International Thursday: Madagascar

  • Vanilla-infused Malagasy chai
  • Avocado and mango salad with cumin and lemon vinaigrette
  • Vary Amin Anana (one-pot beef, kale, and rice)
  • Lychees speckled with vanilla bean
  • Tapioca and banana Malagasy Cake with orange-scented whipped cream

I’m pretty certain that the pick for this International Thursday (which happened over Friday and Saturday, owing to a tight schedule) was inspired by a Wild Kratts episode about the golden bamboo lemur. The endangered creature is so alive in my little guy’s mind, he actually told the lady that cuts his hair that it made him look like a baby lemur.

She was puzzled. I couldn’t stop laughing. He didn’t like it. So don’t mention this to him. And if you’re reading this decades from now, my little one, I hope you can crack a smile about it now.

You are so many ways just like Madagascar, the sizable island that sits beside Africa—influenced by so many cultures of the Indian Ocean, yet still so distinct, owing to its geographic isolation. Every minute of your life, I discover something new, elaborate, exquisite within you.

On a culinary level, the island nation is a marvel, too. The first settlers are said to have arrived from the far away islands of Indonesia and Malaysia. Later centuries brought Arabs and Africans. In the 1500s, the Portuguese sighted Madagascar, and trade of guns, clothing, and especially, food, and spices expanded exponentially, and the island saw an influx of sailor and pirates. Britain exerted its control over its Merina rulers, but France ultimately took control of it in 1896. Independence was finally achieved in 1960 through a referendum, but that followed a decade of strife and massacre.

Today, the nation is an interesting mix of Malagasy tribes, Indians from the subcontinent, Chinese, and Comorians. And the food exhibits facets of these peoples and its storied past, which made it an alluring pick for International Thursday.

Perhaps the most defining and collective custom of the Malagasy people is chai, spiced delicately (not heavily as in India, nor blandly, as you would find in Kenya’s interior). Malagasy chai is actually preferred over cold water, I read, drunk steaming hot, aromatic with cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and the quintessential Malagasy spice—vanilla bean.

In some respects, this post is becoming an ode to my love for the vanilla bean. I cannot get enough of its warm scent. And that’s why it was necessary that our adventure began with iced chai (we’ve finally crossed the 100F mark in Houston).

Madagascar-chai-web

And drawing another parallel to Texas (and our home roots in central Kenya and India) is the Vary Amin Anana, a simple “dirty” rice of salted ground beef, gravied tomatoes, scallions, balanced with the bitterness and chewy texture of kale, simmered in rice, jambalaya-style, and served with sakay, hot red peppers smothered in pungent ginger and garlic. My husband makes a top-of-the-keeper-list, simple kheema of ground goat, cilantro, garam masala, and tomatoes, so this dish came together in less than 20 minutes, and was delectable to boot. Certainly a keeper.

Madagascar-BeefRice-blackbowl-web

Madagascar-ChileOil-web

This, we served with our take on the Malagasy Lasary Avocat salad. While the recipe calls for drizzling ripe but firm avocados with a lemon vinaigrette whipped with finely diced tomatoes, it was worth contrasting the creamy avocado with sweet, ripe mango, and pungent arugula. My little guy has a knack for whipping up a balanced vinaigrette, though he tends to play up the sweet spectrum, and here, he added a dash of orange juice. I thought the entire concert missed an earthy element, so in went a dash of ground, smoky cumin and black pepper. Finally, we all agreed that it needed the bright herbiness of finely diced cilantro (which is always readily available around here). So, in the end, we completely diverged from the Malagasy recipe, but the result was gold-standard keeper status.

Madagascar-Salad-II-web

For our sweet end, and in an exploration of the many vanilla applications in Malagasy cuisine, we doubled down.

First, inspired by Global Table Adventure (a site I discovered this week and became enamored with, but have resolved not to read in search of our own adventure), simply speckling refrigerated, fresh lychees with the raw, dark meat of scraped vanilla beans. I was skeptical how the flavor would meld with the already distinctly and complexly fragranced, slightly tart tropical fruit that is so ubiquitous in Madagascar, but the endeavor always pays off.

When you pop one of these translucent orbs into your mouth, your first instinct is to bite down on its chilled milky flesh, and your mouth is suddenly awash with its sweet, sub-acidic, grape-scented juice, the subtle musk of vanilla underpinning every imbibed trickle.

Madagascar-LyceesVanilla-web

And finally, to celebrate our youngest little sweet potato’s 18-month birthday milestone, I made a Malagasy Cake.

I should note that while I am a moderately experienced baker, searching for a full-fledged, detailed recipe was a unfulfilled mission. Several versions of the gateau de mandioca (in French) exist on the web, but none describe what the end-result should look like, or taste like. Then, I had an unexpectedly hard time finding tapioca pearls, and instead went with sabudana, which are starch pearls made from the sago root.

The Malagasy cake recipe starts with the essential preparation of kheer, the sweet, creamy tapioca pudding that has evolved from its first mention in Vedic stories, but the tapioca is stewed in milk until the pearls are just pleasantly chewy, with the added elements of cinnamon and nutmeg—and, in Madagascar, a good helping vanilla bean. To that is added fork-mashed ripe bananas, and beaten eggs. The batter is then baked for 15 minutes in a 350F oven, and when done, flipped over, revealing a delicate film of caramel, invisibly created when the butter used to grease the pan invisibly interacts with the milk and sugar. I thought it prudent to serve the “pudding” with a dollop of cream whipped with a sparse teaspoon of sugar, a good dose of vanilla bean, and a sparse sprinkle of orange peel. I was right. This little add-on could be devoured with a spoon on its own.

The cake is traditionally served warm. Like that, a spoonful has the texture of eggy bread pudding—it reminds me more precisely of a Paleo banana pancake with bits of chewy tapioca. It was a winner chilled, though, with the textures perfectly balanced, the creaminess less fluid and the tapioca softer. With the orange whipped cream, it was quickly transformed to a keeper. All in all, it has a lot of potential: it’s versatile and open to a lot of flavors, possibly as the base for fruit compote, or banana jam, or even, a coating of ganache.

Madagascar-cake-web

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