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Culinary Ejeda

On our way down from capital city Antananarivo and into the hot and spiny South of Madagascar, we held halt, with our blue bus - containing 6 WWF volunteers, two Malagasy drivers and our WWF Explore guide Malalatiana - to go to the supermarket. We were instructed to stock up on pretty much everything for especially food would be scarce and monotonous in the rural commune of Ejeda, our field base for the next 2,5 months.
So we cruised our shopping cart through the entire supermarket front to back and piled up bags of rice and lentils, oil and spices, cartons of milk, cans of tomato sauce and beans, tea and coffee, cereal and anything else that looked appealing or necessary at that moment. It was right before lunch time, as well.

We arrived in Ejeda after another five days of driving, through ever more mud puddles and potholes and an increasingly desolate and dessert-like scenery. The first impression we got when entering our new hometown, however, was surprisingly alive: a bustling street market with food stalls on each sides and colourful looking fruit and vegetables spread out by vendors everywhere. This went on all along the main road, or as far as we could make up between the clouds of dust and people and cattle crowding each other on it.

The time our project took place was February until April and high-time rainy season in this Southern region, situated around the Mahafaly plateau. It had not been a random choice from our Explore guides, of course. The situation would have been a lot different for us, if we would have been there during dry season, when food supplies get really scarce and people do actually die of starvation occasionally. So we considered ourselves very lucky, and ventured out to try out some typical Mahafaly specialities that would soon become our daily bread.

Breakfast... It became an issue that seemed quite hard to deal with, for a while, after our stock of cereal ran out. The French baguettes we had found all over Antanarivo turned out to be a disappointment here, as they were driven in all the way from the nearest - but still a two-day jeep ride away – city of Toliara. We tried substituting our morning cereal by biscuits, left-over rice and even corn flower distributed by the World Food Program. You can only eat good for so many mornings, it seems though. Soon enough we were eventually, or finally, forced to go out of our house to find our breakfast were everyone else has it: on the street!

Out there, a whole new world of delicious possibilities unraveled itself to us. There were boko boko, or fried ‘doughballs’ as we preferred to call them, and rice-cakes (mokary) that came in so many different sizes and flavours that it took us several morning and a quest of ‘mokary-hopping’ to figure out the ones we actually liked best. But the best was yet to come. Especially for me and my co-volunteers and -coffee addicts Sarah and Celia, it was to our delight we discovered that the coffee served hot and steamy, in little smudgy tin cups, was poored from beans that were roasted and grinded on the spot, and maybe just a day before! The aroma of Mahafaly coffee is soft like velvet and it is the best I have ever had. I think I speak for all three of us when I say we miss it already!

There is no real difference between lunch and dinner in Mahafaly eating culture, or at least not the version we prepared for ourselves at home in Ejeda. In several of the other volunteers’ home countries – Mexico, Lebanon, Canada, Germany and Madagascar – this might be common, but to me as a bread munching Belgian at least it was not. Fortunately, I do like rice. And apparently this is what people everywhere in Madagascar eat in the way we Belgians do bread: if you have not had it, you have not eaten yet that day. In fact, people here often eat rice three times a day. Whereas we at least have potatoes for dinner.

In our house of five foreigners or vazahas, we were lucky to have at least one volunteer originally from Madagascar. Myrah did not only introduce us to the many interesting ways to prepare rice, and the side dishes we brought home from the market, she also did most of the cooking. This way, peeking over her shoulder into steaming pots - while chopping onions and trying to assist in any way we could - we discovered local delicacies like balahazo (manioc), kabaro (beans), and a variety of green leaves, from pointy potato to curly pumpkin ones. The version I ended up eating the most is called ravitoto, which means ‘leaves of everything’. They are mashed up with garlic and sold in balls, ready to cook!

Another reason why I ate ravitoto so much, is that it made for a convenient alternative to meat. We did not always cook our meals at home, at least not twice a day. There were actually two main reasons for us volunteers to go to Chez Les Amis - this being the restaurant were we became regular customers since day one of our stay in Ejeda. Reason number one was laziness. Reason number two was meat. Chez Les Amis served minced meat and zebu steaks that topped any other steak either one of us would have afterwards back in Antananarivo, but at one twentieth of its price. This extraordinary price to quality ratio made us eventually take off the menu any meat we cooked at home. As I don’t usually eat meat, I started to indulge myself in Chez Les Amis’ ravitoto tsy hena azafady: ‘without meat, please’.

The vegetarian diet in fact meant nor a big change, nor did it raise a lot of arguments in our household. For I think it safe to say that buying meat in Ejeda was more or less new to all of us. I went to the market with Myrah once, to buy a piece of goat meat, and had it sliced of a fly-infested leg, that was hanging from the lovely stall owner’s wooden roof. After the expert treatment of our ‘Chef de Maison’ it did end up to be very tasty, although not sufficient to beat the home to restaurant ratio apparently.

Finally, one thing I myself appreciated particulary at Chez Les Amis, but in general about Madagascar’s delicious cuisine, is its sakay. This article on ‘culinary Ejeda’ would not be complete without mentioning the delicious secret that spices up the rice that is eaten all over the island. Sakay means ‘hot’ and that is exactly what it is. Its mean ingredient is chili pepper, but it comes in as many different ways as there are regions or even restaurants in Madagascar. In Antanarivo for example, food is served usually with sakay made out of green pepper. In Ejeda, a red variety was used and it was sold on the market in recycled rum bottles with lemon juice and who knows which other ingredients. As for the sakay at Chez Les Amis, I think after 2,5 months I did figure it out, mostly. I will not expose their secret here though. As for every single dish and doughball I described in this article, my advice is to visit the lovely commune of Ejeda and try it out yourself.
© WWF / José Pons Ballesteros
© WWF / José Pons Ballesteros
Afforestation in Sakoantovo