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Wednesday, 21st October 2020

Why is rice the Malagasy staple food?

By Ndremana Philémon

Rice paddies in AntananarivoVary (rice) is the staple food of the Malagasy people. If there is food to cook, a person in the rural areas eats rice three times a day, unlike people in urban area that have snacks and so on.

Even though served with hanin-kotrana (food such as manioc or sweet potatoes), many kids will still complain that they haven’t had their bite unless they have had their share of rice even if it is just one spoon of it.

It becomes a struggle to find vary or ranovola (boiled water served with rice) when travelling to a city or overseas but a meal without rice seems insufficient and unfulfilling.

Rice is not just merely food in Malagasy culture but is associated with several other aspects of Malagasy life and culture. Outside of rice cultivation, rice is also conspicuous in social life and tradition. Rice is present in sacrifices; rice full of oil during famadihana (the tradition of turning the bones). Any sort of party wouldn't be respectful without rice to share with one another.

Cassava, sweet potatoes, corn, potatoes and sorghum are all cultivated in Madagascar but why is vary the staple food and if means allow, why does one fill up their plate with rice?

According to fedrà (Malagasy holy story) or myths, God created vary. Rice has belonged to God since the beginning of time and used to be only produced in heaven.

God’s daughter, who was married to a human and lived on earth, couldn’t get used to having only hanin-kotrana so she asked for rice from her father. But God refused to give rice to humans because rice is God’s food. However, her daughter then stole the rice and brought it down to earth, cultivated it and became the staple food here on earth.

It was God’s daughter then who stole rice for humans’ ancestors because she was married to a human. The message in this holy story is that rice should be the staple food of all human beings as it is God’s food, and it is a special blessing that humans have it. The story doesn’t say that God didn’t create hanin-kotrana, but the story emphasizes that rice is a special gift from God.

Zebu overlooking rice paddies in Madagascar

Let’s continue with the story. God was mad when he realized his daughter stole vary for humans, therefore he unleashed hails on earth. God’s wife felt bad for her daughter and humans and gave a curse to protect rice cultivation from the hails her husband had sent. But God on his part had also a change of heart, and he felt bad because he didn’t want it, which came from him, to be destroyed.

Until now, we have managed to preserve rice and it has become the staple food above any other food. Historically, rice is not endemic of Madagascar, but is now cultivated across almost all of Madagascar apart from the southern region due to weather condition. The first rice cultivation started during the Neolithic Revolution and the most ancient transcript ever found is 5000 BC, discovered in Hounan, Ganges, China. A decree issued by the Chinese Emperor in 2800 BC is the first article about rice. It was the Austronesians (people from the Pacific islands, Borneo and Indonesia) that are the ancestors of Malagasy who first brought rice in Madagascar.


With special thanks to Lima Andriamanomesoa for his translation.

For more information, read

  • Faublée, Recits Bara, Institut d’Ethnologie, Musée de l'homme, 1947
  • Lars VIG, Les conceptions religieuses des anciens Malgaches, Antananarivo, 1973
  • Callet, Tantara ny Andriana eto Madagasikara, 2éme Ed, Impr officielle, 1981
  • CH. Renel, Ancêtres et dieux, in Bulletin de l'Academie Malgache, T.V (1920-1921), Antananarivo, 1923
  • Gerard Naal, Madagascar et le riz, 2016