The zebu cattle of Madagascar are the same subspecies of domestic cow as those found all over Africa – as well as across much of southern Asia, where they’re often known as a Brahmans. Hump-backed, with a big dewlap under the neck, they have the scientific name Bos taurus indicus, distinct from Bos taurus taurus, the more familiar non-humped beef and dairy cow of Europe and North America. The two subspecies can be interbred, but zebus – and mixed breeds with a strong zebu background – are better adapted for dairy herding in tropical zones, where more than seventy breeds have been developed. Both zebus and European cattle were first domesticated more than 10,000 years ago from an original wild ancestor, the aurochs (Bos primigenius), the last of which died out in Poland in the early seventeenth century.
Introduced to the island by the end of the first millennium, probably from East Africa, zebus became a key part of the Malagasy economy and culture. They are still widely used to draw carts, to prepare the rice fields for planting by stamping through the turned soil, and to provide dung to enrich the soil. As in East Africa cows are by custom mainly kept for their milk and rarely killed for meat. The southern peoples – notably the pastoral Bara, Betsileo, Mahafaly, Antandroy and Antanosy – saw life (very much like the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania) through the lens of their cattle, amassing herds like treasure and viewing their cows and bulls as both real and symbolic wealth. Funerals were the traditional occasions for mass cattle slaughter and beef-eating, and the tombs of wealthy men are often mounted with dozens of cattle skulls in deliberately ostentatious fashion.
As for zebu on the menu, when the cattle are fed a good diet, slaughtered and hung properly, the meat is the match of any other beef and can be excellent. Too often though, scrawny and dehydrated beasts, herded along the highway or trucked in crowded wagons, end up as tough pavé de zebu on the tables of cheap (and not-so-cheap) restaurants. Like the meat, you’ll find zebu milk, yoghurt, ice cream and cheese indistinguishable from less exotic dairy products. Antsirabe is a well-known dairy centre – look out for the tasty blue cheese Bleue d’Antsirabe.