In Madagascar, meals (sakafo) can vary from one household to another depending on ethnic identity, religion, social class, and locality, making it difficult to define a typical meal pattern. Nevertheless, some practices are common all over the island. Most Malagasy families, for example, eat three meals a day and two snacks. Broadly speaking, everyday dining tends to be light in fare, featuring a substantial amount of vegetables and broth flavored with meat. Heavier meals are enjoyed on special occasions and may include dishes with coconut milk and more expensive cuts of meat.
A traditional breakfast might consist of soft rise (sosoa) and dried meat (kitoza). When rice is not available, boiled cassava or soft cornmeal is eaten instead. Sometimes, leftovers from lunch or dinnere are enjoyed for breakfast the following day. Today, many Malagasy eat small fried rice cakes (mokary) or fried doughnut rounds (mofo gasy) with coffee. In cities, bread might be served with honey or jam and coffee, and in some cases eggs as well (in hotels), a reminder of the French influence. Typical beverages might include water, local citronelle tea (made from lemongrass), coffee, or a sort of browned-rice tea (ranonapango).
Lunch is most often the largest meal of the day, featuring the obligatory bowl of rice and at least three relishes (laoka). Hot chili paste (sakay) is always present, along with pickled vegetable and fruit relishes (achards). Sakay is made with spicy chilies (pilypily), ginger, garlic, and oil and is very spicy. Malagasy food is not particularly hot compared to that of Indonesia or other African countries, and thus sakay is not used for cooking but as a condiment, added based on the diner’s preference. An additional meat or stew might be served, as in the national dish romazava, made with beef and an assortment of leafy greens (bredes). The term ro literally means “juice” and is used to classify any dish with a sauce, or a soup. Some of the greens used have a slightly spicy flavor (anamalaho) somewhat like mustard greens but more pungent, while others are mild in flavor (mamy). Seasonal fruit may be served for dessert, sometimes flavored with vanilla and/or coconut milk.
Dinner follows a similar pattern to the lunchtime meal but is sometimes slightly lighter. In addition to rice, sakay, and achards, meats or vegetables might also be served. A typical vegetable dish (vary amin anana) calls for mixed leafy greens, tomatoes, and onions to be simmered in water together with a small amount of meat. Fresh salads (lasary) also accompany the meal. Dessert usually consists of seasonal fruit mixed together with sugar and vanilla. Rice tea (ranonapango) is the beverage of choice served with both lunch and dinner, but water or lemongrass tea may be substituted.
Snacks are very popular in Madagascar and can be found in markets, street stalls, or roadside restaurants (hotelys). They can include rice flour and fruit cakes cooked in banana leaves (koba ravina) skewered beef (masikita), Indian-style meat or vegetable fritters (sambos), fried locusts and other insects, small doughnuts (mofo menakely), sweet rice and peanut cakes baked in banana leaves (koba), sliced fresh coconut, fruits and their juices, yogurt, and grilled cassava. In cities it is not uncommon to find French bread and pastries like croissants, cakes, and baguettes available throughout the day.
As in any culture, the way a meal is eaten in Madagascar is significant and shaped by social norms. Traditionally, all meals were served on the ground using mats for the food and for seating. In some rural communities this is still a common practice, but Malagasy people living in cities prefer to sit at tables during a meal. Typically, there is no progression of courses, as in many Western meals with the exception of fruit and rice tea, or ranonapango, which follows the meal because it is made from the browned rice left at the bottom of the cooking pot. Before the introduction of modern dinnerware earthenware pottery was used for cooking and serving food. Historically, gourds were used as bowls for storing food and for individual use at mealtime, but in contemporary Madagascar the use of modern plates and bowls is the norm. All components of the meal were eaten together on the same plate or even shared out of a communal pot in the past, but today individual plates are favored. Spoons are the preferred eating utensils of choice, traditionally made from zebu horns or pottery but mostly from stainless steel today.
In traditional Malagasy culture, social hierarchy surrounded the meal, dictating the order in which food was served to each person. When families ate together, older men were always served first and received the best share of the meal. Likewise, the youngest children were served before their older siblings to ensure adequate nourishment. When food was passed from one person to another, it was considered polite to hold the wrist with the opposite arm. It was not unusual for male and female family members to eat separately, and the eldest always received first dibs. Roles of men and women are somewhat less stratified today, but many of the old customs prevail in spite of these changes.
Although this dish is traditionally made with beef, other meats may be substituted, including chicken or pork.
2 tbsp vegetable oil
½ large onion, diced
1 lb boneless beef, cut into 1-in. Pieces
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tsp ginger, minced
1 chili pepper, diced
1 c canned tomatoes, diced
1 small bunch fresh spinach
1 bunch fresh watercress
1 small bunch mustard greens
Water, to cover
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large stockpot, sweat onions in oil over medium heat until translucent. Add beef and cook for approximately 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic, ginger, and chili and cook for an additional three minutes. Add tomatoes and simmer for another 10 minutes. Add water and bring to a boil. Add greens and reduce heat to low. Simmer one hour or until meat is tender when pierced with a fork, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Originally published in “Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia,” edited by Ken Albala.