Friday, April 4, 2014

A field guide to fruit in Madagascar

When I think about my favorite parts of life in Madagascar, specifically in the southeast coastal area, one of the first things that comes to mind is the fruit. I am absolutely spoiled rotten by the abundance of inexpensive, delicious fruit in this country, most of which I had never eaten until I came here, and most of which just happens to be grown organically. There is fabulous fruit all over the country, but I’m partial to the coastal regions’ tropical offerings. As I began learning about all the different types, I started taking pictures and cataloging everything in order to make an encyclopedic blog post about fruit in Madagascar, so what you are reading now is the result of almost 2 years of very delicious “field work”. Oftentimes when I’m buying my favorite fruit, the seller will ask, “what’s the name for this in English?”, and I’ll have to respond, “there isn’t one! It doesn’t exist in the English language!” Just like there is no word for “snow” in Malagasy, there’s no word for sakoa, a fruit that I believe only exists here, in English. Update: I now know that the sakoa, a.k.a. ambarella, exists elsewhere, but none of my Peace Corps friends had ever seen it before, either.

There are some other, harder-to-find fruits that I know I have missed—this is not quite as encyclopedic as I would like it to be, but I was trying to keep this blog post to be only about fruits that I had actually seen and photographed myself. For example, I know that I am missing a special type of persimmon that turns chocolate-brown when ripe. I also know that strawberries and peaches are grown and sold in the Highlands, but I haven’t seen them personally with the exception of buying them at Jumbo in Tana. Plus I seem to have also missed something called pok-pok (a.k.a. Cape gooseberry -- thanks to the readers who commented with more information on this.) I’ll continue to update this as I find more missing information and pictures, and if you know of anything else that I could add or need to edit, please make a note in the comments.

Finally, since we're on the subject of fruit, I want to share a joke that was sent to me by Ando, one of my regular readers and commenters. To wish someone a happy new year in Malagasy, you say "tratry ny taona", and then the person responds with "samy tratry ny ho avy"  -- essentially, "happy new year; same to you". Writes Ando:
Since around the New Year is also the apple's season in Madagascar (Antsirabe to be precise), people used to joke: 

Person A: Tratry ny PAOMA e!  (paoma = apple, sounds like "taona" in Malagasy)
Person B (reply): Samy tratry ny GOAVY (goavy = guava, sounds like "ho avy" in Malagasy)

Thanks to Ando for sharing! And now, without further adieu, I present you with fruit. They are listed alphabetically by the English name, but where I don’t know the English, I have used the Malagasy.  
Update 4/11/14: I have made a few updates based on reader feedback. Thanks everyone!

French : pomme, Malagasy : poma

These are grown in the more temperate central highland regions (like Antsirabe, as mentioned above, which is where I took this photo.) I'm spoiled by Vermont apples, so I'm not a big fan of apples from Madagascar.

French: avocat, Malagasy: zavoka

One of the best things about life in Madagascar is that avocados are about 10 cents each! The season runs from approximately January- April, and I usually eat at least one every day when they're in the market. This is a picture of the avocado tree outside my house... a dream come true!

French: banane, Malagasy: akondro or fontsy

I don't know if I can ever eat bananas in America again after eating bananas here, because now I know what they are supposed to taste like: sweet and oh-so-creamy. The made-for-export Cavendish banana (that has somehow become the most popular fruit in America) just doesn't hold a candle to the real thing. I usually buy the small ones like these cute kids are eating because they're the sweetest.

We also have these larger, plantain-like bananas, which are usually grilled or fried as a snack. (I finally tried this when I was visiting Antalaha this past weekend!)

French/Malagasy: baobab 

I'm a bit ashamed to say that I had no idea that baobabs had fruit until I went to Morondava in November. The fruit has a hard, fuzzy outer shell, and is filled with seeds that are surrounded with chalky flesh. I wasn't really a fan of the fruit, but while in Morondava I drank some really amazing jus naturel made from it, and I loved that.

