What is Madagascar food? Or more correctly, Malagasy food? Which dishes should you seek out and what sort of flavors and spices might you find when you visit the country?
Before traveling to Madagascar, we knew little about its cuisine and what sort of food we would find. Then we sought out food in restaurants and local eateries called hotelys, in markets, and on the street and in a village homestay. With this approach, undertones and influences came through.
When in Madagascar, eat as the Malagasy people eat.
Madagascar’s food reflects the country’s cultural diversity. It is influenced by France via its colonial history, by Austronesia (e.g., Indonesia and Malaysia region) through its origins, and East Asia, the Middle East, and the Bantu countries of East Africa through centuries of migration and trading.
These influences show themselves in terraced rice fields, spices like vanilla and pepper, and roots and tubers. Toss in copious fruits and vegetables and a sprawling coastline of the world’s fourth largest island and you have the makings of a culinary surprise.
Here’s a small taste of Madagascar food to keep as a guide when you travel trough this fascinating island. Let’s go!
Traditional Madagascar Food and Dishes
If you enjoy meat, you’ll find yourself in good stead in Madagascar. Zebu, the local breed of humped cow is everywhere across the landscape and in restaurants. For the most part, its meat is tasty and tender when served. You can find it served as a filet, grilled (aka, brochettes or skewers), or stewed for hours in one of the traditional dishes below, or in the French-inspired favorites further along in this piece.
Romazava is the over-the-top national dish of meat (typically made of beef, but it can also feature different types of meat) turned in a sauce of tomato, garlic, ginger and stewed mixed greens. The meat is typically braised for hours so that it is tender and falls apart.
While the name ravitoto suggests something complicated and exotic, it’s essentially mashed cassava (manioc) leaves. This dark-green spinach-like dish of greens can be served straight-up vegetarian, as it is when turned with coconut milk and some spices.
However, it is traditionally stewed together with meat, as in ravitoto with pork, which offers a very tasty, balanced contrast between the slightly bitter cassava greens and the richness of the meat.
Tilapia à la Malagasy
Tilapia served “Malagasy-style” means a fish cooked in a sauce made from tomatoes, greens (watercress), onions, garlic, ginger and other herbs and flavors. The resulting fish is tender, and the flavors spot on.
Laoka is any side dish which is technically to be served alongside rice. Often times, laoka are vegetarian. However, vegetarians be aware and diligent that they may often contain meat or salted fish. You’ll just have to ask.
Laoka are typically sauced or stewed with a traditional blend of Madagascar flavor staples such as tomato, ginger, turmeric, garlic, onion, or even vanilla.
Vegetarian Dishes in Madagascar
Madagascar has no shortage of vegetables that grow heartily. Just take a look at its markets. Although many Malagasy families will eat vegetarian food at home most days because meat is so expensive and valuable, it can sometimes be heard to find vegetarian food at restaurants as the assumption is that when you go out you want to eat meat. But, don't despair.
There are several standard vegetarian dishes that you can almost always find on the menu. The vegetarians in our group always found something on the menu to eat, and it was usually pretty tasty at that. In addition to vegetarian ravitoto and vegetarian chopped vegetable laoka side dishes, vegetarians in Madagascar ought to also keep an eye out or ask for the following dishes.
Vegetarians traveling in Madagascar ought to commit this term to memory. The Malagasy term lasary essentially implies vegetables. In menus or on the table, it means pickled vegetables or mixed sautéed vegetables served with rice.
Lasary Voatabia is one of the more popular versions of lasary that you’ll find on the table, typically served as a side. Vegetarians take note: you can always request it from the kitchen. It’s essentially a Malagasy version of tomato salsa, but dashed with chopped parsley. Always tasty and fresh.
Though they may not be called out as “Madagascar beans”, you will often find a bean dish (typically mixed white bean or Madagascar lima beans) on the menu. Beans are often served simmered soft and savory. Although they'll often be served heaping on the plate, consider ordering them as a side or pairing with some other vegetables.
Minsao, as it name suggests, is a Chinese-Malagasy fusion found on most restaurant menus. Minsao is another good go-to dish for vegetarians traveling in Madagascar as it is essentially ramen noodles stir-fried with vegetables. Meat eaters can opt to add beef, pork or chicken.
