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.
Where to eat
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.
On the menu
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.