Near the daily market of Antsirabe, the pleasant hillside town of Madagascar’s highlands, women with enormous bowls of batter sit next to sizzling pots of oil over a low charcoal stove. While crouching or sitting on wooden stools, they fan their flame and plop their freshly fried goods into mountainous piles of steaming fresh snacks. Continuing onwards we see no shortage of vendors or variety. Lining the streets are small display boxes filled with bowls of breads, noodles, and salads. Other vendors mingle with the crowd, hawking their wares to nearby shoppers while balancing plastic containers on their heads. While the Malagasy staple food – heaping servings of plain rice – is as simple as food gets, street food is a parade of flavors.
In Malagasy, mofo means bread while anana translates as leafy greens, giving mofo anana or “leafy greens bread” a much healthier name than it deserves. Vendors start off by mixing well-cooked greens into a bread batter, then deep frying it to make a soft, doughy treat. Sometimes prepared with tomatoes and other veggies and optionally served with sakay (hot sauce), this crunchy, deep fried bread is irresistible when hot.
The fillings vary from vendor to vendor and according to in-season vegetables, but these crispy eggroll like snacks called “nem” usually come stuffed with a combination of ground beef, potatoes, cabbage, leeks, and onions. Although simple in appearance, vendors first start by making small crepe-like pancakes in a pan, then rolling in the filling. Then, sitting with neat pyramids of uncooked nem, they deep fry them outside in scalding, bubbling pans of oil. My personal favorite is the potato-leek combination.
“That’s a huge mountain of spaghetti,” my friend commented on the window-box stuffed with plain noodles. We don’t really know what was happening with those… spaghetti sandwiches perhaps?
Like nem, samosa-esque sambosas, are another culinary example of Madagascar’s unique position between two continents and the strong Asian influence on Gasy snack food. While they lack the hot spices of their Indian counterparts, vendors almost always have a small jar of hot peppers to compensate. Commonly stuffed with potatoes and ground beef, this savory snack can satisfy any comfort food craving and warm the belly on cold Antsirabe nights.
For those hankering for more than just a spattering of meat in their deep-fried nem or sambosas, food stalls are filled with miniature kebabs known as brochettes. On the coast, they are frequently made with fish but in the highlands vendors skewer a line of freshly sliced beef, onions, peppers, and tomatoes and grill them over an open flame, giving them a toasty char-grilled flavor.
Finally stepping off of the sidewalks, dozens of living-room esque hotelys (restaurants) entice passersby to indulge in a real, rice-laden meal. Being the highest per capita consumers of rice in the world, no Malagasy meal is complete without a heaping bowl full of plain, unsalted rice (vary) – although coconut milk is occasionally added in costal towns. Common laoka, which translates as the dish you serve with rice, include pork with leafy greens, beef with sauce, chicken with peas, dried fish, beans, or a dish of ground-up leafy greens known as ravitoto. As an example of its incredible significance in Malagasy cuisine, people will often invite others to have lunch or dinner with them by asking “will you eat rice (with me)?” So, with grumbling bellies we enter a promising hotely and before sitting make sure they have food by asking “is there rice?”