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Malagasy Cuisine – The Food of Madagascar

The island of Madagascar is famous for its unique and fascinating wildlife as well as its spectacular landscapes. But Malagasy cuisine is less well known. It is both interesting and delicious and a fundamental part of the country’s culture. Rice is the staple but the food of Madagascar has also been influenced by settlers, many from Africa and South East Asia, as well as the French, who colonised Madagascar between 1896 and 1946.

We followed the RN7 (Route Nationale) road from Toliara in the South West of the country to the capital Antananarivo (also known as Tana which is both more pronounceable and easier to spell!) and then we drove along the RN2, heading eastwards to Andasibe.

RN7 Madagascar

Food Regions in Southern Madagascar

The southwest of Madagascar is the home of the Bara tribe. They are cattle farmers, who raise zebu, a cow which has a distinctive hump.  

The Bara have a tradition of stealing zebu from other families in the area. This is a custom that young men undertake to prove their worthiness to marry a wife. Gaining permission from a local shaman at an auspicious time, the men will go out at night, protected by magic, to capture a zebu and bring it home.

We visited a zebu market in Ambalavao. Herders will walk their cattle for miles from all around to sell their zebu. This magnificent beast was worth around $500.

prize zebu at the market

As you travel further north into the centre of Madagascar you reach rice country. The Betsileo tribe live here and they are farmers who cultivate rice, providing a significant proportion of the country’s food. Rice is the staple crop throughout the country and Malagasy people eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

As we travelled north along RN7 we saw many paddy fields. The communities work together to bring the harvest in. The Betsileo are amongst the richest tribes because of their rice cultivation. As we were travelling through this region our guide bought a huge sack of rice for his family as it was much cheaper than in Tana.

Different varieties of rice are cultivated – white rice and brown rice, but also red rice which was excellent for making rice porridge. Generally families eat together and share a plate, so everyone eats quickly to grab as much food as they can.

Our journey along RN7 continued until we reached Tana and then we travelled eastwards along the RN2. It’s always worth stopping at Amanistena – sausage town. An initiative to create a tourist attraction as visitors make their way to the remarkable site of Andasibe, you can stop for lunch for a sausage or two.

sausages from Amanistena - sausage town Malagasy cuisine

We enjoyed zebu and pork sausage with cassava chips and hot chilli sauce. Apparently Madagascar’s president always stops for a sausage when he’s in the area. 

Dining in Madagascar

Most of the lodges we stayed at offered western food, particularly at breakfast. But hotel kitchens are usually absolutely happy to cook a typical Malagasy breakfast for you, although you have to request it the night before as the rice porridge takes some time to cook. We have a post about learning to go off-menu for breakfast – we’ve discovered over the years that people are often delighted that you want to eat a local breakfast.

We used a local company to tour Madagascar. The reason for doing this is that we were short on time and travel through the country is mora mora – slowly, slowly – as the country’s infrastructure isn’t great.  It isn’t even good. You think you’ve seen bad potholes in the road in your hometown? That’s nothing compared with Madagascar.

We stayed in a variety of hotels and lodges, many of which offered evening meals. Again, these were often western options. We asked our lovely driver whether it would be possible to find a local restaurant to eat at and he knew some great places to try food from each region. If you see a sign for a ‘restaurant hotel’ it means that you will be visiting a restaurant.

Typical Malagasy Dishes

Zebu, pork and chicken are popular meats. Fish is also eaten – river fish is popular inland. Beans and vegetables also feature heavily. Cassava leaves have quite a strong flavour. Surprisingly, you don’t see a massive range of spices. Popular flavourings are ginger and garlic. Condiments that are always found on the table include sakay, a very spicy chilli sauce which packs a real punch, and achards, which are vegetable pickles.

Vary sosoa, or rice porridge, for brekkie is lovely, really filling dish that sets you up for the day. When we tried it at our lodges it was served with zebu steak and was absolutely delicious.

rice porridge
zebu steak

Another popular breakfast is fried doughballs called mofo baolina. They’re a teeny bit stodgy but very filling.

mofo baolina

We often ate zebu as steaks. The hump meat is highly prized and is a contrast to the standard meat – its texture is soft and its flavour rich and fatty.

