July 13, 2006

Food is the Icing on Madagascar’s Tourist Cake

By Ed Stoddard

ANTANANARIVO -- Most tourists come to Madagascar for its unique wildlife, but the big island off the east coast of Africa has another little-known attraction: food.

"The foie gras is the speciality of my chef," says the youthful proprietor of Ku De Ta, one of a handful of French restaurants in the Malagasy capital, as he points to a menu boasting a mouth-watering selection including escargots and frogs' legs.

Served in small portions on thin wafers of bread, the fattened duck liver turns out to be superb -- and, at about $4, a steal compared with what you would pay in a good Paris restaurant.

A legacy of French rule which ended almost five decades ago, visitors from France say the food is comparable with anything back home -- and it has plenty of local variation as well.

The main local beef comes from zebu, a humped cattle well-suited to the tropics.

At another restaurant, a French tourist, Jerome, raves about his zebu steak which followed a glass of pastis, served in the traditional manner with chilled mineral water.

"This is really done the French way, with lots of garlic," he exudes, a glass of red wine in one hand -- a quite drinkable Bordeaux, of course.

A meal can be topped off with local specialities such as rum flavored with vanilla, a major cash crop on the island.


The food is in many ways a reflection of the capital, Antananarivo, a picturesque riot of Europe, Asia and Africa nestled among rolling hills in a sub-tropical setting.

Winding cobbled streets and elegant church spires give the city, affectionately known as "Tana," a distinct "old Europe" flavor.

Sturdy, unpretentious red brick buildings are a legacy of 19th-century missionaries from Britain while gabled rooftops evoke the French who ruled from 1895 to 1960.

Other buildings have local roots, with sharp angles and high pitched roofs like the A-frame structures typical of the surrounding countryside.

Colorful clumps of bougainvillea spill over stone walls while barefoot beggars are a reminder that beneath the facade lies a poor, developing country.

A statue of Vietnamese liberation leader Ho Chi Minh stares down one street, an echo of the country's recent socialist past.

The city is set on steep hills with staircases everywhere -- enabling one to work up a good appetite.

"This is a city of stairs," remarks one British expatriate.

Of course, you may not have much of an appetite if you wander through the big open-air market near the old central train station where zebu heads, chickens' feet and strings of sausage are on display, often in the sun and covered with flies.

You could also lose your appetite if you try the local Malagasy wine, especially the red version. At best it is "on the sour side."


Malagasy cuisine, on the other hand, is very digestible and luckily the good restaurants have wide choices of French and South African wines -- often by far the most expensive items on the menu, underscoring the good value of the food.

A three-course French dinner with local beer would rarely cost more than $20.

Rice is the staple -- an oddity in Africa which betrays the island's Asian influences.

Humans first arrived on the world's fourth largest island only about 2,000 years ago via canoes from southeast Asia. Other migrants arrived from Africa and other points in Asia, infusing the island with a unique cultural mix.

Curries are well-spiced, while coconut is often used to flavor local cuisine, which frequently comes from the sea.

On the coast, crab, shrimp and other marine delights are commonly eaten, while the freshwater tilapia is often served inland. It typically comes on the plate complete with head and tail and smothered in spicy sauces.

Whether Malagasy or French, the food is seldom bland.

In the cozy cellar of one restaurant, which would not look out of place in many a European old town, the foie gras is thick and buttery while the andouillette comes with hot chips fried to perfection.

A tripe sausage that gives you a clear view of what is usually ground up, andouillette is an acquired taste. One of the delights of Tana's culinary scene is that you can usually find something that suits yours.