Today the people of Madagascar celebrate the nation’s formal separation from colonial rule by France in 1960. The country and the island have always fascinated me for all manner of reasons (and, no, I have not seen the dopey CG movie of the same name). Ever since I saw Madagascar on maps of the world on walls in my elementary classrooms I knew without having to be told that the island had separated from the African mainland at some point in geological history. It’s just so obvious. Madagascar with its big bump on the western coast looks as if it exactly matches a big bite taken out of the mainland’s southeast coast like a jigsaw puzzle piece. It’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Madagascar was part of the west coast of India when it separated from Africa as the supercontinent Gondwana was splitting up, and then Madagascar broke off from India as India journeyed north to crash into Eurasia (click on the graphic above). Because of this early separation from continental territories about 88 million years ago, Madagascar is a treasure trove of flora and fauna: 90% of its plant and animal species are unique to the island. Culturally it has a fascinating layered history as wave upon wave of immigrants arrived from first the Indonesian archipelago, then from Asia, Africa, and Europe. The main language of the island is Malagasy, related to several modern languages of Borneo (where the first settlers most likely originated), and unrelated to mainland African languages.
Most archaeologists estimate that the earliest settlers arrived in outrigger canoes from southern Borneo in successive waves throughout the period between 2,360 and 1,450 years ago, making Madagascar one of the last major landmasses on Earth to be settled by humans. Upon arrival, early settlers practiced slash-and-burn agriculture to clear the coastal rainforests for cultivation. The first settlers encountered Madagascar’s abundance of megafauna, including giant lemurs, elephant birds, giant fossa and the Malagasy hippopotamus, which have since become extinct due to hunting and habitat destruction. By the early seventh century, groups of these early settlers had begun clearing the forests of the central highlands. Arabs first reached the island between the 7th and 9th centuries. A wave of Bantu-speaking migrants from southeastern Africa arrived around 1000 and introduced the zebu, a type of long-horned humped cattle, which were kept in large herds.
Madagascar was an important transoceanic trading hub connecting ports of the Indian Ocean in the early centuries following human settlement. The written history of Madagascar began with the Arabs, who established trading posts along the northwest coast by at least the 10th century and introduced Islam, the Arabic script (used to transcribe the Malagasy language in a form of writing known as sorabe), Arab astrology and other cultural elements. European contact began in 1500, when the Portuguese sea captain Diogo Dias sighted the island. The French established trading posts along the east coast in the late 17th century.
Until the late 19th century Madagascar was an independent kingdom with close trading ties to France. But in 1883 France took the excuse of abrogated trade agreements (which were dubious to begin with), to invade and occupy the island. Resistance lasted until 1897 when full French occupation was formally accepted.
France’s power and reputation were severely weakened by German occupation during WW II, leading to a post-war Madagascan independence movement. France relinquished control of Madagascar over a five year period in the 1950’s leading to full independence being granted in 1960. Since then Madagascar’s political system has been through four republics, each with a new constitution. The latest constitution was ratified by referendum in 2010.
Madagascar’s complex immigration and political history coupled with its extraordinary biodiversity has led to a kaleidoscopic cuisine. Rice is the staple, and a typical meal consists of large quantities of rice (vary) plus a flavoring side dish (laoka). Choosing one recipe is another case of me being spoilt for choice. I settled on an absolute favorite of mine — Akoho sy Sauce Poivre Vert (chicken in green peppercorn sauce). Even the name blends Malagasy and French. I tend to go overboard on the peppercorns because I love them so much, and they leave a lustrous warm aftertaste. You can get peppercorns in brine in good gourmet stores or online. DO NOT use dried. Naturally this is to be served with plain boiled rice.
Akoho sy Sauce Poivre Vert
2 lbs (1 kg) chicken (drumsticks, thighs, and breasts)
¼ cup (55 g) butter
¼ cup (30 g) flour
2 cups (470 ml) milk,
fresh green peppercorns
Lightly salt and pepper the chicken, then grill it over wood or charcoal until cooked (use the broiler if you have to).
In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter then stir in the flour and let it cook, stirring often, until the mixture begins to brown.
Add the milk a little at a time, and whisk to make a thick sauce.
As the sauce begins to thicken, add in salt and peppercorns to taste. Stir in the chicken and let everything heat through.
Serve hot over rice.