I don’t really consider myself a ‘food’ person. Don’t get me wrong, I love to eat, but I don’t own a single cookbook, I’ve never watched Food Network, and don’t spend hours in the grocery store or kitchen dreaming up new concoctions. To be honest, I felt more out of my comfort zone the first time my host family asked me to cook for them than I did getting on a plane and coming to Madagascar in the first place. The first few times were pretty rough. At one point the Chipotle-esque rice bowl I was dreaming of (complete with fresh salsa, cheese, guacamole, and lots of flavor) ended up being a pile of rice with white beans and tomatoes. But over the past few months, I’ve learned a lot (mostly with the help of a Peace Corps cookbook). Recently I made chicken teriyaki with pineapple (and rice of course).
It was delicious but I can’t take any credit because anything with pineapple is automatically delicious.
Here’s a list of the things I’ve learned so far…
-Rice is essential. It is said that the Malagasy people consume more rice per capita than any other country in the world. No meal is complete without rice. And rice is never just the side dish, it’s the main course. In Malagasy this is called vary sy laoka (rice and accompaniment). The accompaniment can be anything from French Fries to soup to greens. Some of my favorites so far include peas and carrots, ravitoto (crushed cassava leaves) and tsaramaso (beans). There is often a vinegar-y side salad (lasary) with sliced tomatoes, carrots, onions, or cucumbers. And if there is meat we usually have chicken, beef, pork, or fish.
-Fresh, local, seasonal ingredients are amazing! I love that whenever my host family cooks a meal, they go out to buy the ingredients that morning. We have a small dorm size fridge but we usually don’t keep much in it. There are some basic ingredients such as oil, onions, and garlic kept on the counter, but everything else is available just down the street. I’ve been a wannabe vegetarian for the past few years (curse you barbecue chicken and bacon!) so the VERY fresh meat here has been an adjustment. I do realize that the outcome for the animal is the same whether or not it is hanging in pieces on hooks at the butcher shop or neatly packaged in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, but if I have to eat meat I still prefer the latter. The day we had the chicken teriyaki, I road home in the backseat with our chicken sitting calmly at my feet. She must not have read the lunch menu before she got in the car.
-It is possible to live without cheese. Most of my favorite meals have a very high dairy content. Even the soups I like are thick and creamy. But cheese just isn’t a big part of the diet here (it also tends to be pretty expensive) so I’m learning to live without it. Street food, on the other hand, is found in abundance and quite affordable. So if I am craving mozzarella I can compensate with a hot nem or a deep fried banana for about a nickel. Yum!
-Food is a gift. Since preschool, I have said the same prayer before almost every family dinner. God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. It became such a ritual that I barely even noticed what I was saying. Hunger is something that affects people in every country in the world, not just in Madagascar. But here I have witnessed hunger on a lot more personal level than I have before. And so as we sit down to pray before and after every meal, I am beyond thankful that no matter how many times the words ‘Mom, when is dinner? I’m starrrrving!’ have come out of my mouth during my life, I have never actually been hungry, ever, much less starving. And I pray that those here and around the world who truly know hunger will be fulfilled.
-Meals are much less about the food that is eaten and much more about the faces around the table. Sharing food and conversation with friends and family new and old can make even the simplest of meals feel like a feast.
Mazotoa! (Bon appetite! Enjoy!) this is a very useful phrase that the Malagasy say often, especially before eating.