French: fruit à pain, Malagasy: soanambo or sirapay

These cantaloupe-sized fruits are not actually sweet at all, and have a starchy flesh that becomes soft and potato-like when cooked. In my area these are extremely cheap, because when they’re in season the markets are just exploding with them. People will usually cook them to eat as a snack, similar to how they eat cassava, or will sometimes mash them up and cook them with spices and other vegetables to make a laoka (side dish) to serve with rice. I like making breadfruit fries, especially because they’re about 1/10th the price of an equivalent amount of potatoes! Plus, after finally looking up their nutritional value, I realized that breadfruit is very high in fiber, vitamin C, and potassium, so I feel that my cheapness is nutritionally justified.

French: coco, Malagasy: voanio

We either eat the aged coconuts (with sweeter flesh) as modeled below by Leo, Aaron, and Yu...

... or drink the water from the young coconuts, which is a popular beach activity. Here's Nick trying to give the coconut vendor in Manakara Be a run for her money,

Custard Apple
French : pocanelle, Malagasy : konikony/voanjato

I’ll start by saying that this is hands-down my absolute favorite fruit, and I try to eat one every day whenever they’re in season (right now!) Inside the scaly exterior, this fruit is filled with unbelievably delicious flesh that is reminiscent of vanilla ice cream. I will also say that I absolutely hate the name “custard apple” (there is nothing apple-esque about it) and so even though I am using the English name here for continuity’s sake, I will only ever call it a pocanelle or konikony, no matter where I am in the world. The other Malagasy name, voanjato, literally translates to “hundred seeds”, because the creamy interior is filled with dozens of bean-sized black seeds that one must spit out while eating it. But the extra effort is absolutely worthwhile for the otherworldly flavor of this unique fruit. The third picture shows the roadside stands at Faraony, which is a Sud Est town that somehow almost always has an abundance of them. Naturally, it's one of my favorite towns. This fruit is part of the annona family, meaning it's related to the cherimoya, for anyone curious.

Update 4/11/14: I just saw a smaller version of pocanelle during my time in Tana. Here's a picture of them with an apple for sizing purposes. When I asked the vendor the name of it, she said "konikony", which is the same name for pocanelle. So I don't think there is a distinction here in Madagascar, but I believe the English name for this smaller version is sugar apple.

French: pamplemousse, Malagasy: ampalimosy

I didn't see these very often, but my friend in Vangaindrano had a grapefruit tree behind his house, and ironically didn't even like them, so I'd usually go home with bags full of them whenever I went over to visit.

French: goyave, Malagasy: goavy/angavo

These are not really guava in the traditional sense (as we know them in America), but that's what people call them here. (Apparently South Africa calls this kind of fruit "guava" as well -- thanks to a reader comment for this tip.) They're small fruits about the size of a key lime, and you eat them whole. We have the yellow/green ones like this...

... plus the so-called strawberry guava, as seen on this tree. I find them to be a bit tarter.

French: jacquier, Malagasy: apaly be

Jackfruit is the bigshot of the fruit world, mainly because they're huge: around 20 pounds each when ripe! The photo at the top shows the jackfruit tree outside of my house, and the second photo shows what a jackfruit looks like when cut up. You eat the sweet part that surrounds the seed, and discard the stringy extra bits. See this blog post for a jackfruit story! UPDATE: here's a cool piece about jackfruit from NPR.

French: limon, Malagasy: voasary makirana

They don’t really have a distinction between limes or lemons here. The limes available here are really tiny-- smaller than a Key lime even-- and they don’t have very much juice. If I’m looking for a citrus-y flavor for cooking or cocktails, I usually opt for green oranges instead. Fun fact: the Malagasy name literally translates to “bitter orange”.

French: longane, Malagasy: longano

These are in the same family as the lychee, but the fruit is much smaller, and I don't find them to be nearly as good as lychees.

