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Madagascar Food: A Culinary Travel Guide


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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 Food, Traditional Meal
Representative Madagascar food: rice at the center, laoka sides, lasary, and stewed zebu meat (beef).

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!

The following Madagascar food experiences, meals and learnings are drawn from our G Adventures Highlights of Madagascar tour that took us around the eastern and southern parts of Madagascar. If you want to explore even more of the island, you can choose the Ultimate Madagascar Adventure (3 weeks) that also includes western Madagascar (Avenue of the Baobabs and Tsingy National Park). These tours are part of the Jane Goodall Collection of travel experiences focused on wildlife and conservation.

Traditional Madagascar Food and Dishes

Zebu (Beef)

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.

Madagascar Food, Zebu
Zebu brochettes on the grill at Isalo National Park.

Romazava

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.

Madagascar Food, Romazava
Romazava, a traditional and delicious Malagasy dish.

Ravitoto

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.

Madagascar Food, Ravitoto
Ravitoto (ground cassava leaves) in the making.

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.

Madagascar Food, Traditional Dishes
Tilapia cooked with a hearty sauce of mixed greens, tomatoes, ginger, and other herbs. Delicious.

Laoka

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.

READ MORE: Madagascar Experiential Travel Guide: 25 Experiences to Get You Started

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.

Lasary

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.

Madagascar Food, Vegetarian Dishes
Lasary Voatabia, a healthy and delicious vegetarian side dish meets condiment.

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.

Madagascar beans

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 (Misao)

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.

READ MORE: How Your Travels in Madagascar Can Support Conservation and Communities

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.”

Madagascar Food, Importance of Rice
Rice, Madagascar's staple food.

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.

Madagascar Food, Chili Peppers and Spices
The fixings for sakay. No shortage of heat.

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.

Achard

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.

Foie Gras

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.

Madagascar Seafood

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.

Madagascar Food, Seafood by the Beach
Technically, a mixed seafood plate for one.

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.

Madagascar Food and Snacks
Fresh mofo anana with afternoon tea at our village homestay.

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!

Flambée

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.

Madagascar Food and Desserts
Fruit on fire! Malagasy people seem to be quite fond of flambées.

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.

Madagascar Food, Banana Cake
Banana leaf wrapped banana-peanut cake at the market.

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.

Crepes (Pancakes)

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.

Madagascar Chocolate

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.

Madagascar Food and Spices
So many spices to choose from at the Analakely Market in Antananarivo.

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.

Madagascar Beer

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.

Madagascar Food and Beer
Three Horses Beer, the best of the Malagasy brews.

Madagascar Rum

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.

G Adventures Tours in Madagascar

These G Adventures tours in Madagascar focus on conservation, sustainability and community development. They are part of the Jane Goodall Collection which are tours that are specifically focused on wildlife preservation, awareness and learning.


Disclosure: G Adventures sponsored our Highlights of Madagascar tour. This trip is conjunction with our cooperation in G Adventures' Wanderers Program. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.

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About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

6 thoughts on “Madagascar Food: A Culinary Travel Guide”

  1. Well, I’ve already been wanting to visit Madagascar enough, mainly thanks to the Baobabs and the lemurs. And now you show me this delicious food? Wow wow! I’d have that banana peanut cake any minute. Yum. Thanks for the inspiration, Madagascar has just moved higher up my list 😀

    Reply
    • The lemurs and baobabs are the biggest draw to Madagascar. But, it’s always nice when the local food is tasty and unique as well!

      Reply
  2. Madagascar’s past connection with Indonesia is the main reason why I’ve always wanted to go there. For example, in this post you mentioned about laoka as a term for any side dish. In Indonesia we call it lauk. Madagascar’s uniqueness as the only country in the African region where the people speak a language that belongs to the Austronesian language family is an interesting fact many people are unaware of.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing this culinary-linguistic connection between Indonesia and Madagascar, Bama. Very cool.

      We explain a bit more of the Austronesian connection (and greater cultural interconnection of Madagascar as a whole) in our Madagascar Travel Guide. In that article, there are also some photos of Malagasy people whose appearance suggests a connection with Southeast Asia.

      Reply
  3. I am Malagasy and I wanted to thank you for your article. You have very well described our main local specialties. We can see that you have tasted our dishes! However there is one mofo that you have omitted: Mofo Gasy which is our traditional bread, made with rice flour. Did you taste it during your trip? Hope you will next time, it’s not bad (hihihi). I really enjoyed reading your experiences about our local food. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Thank you for the compliment and addition, Muriel. I believe we did try mofo gasy. They are like poppers or pancakes, right?

      However, I’m not sure we realized that it was bread made from rice flour. However, given everything else we know and experienced with Malagasy food, it makes sense that traditional “Malagasy bread” is made with rice flour.

      Reply

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