Importance of Rice in Madagascar Food
When I asked our taxi driver from the airport about food in Madagascar his first response was “Rice!”
Sensing my confusion, he continued, “Most Malagasy people eat rice two times a day, sometimes three. Meat, vegetables, beans, and other foods go with the rice. But, rice is very important. Maybe most important.”
As you make your way across the country, and in particular across the rice terrace decorated highlands, this will come as no surprise. The word for “to eat a meal” in the Malagasy language is literally “to eat rice.”
In traditional Malagasy cuisine you’ll find that rice forms the center of the plate. Meat, cooked or pickled vegetables, and other sides are then served with and around it.
Madagascar Hot Sauces
Sakay (Madagascar hot sauce)
Malagasy dishes are themselves rarely served hot or spicy. We found this somewhat surprising given the range of spices and hot peppers in markets.
So where did all that spice go? It ends up as a side dish or condiment in something called sakay.
If you enjoy spice and heat, you must ask for it by name, or ask for it more generically as hot sauce. Every restaurant ought to have its own home-made version of sakay, the orange-hued chili-ginger-garlic hot sauce.
Without exception, all versions of sakay we tasted were on fire. Spoon and sprinkle sparingly.
In the tradition of what some might recognize as Indian pickle, achard features green mango or vegetables marinated in blend of spices. It is said to have come by way of influences from the island nation of Réunion. Counter-intuitive to this geographic arc, it is often found in the northwestern parts of Madagascar.
French Cuisine in Madagascar
Although we were aware that Madagascar was a former French colony, we were still surprised by the influence of French cuisine in the country. This impact on the Malagasy table was found not only in the appearance of bakeries churning out baguettes and French pastries everywhere in the country, but also in how many restaurants across the spectrum served variations on savory French classics.
Zebu au Poivre Vert
Many restaurants offer French-inspired sauces like poivre vert (green pepper) or tangy mustard sauce to go with your zebu filet. We found both of these sauces consistently tasty. This should not come as a surprise. When you visit local markets, you’ll find heaps and bunches of fresh, green pepper pods.
Magret de Canard and Confit de Canard
Given both the French colonial influence and how prolific ducks are across the countryside, it all fits. Two very traditional French dishes – roasted duck breast and slow-cooked, preserved duck – can also be found in regular rotation in Madagascar. Both dishes proved solid and tasty each of the times we tried them.
Yes, the tradition of foie gras (duck liver pate) lives on in Madagascar. We were surprised as well. Our final meal in the country, taken at Sakamanga in the capital of Antananarivo, featured it. When we noted on the menu that the home-made foie gras recipe had been used for 28 years, we couldn’t resist. It was the real deal and surprisingly good.
Once you get close to the coast, we recommend you switch to a fish and seafood-focused diet. Food along the coastline typically features whatever the local fishing boats happened to catch that day. Fish is often served grilled whole or as a filet, and also in skewered cubes (brochettes). Seafood is often served grilled or fried, and also in specialties like lobster with vanilla sauce.
If squid, prawns, or lobster interests you, the restaurants along the beach in Ifaty will keep you busy. Food is fresh, and the grilled flavor is hard to beat. Nearby Toliara also has some great options for seafood, especially at Le Jardin de Giancarlo (more on this in our Madagascar Experiential Travel Guide).
Popular Snacks in Madagascar
Mofo and Mofo Anana
The most delightful of all snacks in Madagascar are called mofo, the country’s signature savory spiced beignet fritters. Though you can find these in markets, in street stalls, and in hotelys and restaurants, the best versions we tasted were served as a late afternoon snack at the Arc-en-Ciel homestay in Fiadanana village not far from Antsirabe.
There, we tasted mofo anana (literally, leafy green bread), bread fritters with leafy green strips and spices. The closest comparison I could make is to a pakora, the spiced Indian fritter. The mofo anana were served alongside mofo voatavo, or pumpkin beignet fritters, a variation which offered contrast to the savory. The latter were especially decadent when dosed with a bit of condensed milk on top.
Market and Supermarket Snacks
When buying snacks at supermarkets, give the spotted taro root “elephant ear” chips a try. Fried plantain chips are also a favorite. You’ll also find an ample supply of peanuts and cashews everywhere you go.
Street food stands sell small fried samosas and spring rolls. Just be sure that they are fresh and hot. Otherwise, make certain you have a strong stomach.
