Madagascar’s food culture is built around the country’s national staple, rice (riz, or vary in Malagasy), which is cooked until very soft and sits heavily at the heart of most traditional cuisine. Even enthusiastic rice lovers tend to tire of it eventually, but happily there are plenty of interesting flavours to accompany it.
Breakfast (usually available 6.30am–9am) is typically not included at cheaper hotels, but added to your bill. A Malagasy breakfast consists of rice and greens, but a simple petit déjeuner (often referred to as a “Continental breakfast”) is increasingly common, and consists of tea or coffee with French-style baguette bread, usually with butter and/or jam, and occasionally with pastries. If you add juice, eggs, sausages, yoghurt, cereal or anything else, it becomes an “American breakfast”. Lunch (around noon–2pm) is again traditionally a meal of rice – a very big heap of it, often pressed into a deep bowl to form a pleasing mountain – accompanied by whatever laoka (sauce, stew, soup) is on offer. However, many small places will also serve a simple two-or three-course French-style menu du jour, sometimes with a couple of choices, and typically costing around 15,000ar. Dinner (around 7–8.30pm) is traditionally a smaller meal, but again the European style of dining is increasingly common. Tea or coffee afterwards are always an extra.
The main options are hotelys (a hotely is a local Malagasy restaurant with a simple menu of staple favourites); your hotel dining room; and foreign imports from pizzerias and crêperies to Italian, French, Indian and Chinese specialist restaurants; Tana has some very good French-Malagasy restaurants, and even Mexican and Japanese. Happily, Madagascar hasn’t yet been graced with international cattle-shed burger chains or fried-battery-bird outlets.
Street food, served from a table in an established location at the side of the road – usually a quieter, shady corner on a busy central street – by a woman or several women, often accompanied by children and babies, can be very good indeed, and very cheap: rice and sauce, brochettes of beef, fish or prawns, roasted or baked plantains, bananas, cassava or sweet potato, stews and vegetable fritters may all be on offer. Your hostess will keep tabs on what you consume, and the bill tends to be less than 5000ar per person. Such pop-up kitchens tend to start serving late morning and will be there until early or mid-evening, whenever the food runs out or the customers fade away.
To be fair, while meals in Madagascar can be very enjoyable, too many are stodgy and oily: it only takes two evenings in a row of tough zebu steak, with added bone fragments and soggy fries accompanied by the standard heap of well-boiled rice, to make you long for a green salad and quiche or a tasty bowl of pasta. If you get bored of repeated zebu, among other meats look out for pork (kisoa in Malagasy), which is less common, but can be very flavoursome. Chicken, not surprisingly, is usually tough, but the duck can be good and a well-cooked romazava (traditional spicy beef and pork stew) can be excellent and has become almost the national dish. Other dishes to sniff out include various popular Chinese-style noodle soups (misao) and Indian curries (kary/kari).
Some of the best meals are to be had on the coast where seafood reigns. The shellfish is invariably excellent: fresh lobster (homard) or crab (crabe) rarely cost more than 25,000ar, and shrimps/prawns (crevettes), scampi/giant prawns (langoustines) or rock lobster/crawfish (langouste; as big as a lobster but without the huge claws) can be almost as good and are even cheaper. They’re the staple of the Nosy Be and Île Sainte Marie tourist restaurants – as are squid/cuttlefish (calmares). Whole fish (the catch of the day, often in coconut, or raw – à la tahitienne), tuna (thon), shark (requin) and various billfish including swordfish, marlin and barracuda are also sometimes available.
Vegetarians can have a hard time of it in restaurants, as so little can be guaranteed meat-free, but most places can happily make up a salad of raw, peeled vegetables with a dressing, even if there’s nothing specific on the menu. With cheese from the highlands, crusty bread, and fruit, peanuts, cashews and coconuts from the markets, you won’t starve.
Fruits available include bananas, fresh coconut and pineapple all year round, and mangos, lychees, rambutans and mangosteens in season.
Spiced and flavoured rum in an almost infinite variety of flavours, known as rhum arrangé, and THB beer pronounced “Tay-Ash-Bay” (short for Three Horses Beer) are Madagascar’s two great contributions to the art of tropical intoxication (the local wine, sadly, is not). Many restaurants take great pride in their selection of home-flavoured rums – ginger, mango, coffee, lychee, liquorice… often set out along the bar in a colourful display – and you may well be treated to a postprandial shot on the house. THB is a good lager, sold in large 65cl bottles, usually available cold and invariably costing 5000ar or less. A low-alcohol shandy (panachée) version called Fresh does the trick when you don’t want THB’s five percent alcohol.
Madagascar has the usual range of fizzy drinks, plus something called Bonbon Anglais (“English Sweet”), a tongue-assaulting bubblegum-flavoured soft drink. Tap water is often safe to drink, but to save the trouble of worrying most visitors buy the local bottled mineral water, Eau Vive, by the 1.5-litre bottle. It’s available everywhere from roadside shacks to supermarkets and petrol stations, and costs from 1800ar to 5000ar.
Coffee and tea are included at breakfast but otherwise always an additional cost to a meal. Locally roasted coffee can be excellent, but you can’t depend upon it, while tea tends to be the insipid international teabag beloved of hotels and restaurants that don’t get much call for it.
Madagascar may be popularly associated with vanilla or rum and sugar cane, but the national crop with no equal is rice (vary in Malagasy). Average annual consumption, while going down, is still the highest per capita in the world, at around 150kg per person, or more than 400g, or a pound of rice a day. To most Malagasy, a meal isn’t a meal without rice, and usually that means a large mound of the grain. To produce the requirement for more than three million tonnes of rice a year, some 12,000 square kilometres of the island are devoted to rice-growing, whether in naturally flooded fields or beautifully terraced and painstakingly irrigated rice paddies. (Rice, with its hollow stalk, is a grass that can survive to maturity underwater, and flooding the fields eliminates most weeds.) Despite this mammoth production, it’s never quite enough, and you’ll see sacks of imported rice in many parts.
The best rice-growing areas can produce three harvests each year. This is typical of the ravishing terraced landscapes around Fianarantsoa, where the country’s master rice-growers, the Betsileo, have rice cultivation down to a very fine art, often using several cultivars. Each farm includes one or more small nursery fields for germination, where the tender, young shoots create intense lime-green splashes among the verdant patchwork separated by dykes of red earth.
Rice-growing is a year-round activity. Before planting, the ground has to be prepared, either by hoeing, or by zebu – often men and boys goad a group of zebu back and forth until the earth is thoroughly broken up. You’ll see people, usually women, bent double planting the new sprouts in the main fields. Later, pre-harvest, the fields are drained to dry off the ears and ripen the grains which once you can often be seen drying at the roadside in many villages. The rice is then threshed by hand or pounded in large mortars to remove the husk from each grain.
Madagascar isn’t just a traditional rice-growing country. It was here, in the densely cultivated areas around Lake Alaotra, northeast of Antananarivo, that the system of rice intensification (SRI) was first developed in the 1980s by a French agronomist and Jesuit priest, Père Henri de Laulanié. SRI stipulates that seedlings are planted singly, in spaced rows, in fields that are fed with compost, weeded carefully, and kept moist to aerate the roots, rather than flooded. The results have been spectacular, with yields of up to six tonnes per hectare compared with the traditional two tonnes, and SRI is now followed in fifty countries.
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.