French: nèfle, Malagasy: pibasy

These tiny, grape-sized little orange fruits have a peach-colored flesh with glossy brown seed in the middle. They’re a bit laborious to eat because most people like to peel the skin off, but they make a good kind of snack-as-entertainment sort of fruit. This picture was taken in Fianarantsoa.

French: litchi, Malagasy: letchi

These are probably the favorite fruit of almost all Peace Corps Madagascar volunteers, even though most of us had never had a fresh lychee before coming here. The flavor is unreal, and they're addictively sweet and juicy. When they come into season, they are everywhere, so the markets are just bursting with them. Since lychees don't have a long shelf life once picked, this means that they are very cheap. Score! There are two types of lychees: the prickly-ish, "Chinese" lychee, as seen here...

... and the red lychee as seen in this photo. This is what is most abundant in my area, though when I was recently visiting the northeast, I saw (and ate) a ton of the Chinese lychees. UpdateI now know that "Chinese lychees" are in fact called rambutan, but in Madagascar, they are just called "litchi".

Mountain Apple
French: pomme Malac, Malagasy: makoba

These are kind of like a poor imitation of an apple. They're mushy and watery, and after trying them once, I decided that was enough. But here's a cute picture of my favorite fruit vendor with them.

French: mangue, Malagasy: manga

Mangoes explode into season in December/January, and like avocados, they are ridiculously cheap (5-10 cents each) compared to what we're used to paying for them in America. So, consequently, most of us eat our body weight in mangoes when they're in season. I find these to be even more delicious than the "Tommy Atkins" mango variety that is sold in the US. I'm not sure which variety of mango this is (in Mada, I've only ever really seen the variety pictured below), but I'd be really curious to do a taste test between these and Philippine mangoes or Indian mangoes, specifically the Alphonso.

French/Malagasy: mangoustan

The mangosteen is a pretty elusive fruit here, and it seems like we go on a hunt for them every February/March. I've only seen them for sale in a few towns in the Sud Est. Maybe it's because of their scarcity, but they've become one of my favorite fruits. The fruit is about the size of an orange and decorated with small, thick leaves that surround the stem. The thick purple rind holds white segmented flesh that surrounds a seed. It's sweet and a bit perfume-y, but just fantastic.

French: melon, Malagasy: voatango

Voatango is a specific type of muskmelon that only exists here in Madagascar (there is no specific French name for it.) I had never seen it until a few days ago when I was visiting Sambava!

French: orange, Malagasy: voasary or voangy

To me, the smell of oranges will always remind me of April/May in Madagascar. Like lychees and mangoes, it's a fruit that really defines a time of year in Madagascar. The sweet smell fills the air in every town, and everywhere you go, there are people sucking the juice out of orange segments. I didn't get a good photo of them at the height of their season last year, so here's a photo of a green orange, which people start eating (even though they're tart) in February or March.

French: papaye, Malagasy: papay

This is a photo of part of a turkey-sized papaya that I bought on my way home from Farafangana one day for about 25 cents. It was so big that even after giving away half of it, I still had enough to eat for dessert and breakfast, and to make jam with! Note the pocanelle and bananas next to it on my kitchen "counter". I had a successful day of fruit shopping!

French: grenadelle, Malagasy: garanadela

We have two kinds of passionfruit here: the yellow-skinned ones like this...

... and the purple-skinned ones like this. The flavor is pretty similar, though I find the yellow ones to be a bit tarter. They make really excellent jus naturel here with both kinds.

Also, here are two pictures of them growing on a vine at my friend's house. I actually didn't know until a few months ago that they grow on a vine and not a tree! Similar to vanilla vines, they need a support tree to grow on.

French: kaki, Malagasy: kaky 

I had always associated persimmons with the Mediterranean, so I was a bit surprised to arrive in Madagascar in March 2012 and find them everywhere here. In fact, my host family had a persimmon tree in their front yard! Here is a photo of me and my fellow PCV Aaron making persimmon jam when we cooked lunch for our host families.

