Back to my roots…a taste of Madagascar.
As you know, I was born and bred in France. But did I ever mention that my family is from Madagascar? My parents moved from this Indian ocean island off the coast of South Africa to Paris over 50 years ago. At the time, Madagascar had recently regained its independence from the French, but strong ties remained between the two countries with strong trade relations or exchange programs.
Mum and Dad came separately to study and met in Paris. As the story goes, they fell in love, had children, completed their studies, got jobs and what was intended as a temporary stay turned into a permanent move. I am sure it was a challenging time for them, juggling many balls and making the decision of a lifetime…My early childhood memories are of my brothers and I spending week days “a la creche” (daycare), collected by my parents in the evening. Weekends were a blur of family activities, often revolving around people gathering at our place. The Madagascan community was (and still is) quite tight knit and I remember many visits from newly arrived relatives or family friends, celebrations in halls or organised sports events…As a young child I seemed to have a myriad of cousins spread all over Paris, Dijon, Nancy, Tours…and for a while, many long weekends were devoted to meet this extended family.
My strongest recollection of these gatherings is the amount of food laid on the table. Abundance is the key to a Malagasy feast. It is good form for the host to have plenty to offer to guests and if variety may not matter so much, quantity certainly does.
Rice is the main staple in the madagascan diet, just like pasta is to Italy and potato to Ireland!
It is usually accompanied by beef, chicken, fish or pork dishes. These can be boiled, braised, fried or grilled. Vegetables are rarely served as a stand alone dish but rather used to add flavour and complement the rice: green leafy broth, tomato “rougail” (similar to Mexican tomato salsa) or “achard” (an assortment of julienned vegetables, pickled with ginger, chili and garlic) are standard features in a malagasy kitchen. As far as snacks go, you can’t go past small cakes and fritters called “mofo” made of rice flour batter and fried or the delicious “sambos” ( meat version of fried samosas).
The funny thing is that growing up, I ate “french” during the day: baguette and hot chocolate for breakfast, roast chicken and vegetable at the school canteen, small cake for “le gouter” (afterschool treat)…and madagascan for dinner: always. always, always rice with a small serving of protein and salad on the side. The malagasy connection slowly faded however as the years went by: my mother learnt to cook “proper” french and would only serve traditional malagasy on special occasions, I moved out of home and discovered other cuisines during my travels…For the past 30 years or so, there was always something new to taste.
Then, my parents came to visit us in Sydney last month. While I thought they’d be keen on hitting the road and tour around the country, it turned out that they were just as happy taking over my kitchen and spoil us with good food. I, for once, didn’t mind and enjoyed the opportunity to sit on the other side of the bench watching and taking notes! That’s when I realised that no matter how many gourmet meals I concocted, light and healthy options I experimented with, there is nothing like a dish made with love by your mum (and dad!) Even my kids know the difference between their nan’s cooking and mine: they say the kitchen smells better ( of baked apple cake, or garlic beef stew!). I guess I still have a long way to go!
For 6 weeks, I went back to being the daughter, enjoying and sharing some of my favourite childhood meals with my own kids, listening to old family stories and rediscovering the comfort of malagasy food…life is a big circle: from Madagascar to Paris to Sydney…where to next?
This is a savoury fritter, you can spice up with extra chili, or chopped tomatoes if desired.
Makes about 30
2 cups rice flour
2 cups plain flour
warm water (enough to make a smooth batter)
1 tsp baking soda
3 spring onions, sliced
1/2 tsp each of ground coriander and ground cumin
Oil for frying
Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Let the batter rest for at least 15 minutes, you can leave it overnight in the fridge if you wish.
Heat the oil in a deep saucepan. Scoop out a tablespoon of batter and deep fry for a few minutes until golden. Drain on absorbent paper.
Achard de legumes
This mix of pickled vegetables is commonly served with rice, but is also delicious on sandwiches or even with cheese! A word of warning: there is a lot of vegetable slicing, so allow for time…A food processor comes in handy, though my father reckons the veggies taste better if sliced by hand. Considering the work involved, we always make a big batch and keep in sealed jars in the fridge!
500g green beans
1 white cabbage
1 green capsicum
1 red capsicum
1 piece of ginger (approx 15g)
3 garlic cloves
1 cup white vinegar
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tsp turmeric
some chili, (optional)
Salt and pepper
Peel and grate the carrots (I use a food processor). Trim the vegetables. Julienne the green beans, celery, capsicums. Slice the cabbage thinly, cut the cauliflower into small florets.
Blanch the vegetables in boiling water, drain and set aside in a large mixing bowl.
Peel and slice the onion and ginger. Peel and crush the garlic cloves.
In a saucepan, heat a little oil, saute the onions and garlic until golden (careful not to burn them), add spices and stir for a few minutes until fragrant, add in vinegar and stir well ( stand back as mixture will spit and bubble up!) Immediately pour the dressing over the vegetables and mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Cover and let it cool down. The achard can be eaten the same day, but tastes better after a few days, once the flavours have developed.
Rougail de tomates
This dish is dead simple to make, very similar to the tomato salsa we used to find in Mexico. My mum often serves it with plain rice, she says it’s the easiest vegetable dish to cook!
Serves 4 as a side
1 white onion
1 tbsp white vinegar
Chop the tomatoes and onion finely by hand ( do not use a food processor as it will turn them into a puree!).
Mix in a bowl with the vinegar and add salt to taste.
Set aside for 30 minutes to allow for flavours to develop. Serve with rice as an accompaniment to grilled or stewed meat.
My kids call this dish madagascan risotto: a porridge-like mix of rice, green leaves and diced meat. This is my idea of comfort food, when you want something satisfying minus the fat and sugar. In fact, vary amin’anana is typically served to the sick or the elderly and I can attest to its restoring virtues as breakfast food for the morning after…
Serves 4-6 as a main course
1 bunch each of radish leaves, spinach leaves, green shallots, watercress ( a single type of leaves is Ok , if you can’t find the variety )
500g stewing beef meat (like chuck or short ribs), diced
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 knob of ginger, peeled and grated
1 tomato, diced
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
4 cups of long grain rice
Clean and cut the leaves in fine shreds. Set aside.
Heat a little oil in a large saucepan, add the meat and saute until browned on all sides. Add chopped onion, ginger and stir, let the meat cook in its own juice/fat until tender ( add a little water if it sticks to the bottom of the pan).
Then stir in the shredded green leaves, rice, garlic and add enough water to cover. Bring to the boil and simmer until the rice is cooked.
The technique for this dish is comparable to making confit: the meat is simmered in just enough water to cover it, and as the liquid evaporates it cooks in its own rendered fat, until turning crispy and delicious. You will need a relatively fatty piece of meat, I commonly use beef chuck or pork belly, but duck legs and chicken thighs work equally well.
Serves 4-6 as a main course
1 kg stewing meat like beef chuck
1 tsp salt
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 knob of ginger (25g), peeled and grated
1 cup of water
Cut the meat into medium sized pieces. Place in a large casserole and cook over low heat, covered, with the garlic and ginger for about 15 minutes until the fat is rendered.
Once the fat has melted, add salt and water, cover again and let the meat cook until all the liquid is evaporated. approx 1 1/2 hour.
Uncover and allow the meat to fry in its own fat for a few minutes until well browned and caramelised.
Serve hot (the fat will solidify if left to cool down)