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.

Role of food in Malagasy life

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

Cooking outsideThe 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.

Preparing foodThe 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’.

Chicken sellingIt 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

Pounding bredeFood 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 a mealSharing 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.”