Seasonal produce: litchi

Alright folks, this is what we have been waiting for all year: litchi season.

A bowl of unpeeled litchis

A bowl of unpeeled litchis

These small, red, rough-skinned spheres of sweet juicy heaven are being shuffled to all corners of Madagascar this time of year. Towns and villages become littered with discarded litchi skins and seeds as people enjoy them on the go; an obvious signal that the best part of the seasonal fruit year has arrived. The tropical fruit, native to south-east China, grows best in the warm humid climates along the eastern coast of Madagascar. Litchi trees grow large and can produce may kilos of fruit. Due to the relatively short season of litchis, about 4-6 weeks, the fruit is highly sought after and quickly enjoyed while it lasts.

A litchi tree in the countryside near Andapa

A litchi tree in the countryside near Andapa

Portion of a litchi tree near Andapa

Portion of a litchi tree near Andapa

I had never tasted a fresh litchi before coming to Madagascar, so I had to be taught by local children how to eat them. The outside of the fruit is covered by a red, roughly textured skin that must be peeled away to reveal the translucent white flesh. Then, simply pop the fruit into your mouth, remove the flesh from the dark brown seed, and spit out the seed. You’ll likely be hooked after your first taste of the fragrant and sweet fruit, which will lead to consuming at least one kilo each sitting.

A bowl of peeled litchis. Photo credit: @danie.fock

A bowl of peeled litchis. Photo credit: @danie.fock

In the markets of Fianarantsoa right now, I can buy 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) of litchis for 500 Ariary (about $0.15). That’s insanely cheap for such an instant and satisfying sugar high. In many parts of the eastern coastal regions, it’s very common to go out into the countryside with friends and get litchis right from the trees growing around a family’s house. When I was living in Andapa, some of the English teachers that I worked with would invite me to teach with them in their countryside villages and then they would give me kilos of fresh litchis to bring back home. Whether I bought them in the market or got them from a friend, bringing home litchis has been an exciting new experience for me. I really enjoy sitting in the shade outside, snacking on some litchis, and watching the world go by.

A woman selling litchis in Fianarantsoa

A woman selling litchis in Fianarantsoa

In some areas of the east coast, litchis are such an important part of the local culture and economy that they celebrate the fruit with street parades and other festivities. While visiting Tamatave this past weekend, some friends and I stumbled upon a litchi parade complete with drummers, dancing, costumes, and lots of singing students. It was an exciting and unexpected treat to watch people basically throw a huge party for this delicious little fruit!

Students, dressed in festive colors and litchi branches, sing during a street parade in Tamatave

Students, dressed in festive colors and litchi branches, sing during a street parade in Tamatave

As litchi season comes to an inevitable end soon, I know I’ll be out in the markets looking to get my hands on this special fruit for as long as possible. Eating the last litchi of the season is always somewhat sad, marking the conclusion of a gluttonous feeding frenzy, but it also starts the mental countdown until next year’s season.

Trying to contain my excitement about litchis

Trying to contain my excitement about litchis

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First impressions of a new life

Driving south from Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, you twist and wind through the sprawling highland landscapes. Rice paddies seem to stretch for miles. Small clusters of narrow two-story mud and brick homes occasionally dot the hillsides and valleys. The quality of the road is pretty good, by Malagasy standards, so the trip is mostly bearable. Stopping at roadside diners is an easy way to break up the journey and a chance to refuel with a heaping portion of rice and a smaller portion of pork and vegetables. Passing through the villages along the main road is like watching the local cultures transform in small incremental steps, from the predominantly Merina areas around the capital to the hearty Betsileo villages. And finally, about nine hours from Antananarivo and in the heart of Betsileo country, you arrive in Fianarantsoa.

A statue of "Masina Maria" (Holy Mary) overlooking the city of Fianarantsoa

A statue of “Masina Maria” (Holy Mary) overlooking the city of Fianarantsoa

Recently, I made that journey and began the next chapter of my Peace Corps service in Fianarantsoa (Fianar, for short). After living and working in Andapa for the past two years, I have decided to leverage my experiences and continue exploring the development world for one more year. My new assignment does not include teaching English, instead I’ll be co-managing the regional Peace Corps office in Fianar and supporting other PCVs in a variety of capacities. This is a big change for me, in a lot of ways, and even being in Fianar for this short amount of time has afforded me the opportunity to explore a new city and to think critically about my service in Madagascar up to this point.

