Malagasy cuisine – a beginner’s guide

In my previous post, The Role of Food in Malagasy life, I looked at how food fits into Malagasy life. But what do people actually eat?

Rice, rice and more rice

No discussion of Malagasy cuisine could get very far without mentioning rice. Traditionally eaten three times a day and the principal crop, a Malagasy will not feel full following a meal without rice. Revolts have happened when businesses didn’t make rice available for their Malagasy staff. According to the International Year of Rice a Malagasy person eats 140 kg rice per year (that’s 0.4kg or 0.9lbs rice per day).

Preparing and serving rice

RiceCooking good rice is as important in Madagascar as making a good cup of tea in Britain or vinaigrette in France or Steak in Argentina.

However, here’s the general rules of rice cooking:

  • Sort the rice using a rice sorter to pick out husks, stones and other dirt
  • Rinse the rice to clean it and get off some of the starch
  • Immediately fill pot with water for cooking and put lid on
  • Place pot on hot fire to get water boiling
  • Sort the rice using a rice sorter to pick out husks, stones and other dirt
  • Rinse the rice to clean it and get off some of the starch
  • Immediately fill pot with water for cooking and put lid on
  • Place pot on hot fire to get water boiling
  • Let water boil vigorously for a minute
  • Turn heat down very low and let the rice steam cook itself.

Meals are normally served with all the food placed in big pots in the middle (either on a table or, traditionally, on a mat on the floor). People used to simply tuck in with spoons however people often now use plates and serve themselves rice and sauce. The rice often forms a mound (or mountain) on the plate and people often have two or three servings, if there is enough.

Where rice comes from

Many people in rural areas grow rice. It’s less common on coastal areas than it is on the plateau (see photos of rice cultivation on WildMadagascar.org).

Rice that has been harvested is laid out on wicker mats in the sun to dry – still in its husks. Then, once dry, the rice is pounded in a huge wooden pestle and mortar. The husks are used as chicken feed.

You can also buy your rice from the market from ladies surrounded from big rice sacks full of different varieties. Rice is measured in ‘kapoks’, which are old condensed milk cans. I have never seen a packet of rice here.

The price of rice is currently around €0.14 per kapok (350 Ariary). Most Malagasys like at least one kapok of rice per meal – I like about one third of a kapok. The price of rice is a topic of much discussion and politicians are in trouble if the price goes up too much.

Madagascar no longer grows enough rice to feed its population which is a source of much sadness. Apparently, much of the high quality Malagasy rice is exported and lower quality rice is imported, mainly from Pakistan. I’m a big fan of Malagasy red rice which has more flavour and nutrients than white rice.

The main dish

Gasy meal

The accompaniment to rice is called Kabaka or Ro (in Diego). It is often either a rich tomato sauce or the watery dish, Romazava, but can also be a mild curry (barely spicy at all). Any of these dishes can be made with any meat, fish, seafood or beans.

However they also eat drier foods such as steak, fried fish, dried fish and ‘brochettes’, which are tiny bits of beef grilled on skewers, like mini-shish kebabs – this common street snack came over from Réunion I believe.

There is often some ‘enchary’ or salad, made from either slicing or shredding salad ingredients (including often raw mango or papaya) with some liquid, chopped onions and sometimes chilli peppers.

BredeAn important vegetable product is ‘añana’ or ‘brède’ (this is a French word but French people I know hadn’t heard of it). Essentially añana is one of a few varieties of leaves; including cassava or manioc leaves, watercress and others types of leaves that I don’t recognise. Añana is most commonly served as a key component of the watery dish, Romazava – it can be simply añana boiled in water with salt or a more complex stew with meat or chicken etc. There is also the delicious dish with ground cassava leaves, coconut milk and beef.

Traditional malagasy food was not spicy but Malagasys have developed more of a taste for it – however, the main dish is rarely spicy, chilli being served in jar on the side.

Feeding the family on a tight budget

The skill to feeding your family despite very tight resources comes from making sure you have rice in and then finding anything to be the accompaniment. This can include a single tomato and onion for the whole family, a single mango or boiling scraps of gristle and fat to flavour a stew.

