A Vegan Travels to Madagascar

The scenery in Madagascar was one of the key reasons I chose this destination.

One question I am regularly asked when traveling abroad is ‘How do you manage to maintain a vegan diet?’ In some countries, like Ghana, I ate well every day. In some regions of the world, like SE Asia, or Latin America, it’s been very easy. In other places,, like East Asia, it’s a bit harder because I don’t care for seaweed and so many dishes seem to include fish or fish-based sauces. Madagascar has turned out to be one of the more challenging places to eat, especially since I also opt for a low-carbohydrate vegan regimen.

Madagascar was colonized by the French, who left an indelible mark on country. The European cultural influence is apparent beyond French as the official language, vehicles with the steering wheel on the left (i.e., proper) side, and the colonial infrastructure, which is in disrepair.

A scenic array of mountains, rice paddies, and vineyards in central Madagascar.

The French-style baguette bread is served at every meal. Capers are commonly served with fish. Wine is a readily available beverage, imported from the more developed economies of South Africa and Chile. The French attempted to establish vineyards in a central provincial area in Madagascar where the climate resembles that of the French wine-making country. We saw the vineyards, but the last winery recently burnt down, so we weren’t able to visit and sample it (though our guide said Westerners often grimaced in response to the very vinegary taste). The French Iove of miel- honey- is also apparent in the rural areas that harvest the honey from the bees that eat the nectar of the Australian-imported eucalyptus trees. People also make a variety of jams from local fruits.

As a vegan traveling in Madagascar, I have opted out of the traditional boiled chicken served with white rice and a broth of rice water, a variety of zebu (tropical bovine) dishes, and duck, which is abundant. In rice paddies, ducks are used to keep insects from eating the rice seeds. Due to the increase in flow of tourists to Madagascar, restaurants consistently offer at least one vegetarian option on the menu, if not more.

Hiking in the canyon of Isalo National Park

As a vegan, it’s more limiting, as many of these dishes include cheese. As a low-carbohydrate vegan, I’m even more limited. For meals, I stick with vegetables, all of which are locally grown, out of necessity as opposed to some local farm support movement. Much of the population is reliant on agriculture, so produce is readily available. Neither the transportation system nor the economy is well-developed, so the farther the producer is from one of the few cities, highly perishable produce will not make it from the rural areas. Plus, very little processing happens in the country, with most canned and packaged goods imported, so produce isn’t grown for large-scale production. Instead, people from the villages sell their produce from roadside stands and take their produce to the weekly market in the nearest trading town to earn money to buy the stuff they don’t grow or make.

The usual vegetable combination I received, though this one was in a Malagasy curry sauce.

The vegetables on my plate were consistently green beans, zucchini, and carrots. On one occasion, I also got broccoli, while on another, I got some cauliflower. One place served most excellent eggplant served with herbs they grew in the kitchen garden. Most often, the vegetables were sautéed in oil with garlic, and a few times with ginger. In one place I got vegetables in a Madagascar curry spice blend, which were quite good. Though beans are commonly eaten by the local population, they are less commonly available at restaurants, which seems odd to me (and our guide, as well). They always prepare them from the dried beans, so at one place I was able to get them the second night of our stay (we almost exclusively ate at restaurants attached to the hotels or camps) after asking for them on the first night.

Out of necessity I ate more grains (most often in the form of white bread) and potatoes than I would at home; otherwise I wouldn’t have been eating a whole lot. It was strange to eat bread at least once or twice a day, whereas at home, if I eat bread, it’s the high-protein bread that I make. I definitely noticed that going back to a more carbohydrate-centric regimen that I was hungrier sooner.

An ex-pat owns the hotel where we stayed in the capital city, which has an amazing Italian restaurant, serving up this bread basket.

I do, however, tend to eat less when I travel. I don’t think it’s because I have fewer grazing options, especially on this trip because we spent so many hours riding in a vehicle. While the scenery is quite captivating, many hours of riding in the vehicle can get a bit monotonous, which could have led to munching, but didn’t (maybe this is progress for me?). I took this time (while we were covering more than 1300 miles) to write my posts when the roads were ‘soft’ (as our guide referred to the paved, less windy and potholed roads).

I first found these Mrs. H.S. Ball’s Chutney potato chips a few years ago when I visited South Africa. I was happy to find them again because of their unique sort of barbecue-Worcestershire sauce flavor.

My main source of calories was from peanut butter and peanuts. At some meals I’d have peanut butter (which I bought at a supermarket and is imported from South Africa) on bread to supplement the plate of vegetables I’d get.

A peanut butter sandwich lunch break during one of our ‘picnic’ lunch stops.

Other times, I’d just have peanuts, which are widely grown throughout the country, to round out the vegetable plate. As a special treat, in the capital, I was able to get some locally-produced cashews, which were quite a nice change.

The best of the chili pastes: Green chili with ginger

My favorite culinary experience was trying the chili sauces that differed from place to place. While they were not always available, they were a really nice flavor addition. The first sauce I had was a basic chopped fresh chili relish. Another time it was a mortar and pestle-ground red chili paste that I was able to stir into my couscous with black beans and vegetables. The most interesting flavor composition was a much lighter colored, thinner paste that was green chili ground with ginger. The one thing they did have in common, though, was the heat. Just a tiny spoonful packed a lot of chili power, which for me, was delightful.

A tiny chili paste pot and spoon

As a poorer country, Madagascar manufactures very few processed foods. As with the peanut butter, many packaged goods, like the Simba potato chips I found, are imported from neighboring, relatively wealthier South Africa. Similarly, the Nice coconut cookies I bought to satisfy my occasional desire for a bit of vegan dessert are imported from India. While there are still many people living in poverty in India, its economy is much more diversified, with a much better distribution of wealth that supports a growing middle class. Most Madagascans, on the other hand, remain subsistence farmers, growing rice in very scenic rice paddies, sugar cane, corn, legumes, and fresh produce. One region also produced cotton, introduced by French colonists.

While the French did influence Madagascan culture, they didn’t manage to export their gourmet dishes that drive foodies to France. Even though Madagascar is not a place to go for a culinary experience, it is an excellent destination for its unique, scenic, and diverse topography, flora, and fauna, and its very friendly people. So if someone who opts for a low-carbohydrate vegan regimen has no problem getting daily nourishment, most people who don’t visit with any grand foodie expectations should have a most rewarding experience.

One of more than a dozen different varieties of lemurs I saw in Madagascar.

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