One week isn’t enough time to form a strong opinion of Fianar, and I don’t plan on doing that quite yet, but I do want to share some of my initial observations and thoughts so far.

My newly developed Peace Corps instincts, which I didn’t appreciate until this relocation, kicked in almost immediately. It was late in the afternoon on a Friday when I arrived in a new city. I walked into my new house and office and it was completely empty and silent. A bit disorienting, at first. I looked around, started taking a mental inventory of everything, and then I began thinking about the basics. Where am I in this city? Where do I find food? How can I cook? Where can I buy basic supplies for the short term? Who can I contact if I need help? These were similar questions that I learned to answer after being dropped off in Andapa for the very first time almost two years ago. I felt proud of myself for calmly and confidently jumping into this new city within an hour of arriving. I remember working up the courage to find dinner that first night by thinking to myself “just get yourself out the front door, and everything else will happen on its own.”

A look at one of the neighborhoods of Fianar

A look at one of the neighborhoods of Fianarantsoa

One of the first major differences I encountered was the fact that people in Fianar speak a dialect of Malagasy that I’m not familiar with. I can still communicate on a basic level, but I know that studying and practicing the local dialect will be a priority for me. With the exception of some local vocabulary and pronunciation, most of the Malagasy dialects are similar enough that getting around the country is manageable.

Living in a larger city is another thing I’ve been getting used to. Compared to cozy Andapa, Fianar is a very big Malagasy city with more shops, hotels, restaurants, offices, churches, and markets. There are portions of the city that bustle with vehicles, street vendors, and pedestrians. Seemingly just around the corner from these areas, there are some streets that are more peaceful and offer beautiful views of the city. Fianar is built on a series of hills and the relaxed energy is refreshing for the size of the city.

The view from the balcony at my new house

The view from the balcony at my new house

The food of Fianar, and the highlands in general, is a bit different. The most noticeable difference is the availability of pork in the highlands. In Andapa, and most of northern Madagascar, many people do not eat pork for religious or cultural reasons. Fianar also has a huge variety of fresh vegetables in the markets. Items such as cauliflower, sweet potatoes, peas, and pumpkin are things that are new for me to see in the market. There’s even a small corner of the market with fresh cut flowers, which is something I had never seen in Madagascar previously. The street food and fried snacks are also a little different in Fianar. Some of my favorite snacks during PST, such as mofo anana (fried dough with chopped greens) and mofo akondro (battered and deep fried banana), are now available to me again. While I am leaving behind access to fresh coastal seafood, meals with coconut, and many seasonal tropical fruits that I was used to in the SAVA region, I am still in the honeymoon phase of enjoying other foods that are more typical of the highlands cuisine.

I’ve noticed that even the people look different in Fianar. Compared to the Tsimihety people of Andapa, the Betsileo people in Fianar tend to have a darker complexion and many of them are tall, thin, lanky individuals. Obviously, I’m not making a blanket statement about all Betsileo people, but these are some of the features that have stood out to me as I’ve been walking around the city.

A section in the Old Town of Fianar with strong French colonial influences on architecture and city planning

A section in the Old Town of Fianarantsoa with strong French colonial influences on architecture and city planning

Considering all the changes I’ve experienced in the past month, including leaving Andapa, saying goodbye to some of my closest friends as they finish their service in Madagascar, and transitioning into a new home and job, my spirits are still high and I am eager to move forward. I’ve been enjoying my time spent exploring in Fianar. Inside the regional Peace Corps office, there is a small note attached to the communal refrigerator that reads “Peace Corps by choice, Betsileo by the grace of God.” I’m choosing to embrace this outlook as a guiding principle in my integration. I may not have specifically chosen to live in this region, but I will do my best to fall in love with it.