Malagasy cuisine - zebu kebabs
stewed zebu

Henakisoa and ravitoto – belly pork with cassava leaves – is one of the country’s national dishes and is delicious. Cassava is a green, leafy vegetable and is shredded and cooked a bit like spinach. The pork is slow-cooked and because belly meat is fatty, the meat is soft and full of flavour. The richness of the pork is complemented by the strong, herby and slightly bitter taste of the cassava leaves.

Henakisoa and ravitoto pork and cassava typically malagasy cuisine

Red and/or white rice plus beans often accompany the main dishes to ensure that the meal is filling and hearty.

typical malagasy cuisine

A comfort food is akoho rony, chicken soup. It is made by boiling a whole chicken – including the offal, as that is packed with flavour – for several hours which creates a rich, flavoursome stock. The main flavouring is ginger and garlic. Like many chicken soups all over the world, this is considered to be the ideal meal for anyone who’s recovering from being sick. Traditionally the back meat is the most prized and is usually eaten by the eldest members of the family. It’s a delicate soup, lightly flavoured but warming and wholesome. It’s okay to pour the chicken soup over rice.

Malagasy cuisine chicken soup

Another traditional Malagasy dish, Romazava is a meat stew with green, leafy vegetables.

Tilapia with chilli and ginger is a popular fish dish. River fish are often served whole and can be a bit bony, but they are full of flavour.

Tilapia and vegetables

We adored Malagasy tomato salad with peanuts and ginger. The peanuts are ground to extract the oil and then lemon juice is added to make a dressing. The ginger adds a lovely zing.

ginger peanut and tomato salad

We didn’t eat many desserts but we did get to try Madagascar’s most famous cake, koba ravina. It’s a labour of love made from ground peanuts, rice flour and sugar. The mixture is baked in a banana leaf for 3 days and comes out in a huge long cylindrical (ish) shape. It is cut into slices and served. It tastes delicious – smooth, sweet and nutty.

In Tana, ice cream parlour Blanche Neige (Snow White) offers a huge variety of splendid ice creams and sorbets.

ice cream parlour in Tana

A particular favourite was a tamarind sorbet served with just a couple of salt crystals delicately placed on top to bring out the sweet and sour flavour.

tamarind sorbet with salt in Tana

Banana fritters make for a great roadside snack. There are plenty of banana trees growing in Ranamofana.

banana tree
Malagasy banana fritters frying
Malagasy banana fritters

The French Influence

On the RN7, in the town of Behenjyin, which is around 50km away from Tana, we stopped off at a restaurant which offered foie gras of all things! There is no doubt that foie gras is a controversial food. Here the producers do not use industrial feeding processes but rather they feed the geese by hand. What is interesting is that the foie gras is served in unusual ways – flavoured with green pepper or vanilla.

Malagasy foie gras

Madagascar Drinks

The tap water is not safe to drink but bottled water can be obtained all over the country.

Our favourite hot drink was ranovola, which is known colloquially as ‘smoke.’ It’s a burnt rice tea made by boiling water in the cooking pot that contains the remnants of the rice that has been slightly toasted on the base of the pot. Ranovola is a smoky drink which looks like tea but has no tannin. It’s a bit like Genmaicha, the Japanese brown rice tea and is delicious.

ranovola smoke tea

Madagascar’s local brew, Three Horses Beer, or THB as it is normally referred to, has been brewed by Star Breweries in Antsirabe since 1958. It’s a light, refreshing pilsner, that is great to drink in the heat. Another eminently quaffable lager was Gold Blanche.

Three horses beer THB
gold lager

World Cola is probably Madagascar’s most popular soft drink, and both the flavour and packaging bear quite a lot of similarities to its more famous counterpart.

Rum is the tipple of choice in Madagascar. We passed by many local people making rum by the roadside on the RN7.

Rhum Arrangé is a splendid and popular way to enjoy rum. It consists of white rum infused with fruit or spices. There are so many variations. All of the restaurants or lounges in our hotels had huge glass jars, filled with rum, flavourings and intrigue. Every evening offered new rhum possibilities, both as an aperitif and digestif.

Malagasy cuisine rhum arrange

Ginger, tamarind, lychee, guava and, of course, vanilla are popular flavourings. Local fruits include bilbas and tapias. 

rhum arrange

Madagascar’s Most Famous Export – Vanilla

It’s well known that Madagascan vanilla is some of the best in the world – top chefs rave about it. It is possible to visit vanilla plantations.