French: ananas, Malagasy: mananasy

The pineapples here are unbelievably sweet... similar to how I feel about bananas, I am never eating them in America again because now I know how a pineapple is supposed to taste. Not only are they the best in the world here, they also grow massively large-- to the point where I once had to strap one to the back of my bike in order to get it home! Unfortunately, because of their massive size, I also discovered here that I am mildly allergic to pineapple-- because if I eat too much, my lips start to get tingly and itchy.

French: prune, Malagasy: paiso

Like apples, these only grow in the temperate highlands region here. But when I visited Antsirabe in December, it was an exotic treat to find them, because I hadn't seen stone fruit in ages! Funny to think that tropical fruit is my everyday fare, but plums are a rare delight.

French/Malagasy: framboise

When I visited Ft. Dauphin in September, I was shocked to find raspberry vendors all over the place. I had no idea that they would grow in a coastal area here! It was a delicious find, though, and I made a very memorable raspberry and papaya salad when I cooked dinner for my PCV friends who live in the area. I also made rhum arrangee with them before leaving Ft. Dauphin: I put some raspberries in rum bottles which I brought back with me to Vangaindrano, and then drank it a few months later when it was rosy-pink and infused with raspberry flavor.

French: prune de cythère or pomme de cythère, Malagasy: sakoa

This is a bit of a weird fruit that I hadn't ever tasted or heard of until I came here, but I really love it. They look a bit ugly from the outside, but the inside is sweet yellow flesh that surrounds a spiky pit, which you eat around. The flavor is like a combination of orange and mango.

French/Malagasy: corossol

This is a relative of the pocanelle, but it is not frequently eaten as a fruit like pocanelle is; here it's mainly used to make really delicious jus naturel.

French/Malagasy: carambole

This is almost always a bit sour, but it makes good rhum arrangee. And it's just so pretty to look at!

French: tamarind, Malagasy: voamadilo

Tamarind makes excellent jus naturel, but it’s not very fun or satisfying to eat. The inside of these pod-like fruits is a thick, sticky paste that doesn’t really lend itself well to eating raw.

Wild Custard Apple
French/Malagasy: coeur de boeuf

For those of you who don’t speak much French, the name of this fruit translates to “beef heart”—owing to its shape, I’d imagine. It’s in the same family as soursop and pocanelle, but it’s the least-tasty member of the family—the insides are less custard-y and are more mealy-textured. I didn’t even know that it had an English name until I looked it up online and found this Wikipedia entry.


  1. Hi!in french sakoa is called prune de cythère or pomme de cythère, and the scientific name is Spondias dulcis.
    I eat thoses fruits very often but it's the first time that I read a description of the taste so I realize that I miss many things because I didn't pay attention to the taste.

  2. Misaotra Faniry! I am going to update the "sakoa" entry with the French name now.

  3. Hi Emily

    Pok-pok is the Malagasy name for Cape gooseberries, which are small, round berry-like fruit surrounded by a papery 'cape'. Their botanical name is physallis. The Malagasy guavas are the same as the ones we get in South Africa, so I was puzzled by your reference to them being 'not really guavas in the traditional sense'; I guess the ones you get in the USA are a different variety.

  4. Hi Emily

    Pok-pok is the Malagasy name for Cape gooseberries, which are small, round berry-like fruit surrounded by a papery 'cape'. Their botanical name is physallis. The Malagasy guavas are the same as the ones we get in South Africa, so I was puzzled by your reference to them being 'not really guavas in the traditional sense'; I guess the ones you get in the USA are a different variety.

    1. Hi I am also in SA. Are you a collector?

  5. Thanks for this! I was trying to figure out what fruit that was I ate that tasted like bubble gum. Turns out it was jackfruit.