Cooking with Coconut (with Recipe)

Coconut is king in Northern Madagascar.

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.

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Making fresh coconut milk using an ambozy, a traditional tool with a wooden seat and a metal grater attached to the end

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:

  1. Whack open a coconut with a machete or a big knife. Pour the water into a zinga, filter it and drink!
  2. Shred each half of the coconut on an ambozy (pictured above). Make sure you have a large bowl placed below for catching the flakes.
  3. Next, add clean water to the shreds–just enough to cover. Start to squeeze the flakes and extract the milk.
  4. Pour the shreds through a strainer into another bowl set aside.
  5. Repeat the process a second and third time.
  6. 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.
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Coconut beans! My favorite coconut dish

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.

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Beans cooking over a traditional fatana sarbonne, a charcoal cooking stove

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

Salt

Pepper

Cilantro (optional)

  1. Soak beans overnight
  2. 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.
  3. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are starting to get soft but not completely cooked.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Chop the tomatoes and onions and add them to the pot.
  7. 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.
  8. Taste for salt and pepper. Add more if you like.
  9. Chop the cilantro and add it to the pot. Stir and serve.
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Serve coconut beans with generous amounts of white rice and shredded mango salad.

 

 

The Injustice of Birth: Thoughts on an Urban Site

NOTE: It’s been ten months since the evacuation, and COVID-19 cases continue to rise every day. I’m still grounded in Memphis for the time being, though I’m making plans again. I wrote this blog back in January after moving to my third year, urban site. At the time of evacuation, I had started work on a grant for some really exciting remote teacher trainings and was just starting to get in the swing of things. But I never published this essay.

The reality of my new living environment, and how much it contrasted against my first site, was still troubling. I’m thinking about this again now, as COVID-19 has invariably changed the landscape of our schools and shaped the lives of our young people. As seems to be the case, those who will come out on top will probably not be the ones who were left at the bottom to begin with.

Written January 25, 2020 from Diego-Suarez, Madagascar

I’m finally in my new assignment, in my new home: a room in a unit in a compound behind the offices for the Direction Regionale de l’Education Nationale or DREN. Think of him as the state superintendent for public schools. I’ll be working closely with the English librarians here as well as the nearby Centre Regional de l’Institut National de Formation Pedagogique, the local teacher’s college.

My first week on this campus feels a lot like how I always imagined, when I was younger, what Peace Corps would be like: people were excited to meet me, dedicated to helping me get settled in my home, and scheduling meetings with me so that we could talk—in English—about my scope of work. They had even identified potential projects for me, all of which sound exciting and doable. But more on that later.

The difference between my arrival at my third year site and my arrival at my first year site couldn’t be more night and day. In fact, I can barely remember my first few days in Beramanja. I know I cooked on the floor, and my host brother brought me some really weird yogurt-y fruit that I had never seen before (but ended up enjoying). I remember various people came into my yard to meet me and, as I could barely speak Malagasy then, sat on my porch with me in silence. I remember getting pulled out of my house one morning before coffee to attend a teacher’s meeting, wherein I sat on a bench in a classroom with a pounding headache, sweating, while my new coworkers argued and yelled about which time slots they wanted, and probably a lot of other very important things to which I could in no way contribute.

Yet even as my language improved, the unpredictability and improbability of teaching at that school never went away. Classes were frequently cancelled due to rain, funerals, meetings, parties, holidays that never showed up on the school calendar, sports events, and, during my first year, a three-month teacher strike. I was slightly comforted talking to my fellow PCVs in other sites who experienced similar things. So, for the sake of integration, I learned to accept the unpredictability and not let it get to me. After all, everyone else was accepting it.

There are great, supportive teachers at my old site, as well as eager and curious students.  So why is it so widely accepted that the quality of their education should be less, and that infrequent classes and school cancellations are just a part of it?

It dawns on me now that perhaps my third-year site, with its English library and connectedness, is the exception, not the rule. Of course, an urban site does not dictate a supportive environment any more than a rural site dictates an unsupportive one. Sometimes it can be quite the opposite. Once again, we see the injustice of birth: is it true that a child born in a rural village has less opportunity to go to college than a child born in the regional capital? Or is it all about who they know? I honestly don’t have the answers. But I’d like to find out.

