Flavors of Madagascar
Flavors of Madagascar
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Manasa hihinam-bary!" Madagascans don't invite you to "breakfast," but to come share their rice.

The main food crop, rice is at the heart of Madagascan cooking. It's called "vary," and accompanies chicken (akoho sy vary), pork (henan kisoa si vary) and fish (hazan drano vary).

The Madagascan meal (sakafo) varies, depending on whether you eat it in a hotel or in a private home, in the highlands or in coastal regions - but rice will automatically be served with the two "national" dishes: romazava, a flavorful broth of meat and brèdes (a type of green); and ravitoto, a pork stew with ground cassava leaves.

You can also sample eel with pork (amalona sy hena kisoa), pork with Cape peas (hena kisoa sy voanjubory), or kitoza (dried smoked meat or fish).

There is an abundance of fish and crustaceans. While only the Vezos have a reputation as a tribe of fishermen, fishing is carried out everywehre on the coast. On the coral fringing reefs, locals fish for octopus, crab, small fish and squid. Tuna, marlins and threadfins are fished from outrigger canoes or sport-fishing boats. Mangroves harbor giant shrimp and oysters while the low tide stalls at Fort Dauphin and Nosy Be are known for rock lobsters, spider crabs and sea cucumber.

Each region has its specialties. On the northeastern coast, you'll be enchanted by vanilla-based recipes (chicken, duck) or coconut milk-based (seafood and crustaceans). Nothing better than sampoling them at Ste. Marie, the garden island in the middle of nowhere, a true tropical paradise bathed by the blue waters of the Indian ocean, fringed with wild coconut palms and immaculate beaches. The Majunga region is renowned for its game animals and birds, particularly teal.

Need a little snack during the day? Street foods include brochettes (masikita), sambos (meat and vegetable fritters), grilled cassava, yogurts and rice cakes (mofo gasy).

At certain market stalls in the capital, you'll be intrigued by cylindrical blocks wrapped in banana leaves. These are actually cakes made from rice flour, brown sugar and ground peanuts. The mixture is then cooked in large pots of water, producing a local specialty loved by young and old known as "koba ravina," pronounced koubravine.

In most towns, during the evening meal time, you'll find many "Mama" cooking appetizing little brochettes over the coals. They serve these masikita with mango pickles and a chili sauce, sweet potatoes and/or cooked cassava. In Nosy Be, the preference is for "bantams," savory rice and coconut cakes. Delicious!

Madagascan cuisine is relatively mild. The high central plateaus, a mosaic of mountains, basins, plains and hills, provide thyme, lemongrass and basil. In the eastern part of the country, regularly watered by the downpours of the trade winds, you'll find cloves, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, lemongrass again, and pink peppercorns. On the drier western lands and into the south, they collect kaffir lime and lemons. The north along Antsiranana and the Amber Mountain is filled with aromatic plants.

Flavored with ginger, cloves, nutmeg and a pinch of pepper, Madagascan cooking is easily approachable. Sakay, or chili paste, is preferred on the side, along with lasary, spicy mango, lemon or carrot pickles preserved in vinegar or hot curry oil. In this way, diners can spice their food to taste.

Since rice is found everywhere, don't be surprised to drink rice water, the most traditional Madagascan drink, as well as the most economical. Ranon'ampango is in fact water that has been boiled in the rice pot with the crust still sticking to the bottom! While this hot, amber-colored water is healthful and thirst-quenching, it can still be quite bitter if the rice has been burnt! Rum is the "national" drink. The most famous is made in Nosy Be in the well-known Dzamandzar sugar factory, which gives it the name "Dzama." Other local beverages include betsa-betsa, fermented cane juice; mora-mora, palm wine; and all the locally-distilled variations known under the general name of toaka gasy.

Madagascar is famous for its vanilla orchid growing. The first plantations were in the Antalaha region, but now the cultivation has expanded to outer regions like Sambava, Andapa, Vohémar and the island of Nosy Be in the northwest. From June to December, when the fragrant flowers fill the plantations with their scent, women manually pollinate the blooms with a thorn. After 8 to 10 months, from January to April, the plants bear fruit and the vanilla beans are picked and sorted.

Foods to try
Durin the days of royalty, in the highlands, the Bathing festival brought together sovereign and subjects around Tatao, a rice, milk and honey-based feast. Later, the traditional foods were enriched and became the seven royal dishes (hanim-pitoloha) and subsequently the foundations of what is now known as Madasgascan cuisine. Here are some recipe ideas and products.

A word of Portuguese origin (from "Bredos" or "Credos") which refers to certain plants or vegetables. There are two categories of brèdes, depending on their flavor. "Mamy" brèdes are mild leaves, while "anamalaho" brèdes have a hot, spicy flavor.

Duck confit ( gana ritra )
Duck legs cooked very slowly with ginger and pepper to enhance the flavor.

Stuffed eel ( amalona )
The eel is split open lengthwise and stuffed with ground pork, garlic, ginger and onion, then sewn closed. It is cooked quickly over moderate heat with a tomato and ginger sauce. The eel should not be stirred while cooking, because like any freshwater fish, it is very tender and will break up easily.

Shredded beef (varanga)
Thinly sliced beef or roundsteak simmered in water for 3-4 hours, then shredded to be braised with small whole onions.

Ground cassava leaves and pork  (ravitoto sy henakisoa)
Over high heat, cook some small cubes of pork fat to create cracklings and fat. Remove the cracklings so they don't burn. Brown pieces of pork in the fat and cook over low heat for two hours, then add ground cassava leaves. Cook another 30 minutes and three or four cloves of garlic. Garnish with the cracklings.

Foie gras
Madagascan foie gras has a refined flavor. The regions that produce the most are Behenjy, Fianarantsoa and Andasibe. Companies prepare canned foie gras for export.

Thinly sliced meat that is smoked or dried in the sun. It is then eaten grilled.

Little rice cakes cooked in a round pan, usually eaten in the morning with coffee. Excellent when hot and crisp.

This is the typical Madagascan dish - you might even say the national dish. The name means "clear broth," but it is in fact a broth containing four varieties of "brèdes" or greens, particularly the hot variety (anamalao). Sometimes meat is added, in which case the meat is cooked until tender, and then the chopped greens are added along with onion, tomato, garlic and ginger. The beef is sometimes replaced by grain-fed chicken or pork.

Coconut chicken
Prepare the coconut milk by blending the meat and juice. In about 500 ml (2 cups) of this milk, cook a quartered chicken over low heat; at the end of the cooking time add one or two tomatoes and a spoonful of chopped onion.

Tilapia - Fried freshwater fish 
Choose a good-sized fish. After gutting it, sauté it whole in lard or normal frying oil. Flavor it with a few pieces of garlic during cooking.

Rock lobster with coconut rice  
The lobster is plunged into boiling water, then into a sauce of tomato, shallots, garlic, ginger and cloves, served with rice cooked in coconut milk.

A rice-based dish accompanied by ground cassava leaves, pieces of meat (zebu or pork) and sometimes combined with coconut milk (on the side).

Zebu hasn't always been domesticated, since Madagascans only began eating it in the reign of Ralambo in the 18th century. All parts of the animal are used: the meat is eaten, the hide is used for leather, the horns for "ranomena," a old folk remedy with a thousand uses, the intestines for sausage, the manure for the fields... and sacrifice for a period nod to the ancestors. 

Mazotoa homana !

Flavors of Madagascar 1

Green Madagascar pepper
Milder in flavor, these are fresh peppercorns picked before they are completely ripe.

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