Malagasy Cuisine — Varenga: Crispy Shredded Beef

Malagasy Cuisine (from the African island nation of Madagascar) is an embodiment of the various peoples and their cultures who have settled on the island throughout its inhabited history.  The first Malagasys, outrigger canoe-powered settlers from Southeast Asia, arrived sometime between CE 100 and CE 500, bringing with them rice, ginger, plantains, and root vegetables like taro and yams.  Those plucky underdogs from Borneo cut down much of Madagascar’s forests and caused the extinction of loads of awesome-sounding animal life (like the Malagasy hippopotamus or the giant lemurs) before wising up and planting rice almost everywhere on the island.  As a lasting legacy of the first Malagasys from Southeast Asia, it is a rare meal in Madagascar today that is not served with rice.  East African immigrants came around the tenth or eleventh century, their boats stocked with zebu, a cattle relative.  French meticulousness arrived with their colonization in 1896, and modern Malagasy cuisine was born.

Madagascar quick facts:

  • Capital: Antananarivo
  • Population: 22,005,222 (2012 estimate)
  • Notable Malagasys: Ranavalona I, Claude Simon, François Bayle

We have already made some interesting dishes from Madagascar, like the vegetable soup lasopy; the spicy table condiment sakay; and a tomato-green onion salad called lasary voatabia; but the dish that most piqued our interest was the Malagasy treatment of slow-cooked, tender, crispy beef: varenga (recipe follows).  As avid lovers of Mexican food, the obvious analogy to make is that varenga is beef carnitas, so obviously we knew we needed to make a batch.

Varenga

adapted from the University of Pennsylvania’s Africa Cookbook project

SERVES 2 TO 4

(can easily be scaled up to accomodate more diners)

  • 1 lb boneless beef chuck, cut into 1 to 2 inch pieces
  • 1 quart water
  • 1 Tbs salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • a quarter or so of a white onion, sliced

First, we needed to deal with our chuck steak:

chuckroast

After being rinsed briefly in the sink, the main veins of fat were trimmed and what remained was cut into pieces:

beefinpieces
The fat that remains will be useful later for browning the cooked meat in the oven.

The beef was seasoned with the salt then added to our enameled casserole along with the water, onion, and garlic:

beefcoveredinpot

The pot was covered and brought to a boil, then turned down to low and kept at a slow simmer for about an hour and forty-five minutes, until the meat was fork-tender and falling apart:

beefcooked

The beef pieces were removed to a cutting board, where they were easily shredded by pulling them apart with a fork in each hand:

beefshredded

The beef was layered into a greased glass baking dish, and tossed with about a half-cup of the cooking liquid:

beefreadytoroast

The beef was ready to go into our preheated 400 degree Fahrenheit oven, where it was roasted for about half an hour until the meat was browned and crispy on top:

beefroasted

After a two-and-a-half hour slow cook, we were starving and ready to dive into our varenga and the rest of our Malagasy meal, recipes available via the following links:

A Malagasy meal is served all at once, in one main course, so we dispensed with the formalities and packed our plates:

mealfinished
Clockwise from upper left: lasopy, lasary voatabia, varenga topped with sakay, rice

They know how to construct a meal in Madagascar: rich meat, fiery sauce, crisp vegetables, and rice to sop it all up with.  Madagascar’s isolation from the rest of the world have given its people some unique ideas about how to prepare and present food, and we are happy to share the country’s rich culinary heritage.

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