also means that meat and fish arrives in its animal form rather than pre skinned, filleted and in packets. It is also often still alive (in the case of poultry and goats). So people are competent butchers and fishmongers as well as cooks.
In villages many people are eating rice they have cultivated themselves so it is still in its shucks. Thus an arduous task is to pound the rice in a huge pestle and mortar type affair where the pestle is as high as the person doing the shucking. Even if the rice is purchased ready shucked, it still needs to be sorted before cooking to clear out the chaff, stones and bad grains.
Another key aspect of Malagasy cooking is the equipment used. Most cooking is done over open wood or charcoal fires in front of the house (houses are mainly just used for sleeping). So sourcing of fuel is another necessary daily activity.
Cooking over open fires means that learning to manage your fire for the right heat (and not letting it go out) is an important skill in producing a meal.
Some people who are better off in solid (concrete) houses are increasingly running hobs off gas canisters but this is still very much an the exception.
Nothing is wasted
Food is appreciated because it’s a valuable resource in a poor country.
According to the Executive Summary of the Madagascar Action Plan, food takes up 70% of family income for most Malagasys, leaving little else for other essential needs.
And food can be scarce for many families – all of my Malagasy friends have known real hunger at some point in their lives.
So, all the effort involved and the value placed on food (nothing is wasted) means that meals are generally lovingly prepared.
This contrasts with many Anglo-Saxon Westerners who treat food preparation as something to be achieved as quickly as possible to put food on the table and where it can involve going to the kitchen and reappearing 20 minutes later with a meal. I’m happy to concede that this doesn’t apply to the French, whose culture, in general, appreciates devoting time to preparing and eating food.
Karibo – the art of sharing
Sharing and being good hosts are important parts of Malagasy culture and you will always be offered food if you arrive at people’s houses anywhere near meal times.
If you walk past someone eating even a tiny meal (or a piece of bread), they will usually cry ‘Karibo’ (ka-ree-boo) which is an invitation to join them. A Malagasy friend of mine asked me to clarify that it is possible to pop into somebody’s house near dinner time in Europe and wait while somebody finishes their dinner without a chair and plate immediately being brought out. When I confirmed this was true, he looked confused and concerned.
Sometimes in Madagascar no explicit offer is made as it is so universally understood that the visitor is welcome to eat. And a visitor accepting food will not make a big thing of it as to do so would imply that the offer wasn’t made with a generous open heart.
And, there is always enough to go around, however many people turn up. The ability to pull of this surplus trick despite relative poverty is the tendency to cook more rice than is needed for a meal and everyone’s automatic ability to spread out the accompaniment according to the number of people.
A Malagasy expression goes, “Even the sunbird (the smallest bird) has enough food to share with 100 people.”