Vary and the Vazaha

I knew it was bound to happen. The desire has been building ever since our arrival here. And here it is, the manifestation of said desire. A whole post dedicated to rice and beans. Please humor me while I waste five minutes of your time. I promise this will be a relatively short post because, quite frankly, there isn’t a whole lot of variety going on in the food department. This is not an unfortunate thing, however, as I think most of us here would agree that there is no beating rice and beans! I often times even crave them when I’m not in the field. Our meals are prepared by the best cook in the Southern Hemisphere, Nirina, who is married to Jules, one of our guides. Let me start off with the main staple of the Malagasy diet…vary (rice!). Rice is served at every meal (and I mean every meal–breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Sometimes we hit the jackpot and have pasta for dinner, although this is a rare and momentous occasion. Following rice must come a description of the main event: the beans. At the market there are many different varieties of beans, but we tend to stick with the old favorites: kabaro, tsaramaso, and voanjobory.

Each of us is loyal to one type of bean over the others and sometimes heated arguments break out at the dinner table, debating which bean takes the cake. Kabaro are probably the best known by American standards and are colloquially known as butter beans by some. Tsaramaso (literally translated as “the good eye bean”), are a smallish white bean similar to our navy beans. Lastly, my ultimate favorite and the champion bean (which I’m proudly stating here because I can. It’s my blog after all…), also the hardest to pronounce in Malagasy, are voanjobory which essentially means something akin to “circle peanut”. As the name implies, these beans have a delicious peanutty flavor that pairs well with the pounds of cayenne I pile on top of them.

The bean that wins all: Voanjobory!

The bean that wins all: Voanjobory!

Kabaro!

Kabaro!

Tsaramaso and carrot salad! Note: this picture is a gross misrepresentation of actual meals, as carrot salad only happened twice.

Tsaramaso and carrot salad! Note: this picture is a gross misrepresentation of actual meals, as carrot salad only happened twice.

Each of these bean varietals are cooked using a pretty standard recipe. It is super secret, passed down from generation to generation, and probably takes a lifetime to perfect. Lucky for you, I am sharing it here. Are you ready?

1. Heat oil of your choice in a sauce pan. (The Malagasy standard is good ole vegetable oil).
2. Add chopped garlic, onion, and ginger to oil and sauté until tender.
3. To garlic, onion, and ginger mix, add tomato paste (roughly 1/2 can for 8 servings).
4. Add water to mixture to form a broth.
5. To broth mixture, add pre-soaked beans (if using dried) of your choice.
6. Cook until heated through.
7. Add curry, black pepper, and salt to taste.
8. Serve over rice and expect your world to be changed forever.

I know, insanely complicated, right? Canned sardines are the only meat source and sometimes make an appearance in the bean broth to appease the carnivores among us, although last July we had some questionable sardines, which left a lasting impression on those of us who partook. Sardines appear about 14% of the time (this number was rigorously calculated and validated through a strict peer-review process before publishing). Next up, the lentils, which are highly popular among the masses. Cooked in a similar fashion as the beans, minus the tomato paste (I think), these lentils explode with mouth-watering gingery flavor, and have an inexplicable almost meat-like texture. Sometimes, we have “greens” served over our rice. These unknown greens, we think might be mustard greens of some sort, evade a proper description because, honestly, they are cooked just like the beans, and tend to pick up those flavors. Occasionally, we have an amazing “latke-like” dish, constructed out of potato and egg, flavored with onion and chopped greens. Of course, these are served alongside the rice.

Piles and piles of lentils!

Piles and piles of lentils!

And now, a description of the delicacies, very seldom appearing on the dinner table. Peanut sauce (oh, delicious peanut sauce!), is a “Nirina specialty” and was, much to our chagrin, an isolated incident. I have no idea how it’s flavored, but it is reminiscent of a warm, thinned-out peanut butter and served over pasta. More rare appearances are the fresh fruits and vegetables, which are consumed at the start of the field season before they go bad. As you can imagine, refrigeration is out of the question at our primitive field site. Carrot salad (shredded carrot with onion, dressed in vinegar) and fresh pineapple are among the favorites. And during those uncommon instances when the pasta is busted out, Laughing Cow cheese also appears. This “cheese” is field worthy due to its uber-processed nature, completely avoiding the refrigeration issue.

Beverages include the best coffee I have ever consumed (Madagascan beans!) sweetened with condensed milk and sirimamy (sugar, or in Malagasy translation “sweet salt”), if you’re so inclined. Milk, ronono in Malagasy, translates to “soup of the breast”. Don’t you just love the Malagasy language? So literal! We also have ranamafana , “hot water” that has an overpowering smokey flavor due to being boiled over a wood fire (no giardia here!). We cover up the smokey flavor with tea of all sorts or sometimes drink it as a warm, diluted “breast soup”.

We occasionally have snacks, too, when the simple carbs of the rice pass through our intestines too quickly, leaving us feeling hollow a few hours after meal times. When they appear a small cheer erupts from camp, our unalloyed enthusiasm readily apparent. Malagasy delights like mofogasy, mofoballs, and mofo akondro (fried banana) make the cut. In addition, we have intensely satisfying fire-roasted peanuts, with or without Marina’s favorite sugar coating. Exceptional treats include “The best honey in Madagascar” and another type of honey we purchased that has a slight kerosine-like flavor. Strangely, this honey has been largely avoided. And lastly, Robert chocolate, produced right here in Madagascar, exceeds any chocolate experience I have ever had and makes excellent souvenirs for those back home.

And now, the most important part of meal times in the field, probably deserving of its own post, are the condiments. We of course have the regulars like ketchup (which we very quickly ran out of, its extinction noted about a week and a half into the field season) and soy sauce. Next, the almost unbelievably neon-magenta colored “chilly sauce” (no, this is not a spelling error. It’s actually spelled “chilly”, as opposed to “chili” on the bottle), which our Malagasy friends love, but the vazaha (primarily used to describe us white-skinned folks, however, this term can be applied to any race) avoid like the neon plague that it is. Sakai, a staple in terms of condiments, frequents our dishes. Sakai is a chili paste consisting of chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and vinegar and it is so adored that we have two different varieties. Sakai also pairs really well with the ginger paste we bring along as a flavor supplement. And lastly, the all-purpose “miracle in a packet” that Kathrin lugs all the way from Germany to so generously share with us: wurzl. Wurzl is the best invention (probably) ever and graces us like manna from above. It is a powder vegetable bullion that doubles as a seasoning for rice and beans, or mixed with hot water–an intensely satisfying vegetable soup, perfect for warming bellies and cold hands on chilly July nights. In fact, this stuff is so addictive that is comes replete with warning labels, alarming potential consumers of its harmful psychological effects. We fear what may happen when the wurzl runs out…

The miracle drug

The miracle drug

So, there you have it. A description of every food and drink item that has ever graced our dinner table, keeping us fueled and happy throughout the long field season. This post, as entertaining as it was to write, made it very clear to me that I could never make a living as a food critic. As it turns out, vivid food descriptions are not my forte. I guess I won’t quit my day job.

We love rice and beans!

We love rice and beans!

It’s a jungle out there!

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