Up with the roosters

Day in and day out. Many of us settle into a routine and flow that takes us through the day. In Madagascar, I have developed new routines and schedules that get me through my days. Most days are never quite the same, this country has a funny habit of continuing to surprise me and alter plans, but here is a glimpse into a “typical” day for me:

5:43am – Wake up to the sound of roosters, pigs, and the rumbling diesel tractors full of cheering men and freshly butchered beef as they drive from the butchering fields, past my house, to the market

6:09am – Get out of bed, push open my wooden window, and boil water for coffee and breakfast

7:00am – Walk about 50 feet into bazary ambanivolo (countryside market), leisurely stroll past the piles of fresh produce laid out on tarps along the dirt road, select my food for the day, and say hello to the vendors that I usually buy from

7:45am – Commute to work by riding my bicycle through the market and center of town, usually attracting stares from people moving about town to start their day. I end up at either the public middle school (CEG) or the public high school (Lycée Mixte) to teach for a few hours

11:18am – Return home from teaching, either frustrated from a class that misbehaved or proud from a lesson that actually went well. Start to prepare lunch, which is usually a large portion of rice with a small portion of beans, vegetables, or eggs

12:26pm – Enjoy lunch during the momentary silence of midday. The area around my house is void of children playing or people passing through on the their way to the market

1:40pm – Wake up from a short afternoon nap in my hammock, some days I teach another class in the afternoon and other days I write lesson plans or prepare materials for future classes

4:07pm – On my way back home after class, I sometimes stop for a snack of min-sao (noodles with ginger and curry powder) or dite cola (spiced tea). Drive-thru’s don’t exist in Madagascar, so half the experience of eating a snack is sitting with the vendor and catching up on gossip

4:49pm – Check in with my pal and colleague, Johnny, to see how things are going at the English library

5:00pm – Evening yoga at home to unwind and reflect on the day

5:50pm – Use the last minutes of sunlight to sweep my house, making sure I can see all the bits of dried rice, various insect limbs, and general dirt that accumulates daily

6:20pm – Prepare dinner, usually reheating leftovers from lunch on my small gas stove

7:30pm – Wash the dishes in a small plastic basin, take a cold shower, and brush my teeth

7:55pm – Crawl into bed, under the seemingly impenetrable forcefield of my lay ody moka (mosquito bed net), and enjoy a book or watch an episode of television on my computer. Take joy in knowing that I was successful this day or that at least the day is over

This post was inspired by BloggingAbroad.org. Click the image to learn more.

This post was inspired by BloggingAbroad.org. Click the image to learn more.

Seasonal produce: voazato

Still life with voazato, zavoka (avocado), and fontsy (banana)

Still life with voazato, zavoka (avocado), and fontsy (banana)

Although it is avocado season again in Madagascar (thank the heavens), there is another seasonal treat making a reappearance in the market these days. What I would have once classified as another “bizarre tropical mystery food” is now a welcomed addition to my diet. Allow me to share the wonders of the voazato. The direct translation of this name is “100 seeds” and it comes from two Malagasy words: voa meaning “seed” and zato meaning “100”. I’ve never seen this fruit before coming to Madagascar, but I’ve been told the most common English names for this fruit can be either custard apple or sugar-apple. Whatever you want to call it, the voazato can be a delicious addition to any breakfast or a midday snack.

The voazato

The voazato

The jagged exterior and strange shape of the voazato might be a little intimidating at first, but the taste buds are quickly rewarded for exploring their curiosity. The outside of the fruit should be a nice golden yellow with no major bruising. Much like an avocado, a good voazato is neither completely firm or too soft.

The edible flesh of the voazato has a smooth viscous texture. It tastes similar to custard (probably where one of the English names is derived from) or plain yogurt. This is why I prefer to eat this fruit in the mornings as part of breakfast.

The edible part of the voazato

The edible part of the voazato

Eating a voazato is fairly simple. First, cut the fruit into quarters to reveal the delicious milky white flesh. Next, use a spoon to scoop out bite sized portions and enjoy. The fruit does live up to it’s name and every bite includes a few inedible brown seeds that should be discarded.