It has become harder and harder to afford protein products. I read in the last edition of the ‘Revue Océan Indien’ (print magazine on sale here) that the average Malagasy now eats 3.5kg meat per year compared to 19.5kg per year in 1961 (and compared to 40+kg for an American and 30kg for a French person). Beef is the most commonly bought meat as it’s the cheapest (5000 Ariary, €2 per kilo).

Malagasy breakfast

Traditionally breakfast consists of last night’s rice reheated. I also suspect there are many people who start the day without breakfast.

Drying fishMorning rice is often cooked in lots of water to make ‘Sabeda’, like watery rice pudding without any sugar. With this, people often eat dried fish (see photo)or mini-meat kebabs.

Another common morning dish is soup – in the style of chinese soup so it is watery with noodles and some bits of veg and meat floating in it.

In towns where many people eat breakfast at food stalls in the street, it is also common to eat a deep fried option, either mukary (like doughnuts), cassava root or banana. Some of the sweet options are baked such as the mukary vary (rice bun) and ‘Good-good’ a bit like bread and butter pudding. Each of these items, plus either strong coffee or weak tea, is 100 Ariary, or €0.04.

Street food breakfastBread is also very common in towns – only available in the French baguette style. You can buy a small baguette 300 Ariary (€0.12) and buy a portion of butter to be spread in it. Many people stop in corner shops to buy a piece of bread and butter, a home made yoghurt and a glass of ‘syrop’ (made up cordial).

Snacks / street food

Malagasys don’t snack much in between meals, apparently all used to waiting until the food is served. So, ‘snacks’ often replace a meal rather than supplement it

mango and chilliPeople often eat fruit that is growing on local trees as a snack. Mango season is a boost to everybody’s fruit intake – this photo shows unripe mangoes doused in chilli peppers. Delicious.

As well as the snacks that are on sale for breakfast, there are also samosas on sale in the afternoons. The mini-kebab ‘brochettes’are also a common street snack, served with some watery enchary (salad) and fried savoury bananas (delicious!).

It is also possible to buy sandwiches on the street with delicious home made fillings.

Desserts

Desserts are rare although fresh bananas are often offered.

To read more about Malagasy food and find some recipes see the African Cookbook Madagascar page.

6 Responses

  1. I’m a cook lecturer at the National Institute of tourism an hotel business and I’m astonished by your declaration about the Malagasy breakfast!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    “Traditionally breakfast consists of last night’s rice reheated. I also suspect there are many people who start the day without breakfast.”
    Are you really sure of it ????
    I’m sorry to tell you that the real malagasy breakfast is very rich in sweet or salted food !
    I Think that your vision demeans the reality.

  2. this website really helped me w/ my madagascar project in french, just wanted to thank y’all!!! ♥

  3. i just made my dish from this sit for my project in geography thanx!🙂

  4. Hi RANDRIAMIAKATRA Friedrich
    I’ve just returned from Madagascar this week. I was visiting an orphanage just outside of Tana. Staying at the orphanage, I did not get much opportunity to taste or try many of the meals that the more affluent Malagasy people eat … my breakfasts were much like what was reported here, because the orphanage didn’t have a budget for extravagant menus. Since you have much more knowledge and training in cooking, how about sharing a couple of recipes for traditional Malagasy breakfasts with us? … I’d love to know more about the traditional meals and how to prepare them.
    Thanks!

  5. For all of these information about malagasy cuisine, thank you, I’m one of your students at the INTH. We miss you a lot, what’s going on? Is everything ok. I have just wanted to hear from you.Good luck.I know that you do not remenber me ’cause you’ve told us that remembering our names is not possible. Bye!

  6. Hi!

    Back in Madagascar I had a fried food, which tasted kind of like a donut. They were small, about 3 inches long and were oval in shape. I was told that they were made with beans, but they tasted glutinous, as if they were made from pounded rice. Back at the town I visited, women sold them on the streeets. They made those things fresh, dropping them into a vat of oil. I’ve been fiercely craving it, but I don’t know what it is called and I want to try and make it to satisfy my craving. Would you by any chance know what the name of the food I’m talking about is, and the recipe for making it?

    Thank you so much!

    Fanny

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