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The snack of ancient seafarers
A brief history of koba
Hello, Snackers. Today on Snack Stack:
Take rice flour, mashed banana, honey, and peanuts. Mix them up and put them into a banana leaf, rolled into a thick log. Steam and then, once cooked and cooled, cut off then slices and eat. Sticky, sweet, dense, delicious.
Madagascar by way of Borneo, Indonesia
If you take the shortest route, the distance from the African continent to Madagascar is less than 300 miles—but the island’s original inhabitants, or at least the ancestors of today’s Malagasy, most likely came from the southeastern Borneo, about 5,000 miles away, some 1,200 years ago. Genetic analysis confirmed this about ten years ago, concluding that “30 women of childbearing age comprised the first human inhabitation of Madagascar,” although the roots have also long been suspected due to linguistic parallels and other factors, including “boats, tools, musical instruments, and food.”
One of those foods is today’s snack, koba, a popular treat sold in truck stops and train stations around Madagascar. The parallels between this specific food and its Indonesian siblings were apparently first discovered by musician Hanitra Rasoanaivo, the lead singer of the Malagasy band Tarika, who traveled to Borneo in search of her people’s ancestral roots. She writes, in the liner notes to the song that would come out of the experience:
As I was following the process of how a block of cork wood becomes a beautifully detailed head of a Rama puppet, I heard a familiar sound just next to me and everybody came out of their houses with plates in their hands. It was a man with what is called lontong in Javanese food. It was exactly like koba but they have it savoury as well. He slices the koba, pours pieces of chicken in coconut, tomato and chilli sauce, adds crushed peanuts on it and tops it up with Indonesian sweet ketchup.
According to Roots Magazine, the resulting song “became a big hit in Madagascar, and Koba became so fashionable that it ended up being sold in the most expensive hotels in Antananarivo,” the capital of Madagascar.
And now, please enjoy the song “Koba” by Tarika. It’s catchy!
Get it here
At markets, truck stops, and streetside stalls around Madagascar, especially in and around Antananarivo.
Will you like it?
Notes and stray thoughts
The Australian has an interesting piece on the Indonesian roots of the Malagasy people, which notes that “Computer simulations suggest the settlement began around AD830, around the time Indonesian trading networks expanded under the Srivijaya Empire of Sumatra.”
Here’s some more info about the food’s name and its own origins, according to one food blogger (I haven’t been able to corroborate this elsewhere, alas):
The name kobandravina derives transparently from Malgasy koba ravina with koba ‘flour, dough’ and ravina ‘leaf’, and mofo ravina from mofo ‘bread’. In Malagasy the letter <o> is usually pronounced as an [u] and the final vowel is devoiced, so koba would be said something like [kub] (with long [u] and not like English uh, perhaps an English spelling could be <koob>) and mofo pronounced like [muf] (in English spelling <moof>). The language is famous for its disappearing vowels and ravina illustrates this with a pronunciation of [ravn].