Let’s talk food; is there anything better to talk about?
Someone asked me last week what I miss most about Madagascar. My answer: the food. Not a very common answer, actually. Since Madagascar is so geographically diverse, the food changes drastically depending on which part of the country you’re in. Happily, I lived in the Northwest, where coconut is king.
Before you go picturing me drinking coconut water out of a straw on the beach, know that people in my region cooked with mature coconuts (the ones you drink from are much younger), and typically, they don’t like to drink the water. That never stopped me, of course.
Maybe you’re thinking of shredded coconut flakes, the kind you put in macaroons. Nope. When people cook with coconut here, they actually shred mature coconuts to make coconut milk. Here’s how:
- Whack open a coconut with a machete or a big knife. Pour the water into a zinga, filter it and drink!
- Shred each half of the coconut on an ambozy (pictured above). Make sure you have a large bowl placed below for catching the flakes.
- Next, add clean water to the shreds–just enough to cover. Start to squeeze the flakes and extract the milk.
- Pour the shreds through a strainer into another bowl set aside.
- Repeat the process a second and third time.
- The first press is always the richest. In my experience, you want to use the first press last, so that your food retains the coconuty-rich flavor.
Of course, if you’re in America, whole coconuts and ambozys can be hard to come by. Luckily, full fat coconut milk makes a decent substitute.
My favorite of all coconut recipes are coconut beans. They’re filling, cheap, and last forever. In Madagascar, I would cook my beans over a traditional fatana sarbonne like the one pictured below, because beans take such a long time to cook. However, if you soak dry beans overnight, they’ll cook up in less than an hour.
When I went home to America, I adapted this recipe and made it for my family using locally available ingredients. I found that I still preferred to use dry beans, because it allows more time for the coconut flavor to absorb. But I’m sure, in a pinch, canned beans would suffice.
Here’s my American recipe:
Malagasy Coconut Beans
Serves 8-10 people; can be halved or doubled easily
2 lbs dry dark red beans
3 cans coconut milk
2 large tomatoes
1 large red onion
1 head of garlic
- Soak beans overnight
- When ready to cook, rinse beans and fill to cover with fresh water. Do NOT fill the pot with water; fill just enough to cover the beans with maybe an inch of water on top.
- Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are starting to get soft but not completely cooked.
- When soft but not still not cooked through, add two cans of coconut milk and bring to a boil again. Reduce to simmer and continue to cook the beans until they are soft.
- While the beans are cooking, smash the head of garlic with generous amounts of salt and pepper (I like to use a mortar and pestle for tradition’s sake, but you could certainly blend it in a food processor). Add the garlic, salt and pepper blend into the beans and stir. Cover.
- Chop the tomatoes and onions and add them to the pot.
- Taste a few beans to see if they are soft. They should almost melt in your mouth. At this point, add the last can of coconut milk and cook for ten more minutes, covered.
- Taste for salt and pepper. Add more if you like.
- Chop the cilantro and add it to the pot. Stir and serve.