The aftermath of a delicious voazato (but this one only had 43 seeds)

The aftermath of a delicious voazato (but this one only had 43 seeds)

The voazato season is just starting here in Madagascar, so hopefully we can enjoy this special fruit for a while longer. This season, potentially my last in this beautiful country, will be particularly special. Mazotoa mihinana! (Enjoy eating!)

Seasonal produce: pibasy

In the central highlands of Madagascar, one of the most delectable and celebrated fruits of the region is a type of loquat called pibasy. The characteristically colder climate of the highlands is ideal for growing pibasy and the fruit becomes available in the region during the winter months (April through July). Pibasy grows in clusters on a tree and ripens into a golden-yellow or orange fruit that can be oval or pear-shaped. The skin is smooth, sometimes furry, and can easily be removed to expose the edible flesh within. The fruit tastes like a tangy combination of peach and mango. Truly a special treat!

Pibasy growing on a tree (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pibasy growing on a tree (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because pibasy grows only in the highlands of Madagascar and is rarely exported to other parts of the island, it is extremely unusual for me to see it in my own community on the north-east coast. When I travel to the highlands, like I have recently to help train the newest group of Education Trainees, I make sure to seek out pibasy in the markets.

The inside of a pibasy with inner seeds visible

The inside of a pibasy with inner seeds visible

When I first arrived in Madagascar, more than one year ago, my host family had many pibasy trees around the house and this is where I was first introduced to the fruit. It was a common dessert that we enjoyed after meals. My host mother also made a sweet jam from the pibasy fruit, which was among one of my favorite parts of eating breakfast with the family. I also remember sitting in the yard and spitting out the pibasy seeds with my host siblings to see who could launch them the farthest. Clearly, my infatuation with pibasy is rooted in the fond memories I share around the fruit.

As my current visit in the highlands comes to an end, so does the season for pibasy in Madagascar. My friends and I have enjoyed this year’s harvest and I know many of us look forward to it again next year.

A fellow PCV and I enjoying pibasy

A fellow PCV and I enjoying pibasy

Seasonal produce: zavoka

One of my favorite things about Madagascar is the ability to eat fresh seasonal foods throughout the year. The island is so agriculturally diverse that the options for seasonal produce are almost endless. Every few months, the markets are overflowing with a new feature item that I’ve never seen before. 

Now it’s zavoka (avocado) season! As a native Californian, avocados already rank pretty high on my list of favorite foods. So to have access to perfectly ripe and affordable avocados every day is truly a dietary blessing. 

A fresh zavoka


The zavoka in Madagascar is slightly different than the Hass avocados I am used to eating in America. At first glance, they are noticeably much larger and greener than the varieties found in America. When I first saw an avocado in this country, I had a hard time believing it was actually an avocado! Despite this, they can still be just as ripe and delicious. The zavoka is a little sweeter than a Hass avocado and it has a creamy texture when it’s masaka tsara (perfectly ripe). The pit of a zavoka is also much larger, which probably explains why the overall size of the avocado is generally larger. 

In Madagascar, I’ve been able to try new ways of eating avocados. For example, following the advice of one of my neighbors, I often make a kind of avocado yogurt. I simply cube a very ripe zavoka, add a splash of water and a teaspoon of sugar, then mix it up with a spoon until it has a smooth texture similar to yogurt. The small amount of sugar only helps to bring out the natural sweetness of the zavoka. I find this to be a delicious breakfast or dessert! I’ve also been experimenting with different types of avocado salads, combining vinegar, onion, garlic, tomato, and sometimes carrot. Of course, I love to make guacamole as often as I can and share it with some of my Malagasy friends. They seem to enjoy trying this new “foreign” food. Sometimes when people see me buying a bunch of avocados in the market, they ask me if I’m making guacamole again. I also enjoy eating a zavoka, with just a little bit of salt and pepper, as a quick and easy snack. 

I fear that zavoka season will soon be coming to an end in Andapa. But until then, I am enjoying the bountiful harvest. 

Posing with a relatively smaller zavoka