Food is taken seriously in Madagascar, where French, Chinese and Indian influences have blended with local eating traditions into an exciting and often mouth-watering cuisine. Regional variations are many, with a variety of fruit, vegetables and seafood dictating local tastes and recipes.
Eating in Madagascar is a treat: food is generally good and excellent value.
The majority of restaurants in Madagascar fall in the midrange category and standards are often excellent.
Meal times are as follows:
- Breakfast: 6am to 9am
- Lunch: 11.30am to 2.30pm
- Dinner: 6.30pm to 9.30pm
Eating rice three times a day is so ingrained in Malagasy culture that people sometimes claim they can’t sleep if they haven’t eaten rice that day. In fact, the verb ‘to eat’ in Malagasy, mihinam-vary, literally means ‘to eat rice’.
Rice is eaten in a broth for breakfast (vary amin' anana); for lunch and dinner it is generally accompanied by a helping of meat, such as hen’omby (boiled zebu), hen’ankisoa (pork), hen’akoho (chicken) or hen’andrano (fish). Common preparations include ravitoto (stew – usually beef or pork – with manioc greens and coconut), sauce coco (a delicious coconut curry, usually with chicken, fish or seafood) and the nondescript sauce or ritra (generally a tomato-based affair; served with anything from chicken to fish).
To keep things interesting, the Malagasies have developed an arsenal of aromatic condiments, such as sakay (a red-hot pepper paste with ginger and garlic), pimente verde (a fiery green chilli) and achards (hot pickled fruit, such as tomato, lemon, carrot or mango, used as relish – you’ll see bottles of the stuff sold by the roadside).
The most common alternative to rice is a steaming bowl of mi sao (fried noodles with vegetables or meat), or a satisfying soupe chinoise (clear noodle soup with fish, chicken or vegetables), dishes that show the Asian origins of the Malagasy. Poorer rural communities supplement their rice diet with starchy roots such as manioc or corn.
Given that Madagascar is an island, it’s hardly surprising that seafood features prominently on the menu. Prices are so low that all but those on the tightest budgets can gorge themselves at whim on fish, freshwater crayfish, prawns, lobster and even tiny oysters (from Morondava). Adhering to the motto that less is more, seafood is often cooked simply, grilled or fried, or in sauce coco.
Vegetarians & Vegans
The Malagasy don’t find vegetarianism difficult to understand, and they are often more than happy to cater for special diets if you give them enough notice. If you eat eggs, you will have no problem as any restaurant can whip up an omelette. If you don’t, getting enough protein could be a problem, as beans and lentils are not widely available.
Snacks & Munchies
One of the first things you’ll notice on arriving in Madagascar is the dizzying variety of snacks available at street stalls. Savoury snacks include meat samosas (called sambos), small doughnuts called mofo menakely and masikita (tiny zebu kebabs).
The log-like cake you’ll see sold on roadsides is koba, a concoction of ground peanuts or pistachios, rice flour and sugar, wrapped tightly in banana leaves, baked and sold in slices. Hotelys also make delicious sweet doughnuts, which they serve with a cup of black coffee.
In towns and cities you’ll also find plenty of patisseries selling cakes, croissants, pastries and meringues. Baguettes can be bought from every street corner, although the quality is often poor.
Madagascar has developed a unique strand of haute cuisine that blends Malagasy and French influences and makes the best of local ingredients. Among our favourites are zebu steak with green pepper sauce and frites (fries), roast chicken with vanilla mashed potatoes, and grouper in pink peppercorn sauce with sautéed potatoes. Desserts are equally exciting, with chocolate cakes and vanilla custard, crêpes and local fruit jams, exotic sorbets and ice cream.
Gourmet cuisine is served up and down the country in better restaurants and is an absolute highlight of any trip to the red island.
Celebrations & Customs
A Malagasy proverb says ‘the food which is prepared has no master’. In other words, celebrating in Madagascar means eating big. Weddings, funerals, circumcisions and reburials are preceded by days of preparations. Extended family, friends and often passers-by, too, are invited to share the food, usually a combination of meat dishes (note that turkey is considered a meat for special occasions), vegetables and, of course, a mountain of rice. At Malagasy parties, copious quantities of home-brewed rum are consumed and helpless drunkenness is entirely expected.
Romazava A beef stew in a ginger-flavoured broth. It contains brêdes mafana, a green leaf reminiscent of Indian saag in taste that will make your tongue and lips tingle thanks to its anaesthetic properties!
Ravitoto Another well-loved Malagasy dish, it is a mix of fried beef or pork with shredded cassava leaves and coconut milk; truly delicious.
Pizza Just like Europeans and Americans, Malagasies have succumbed to pizzas! They are a popular treat among middle-class families and you’ll find an inordinate number of pizza joints (often with takeaway) in every large town and city.
The Mighty Zebu
Zebu cattle not only provide status and transport, they are also well known for their excellent meat. Zebu beef is prepared in much the same way as European cattle beef – in stews, kebabs (known locally as masikita, often tiny in size) and as succulent steak.
Zebus are synonymous with status and wealth (a zebu costs €500 to €800, a huge amount of money for a Malagasy family); zebu meat is therefore the festive food par excellence. Zebus will be slaughtered for weddings, famadihanas (exhumation and reburial ceremonies), circumcisions and other important festivals or events.
The hump, which is brown fat, is a delicacy (it used to be the preserve of the nobility). It is seldom served in restaurants, but it is a must at Malagasy celebrations, where it is served grilled or in kebabs.
Where to Eat
What you eat in Madagascar will largely depend on where you eat. Hotelys or gargottes are small, informal restaurants found in every city and town. They are cheap and serve no-frills, typical Malagasy fare such as romazava (beef and vegetable stew), poulet sauce (chicken in tomato sauce) or grilled fish, with a mountain of rice for bulk. The quality ranges from rough to delicious. The tastier Malagasy food is often served in private homes, and what better excuse to make friends with the locals!
Restaurants, which range from modest to top-end establishments, serve various types of cuisines, including fancier versions of Malagasy standards. Quality is invariably good, sometimes outstanding. Many restaurants offer a menu du jour (three-course set menu), or a plat du jour (daily special), which are generally good value. Prices for the set menu is usually around Ar15,000 to Ar25,000. For à la carte menus, the average price of a main course is Ar12,000 to Ar25,000.
Note that in most tourist areas, hotels have the best (and sometimes only) restaurants, which means you'll eat most of your meals there.