Interestingly, vanilla is not native to Madagascar – it originated in Mexico. Growing vanilla is a true labour of love and is also monitored by the government.

Vanilla is a juicy vine type plant and needs a tree to climb up. It isn’t a parasite, it just uses the tree for support. In Mexico a type of bee pollinates the vanilla flowers but this species doesn’t exist in Madagascar so the plants are hand-pollinated.

vanilla growing
vanilla pods growing

When the vanilla pods are harvested, they need to be blanched and then sun-dried over several days. Madagascar’s heat and humidity are ideal for processing. Vanilla should be stored in airtight glass jars to prevent mould. It can also be frozen.

We naturally brought back lots of vanilla from our trip and made the most sublime ice-cream.

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12 Comments

  1. I have to say some of the local cuisine does not look too appealing but given Madagascar’s richness in aromatic spices, I’m sure the actual taste was divine. From your culinary journey in Madagascar I learnt that the local flavours are a fusion of African, Asian and French influences and that (zebu) meat, fish and rice are popular ingredients shaping Madagascan identity and food culture. I can see myself enjoying mofo baolina for breakfast alongside the rice tea, which I thought at first was coffee.

    Carolin | Solo Travel Story

    • I think you’re right that the food doesn’t really look the part but we were surprised by the variety on offer and how good it tasted. It was really interesting learning how the different cultures have influenced Malagasy cuisine.

  2. I love learning about the local foods and flavours but an allergy to ginger would make local foods a bit more of a challenge for me. Having said that, the mofo baolina looks like my kind of breakfast to savour with a steaming cup of ranovola.Even though I rarely eat meat, I would like to try a zebu steak. I’m a big fan of rum and vanilla, so I would likely need an extra bag to bring home authentic Madagascar treats.

    Lyn | http://www.ramblynjazz.com

    • Sorry to hear about your allergy to ginger. You would probably be okay with a lot of the dishes but it would be worth checking before eating! We found the hotels were very happy to cater to specific diets if needed. Rum and vanilla both found their way into our bags for the journey home!

  3. I had heard of Madagascan vanilla but did not know anything about its food delicacies.
    It is surprisingly varied but I have to say the koba ravina cake with its peanuts content would be something I definitely enjoy.
    With bananas being my favorite fruit the banana fritters would also be high up on teh list of items to try.
    For drinks, I’d try the rum and its various flavourings. I’m not a big rum fan but these fruit flavours added in sound great fun.

    • Thank you. We, too, were surprised by the variety of food on offer. If you have a sweet tooth, we are sure you would love the koba ravina and the fritters. And the flavoured rum was fantastic – we could have a different tipple every night!

  4. What a fascinating look at Madagascar. I am not familiar with most of the food you mentioned, especially zebu, but I would try it. Don’t feel bad for using a tour guide. I find guides to be helpful, informative, and help you dive deeper into the places your visiting (all in addition to helping with the practicalities of visiting). Sounds like you had a great time

    • Thank you. Yes, we didn’t know much about Malagasy food either. We were definitely okay using a tour guide. We were limited on time and travel in Madagascar is very slow indeed due to the poor infrastructure. And our guide was able to take us to amazing local restaurants!

  5. Madagascar for me is synonymous to vanilla and wildlife but not very much of food. This is a great eye opening post on Malagasy cuisine for me and it’s wonderful that you highlighted them. I might want to try ordering something out of the menu like you do on some hotels that don’t serve the local food for breaky. The President’s preferred sausages would be something to try and of course the vanilla – whatever form they may be! #flyingbaguette

    Jan – https://flyingbaguette.com/

    • We, too, knew about the vanilla but didn’t know anything else about Malagasy cuisine so were really surprised at how good it was. And it did make us laugh that the president stopped for a sausage! Going off-menu for breakfast is surprisingly easy – so many chefs are really happy to cook local food for you.

  6. Thanks for a great introduction to Madagascan food. While a lot of it seems very meat based for this vegetarian, I did like the sound of the tomato salad, and who doesn’t love some roadside banana fritters?! I too would bring back plenty of vanilla if I visited. I remember seeing you make your ice cream, something I’d love to try

    • Realise that there is a fair amount of meat and fish in the Malagasy diet but there were a number of dishes that would suit vegetarians, although there might not be too much variety. The vanilla was absolutely sublime – we made sure to bring as much back as we could! And who doesn’t enjoy roadside banana fritters?

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