Madagascar Desserts and Sweets
Not surprisingly, many of the best desserts in Madagascar use local fruit as their base.
Mofo Akondro (Banana Beignets or Banana Fritters)
In markets, hot banana fritter beignets straight from the stove are among the most delightful (read: fattening) and hygienically safest treats. Eat them when they are hot!
Banana and pineapple flambées are an entertaining experience. A slice of fruit is often further sweetened, doused in local rum, lit on fire, and sometimes topped with sprinkled cinnamon. Whatever you do, make sure all the rum burns off, as it’s often cheap and not of sipping/drinking quality.
Koba Akondro (Steamed banana and peanut cake)
Koba akondro is a dense steamed cake made with rice flour, crushed peanuts, bananas and a molasses-type sweetener. Its density and texture is the result of steaming in banana leaves. It’s typically steamed in cake rolls or logs, then sliced for serving.
You’ll find it in markets and on streets, as we did in Antsirabe. Ask for a small slice at the market as the cake is quite dense and rich.
Taking another page out of the French colonial cookbook, many restaurants in Madagascar serve crepes as dessert. These are typically filled with bananas or other local fruit, then drizzled in chocolate sauce. This is another traveler favorite.
It turns out that Madagascar is a major producer of cacao, too. All manner of Madagascar chocolate is worth a taste. What we found worked best was teaming up with others in a group so each person bought something different and we could sample as many chocolate bars as possible. You can find the higher quality chocolate at larger, more formal grocery stores.
Among our favorites was the Tsara Ecláts de Fèves Chocolate, a 63% chocolate dusted with cacao and sea salt flecks.
You might also want to try a piece of 100% chocolate, just for the experience. But be sure to bring a few gallons of water to share and chase it with.
Buying Madagascar Vanilla Beans and Spices
Madagascar is the world’s largest producer of vanilla bean, with most farms and production concentrated in the north end of island. Madagascar also produces many other sweet and savory spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, and clove.
Where to find Madagascar Vanilla Beans
When buying vanilla (available in dried beans or moist beans) to take home, consult your guide on where along your trip you’ll find the highest quality-price ratio. Upon recommendation, we bought ours outside our hotel in Ranomafana National Park and paid 20,000 (about $6) for three packets of vanilla beans.
Prices start much higher. Bargaining is welcome, but up to a certain point.
If you’re about the leave the country and you still don’t have your stash of vanilla beans, head to the main market in Antananarivo. There, you’ll find people selling packets of vanilla beans. The prices were a bit higher than in Ranomafana, but not by much.
Buying black pepper and other spices in Madagascar
Just about every market in the country features a stand or two with piles of spices so you can just select from there.
At Analakely Market in Antananarivo, tables are stacked high with everything, including fresh green pepper pods, black pepper, mixed pepper, cloves, and chili peppers. Be sure to look out for Madagascar 4-spice, a blend of black pepper, white pepper, pink pepper, and coriander.
There’s also a big Indian spice store in Toliara filled with locally sourced spices and pepper corns.
Drinks in Madagascar
Coffee and Tea in Madagascar
Madagascar coffee is generally decent, though it may not quite live up to the strength and style of your favorite coffeehouse back home. It's usually made with a cloth bag filter or strainer. Often, condensed milk is served with coffee instead of regular milk.
Tea in Madagascar is often a better, more unique bet. Try various flavors to see what suits you. The most notable flavor we tasted was citronella tea. A little strong, but certainly distinct.
THB (Three Horses Beer) is a decent lager that you’ll find just about everywhere. Beware that Three Horses Beer “Fresh” is a very low alcohol shandy.
Many restaurants and bars will feature a lineup of bottles or jugs of rum infused with vanilla, various fruits, jasmine, and ginger, among others. A small glass is usually inexpensive and surprisingly good. But, be careful…it's potent stuff.
The locally available Dzama Rhum, even in its less expensive versions like Cuvée Noire (as in $2-$3 for a small bottle), is a surprisingly good rum to be consumed straight. This served as an “aperitif” for our group on several occasions.
If our experience is any measure, be careful about any big swigs of homemade local rum at markets sold out of random bottles. It’s often stiff and akin to the kerosene-quality rum used to top flambées.