My new environment and scope of work feel so different: I have space here, and privacy, and workspaces. I’m working with adults now, not children. I’m working with colleagues who speak excellent English. It’s going to be a different experience, for sure. And I’m grateful to have it.

With a colleague at my third year posting, working with a teacher's college in Diego-Suarez, Madagascar
With a colleague at my new job in Diego-Suarez (Antsiranana), the Northern capital

New Year’s in February

 

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I’ve written about New Year’s before…aside from Independence Day, it’s the biggest day of the year.

Life can be hard here. No power. Fetching water every day. Working in the fields. Sweating. So that’s why parties mean so much. They’re a break from the every day. And they are so.much.fun. They’re also an opportunity for my students to take a break, socialize, and get me to take their picture 🙂

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I’ll leave you here with a visual account of my day. Not pictured: the late-night sweaty disco party or the dead zebu, sacrificed to the school, which fed about 600 people.

Happy 2019. Arabaina!

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With colleagues after the traditional meal of rice and zebu meat

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Seventh graders…enough said…

 

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Deuces for the chefs

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Attempt #1,250 to take an organized picture…

Rice Cakes

I have a coffee shop in my village.

The decor is rustic–hipster chic. It’s full of wooden stools and green plants and it serves the best rice cakes in the world. Yes, in the whole world. It’s a fact.

The recipe is a secret passed down from generation to generation. It’s run by a local grandmother. Only, it’s not so secret any more. She shared it with me.

When my friend and fellow volunteer, Alyssa, came to visit me last year, she boasted that this coffee stand sold the best mokary vary in all of Madagascar. At the time, I had only been in Madagascar for three months, so I took her word for it. A year and a half later, I see now that Alyssa wasn’t wrong.

What makes this mokary vary (rice bread or rice cake in the Northern Malagasy dialect) the best? I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s the combination of yeast and baking powder. Maybe it’s the type of rice she uses to grind into flour. Maybe it’s just the right amount of sugar added, or the right amount of charcoal used…or maybe it’s just pure, natural talent.

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Whatever it is, I’m satisfied eating it every day. This place has become my daily routine. I wake up, throw on a salovana, sweep my house and then wander out of my yard up the road to drink coffee and eat mokary vary and listen to the gossip and the news. If it weren’t for this place, I’d have no idea what’s happening in the village.

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Local “Starbucks”

Before Alyssa finished her service, she came back to our coffee shop and begged the owner for the recipe. With a hearty laugh, she obligingly walked us through each step. It’s a two day process. Day two begins very early (“at the cock’s crow”) and we overslept and missed it. But I promised Alyssa that I would go back and observe the final piece of the puzzle, so that she could bring this little piece of Madagascar (my little piece) back to The States with her.

Well Alyssa, here it is. Let me know if it tastes the same over there.

PS: She misses you.

Dady's Mokary Vary Recipe:

Ingredients:
4 cups of rice flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp yeast
1 cup sugar
water

The Night Before:
1. Put 4 Tablespoons of rice flour in a saucepan (1 TB per cup of rice flour)
2. Add enough water to make a thin liquid
3. Place the saucepan over direct heat
4. Cook until the mixture (called koba) gets thick and becomes difficult to stir
5. Let the koba cool
6. Add the baking powder and yeast to the remaining rice flour in a large bowl
7. Add the cooled koba to the mixture and combine until it is incorporated. It'll be a bit lumpy
8. Let this mixture sit overnight. I didn't see this part, but I assume Dady covered it with a cloth.

The Morning Of (3 am or When the Cock Crows):
1. Add the sugar and enough water to make a very thin batter
2. Heat very small pans with lids over charcoal (or I guess in an oven if you're going that way)
3. Add enough oil to coat the pans
4. Pour about 1/4 cup batter in each pan. Cover and let cook for a few minutes.
5. Flip the mokary once it has had time to set on one side.
6. When the edges are brown, remove and let cool.

Make sure to eat this with some really mahery coffee. 

Mazotoa.