The most universal Malian dish is rice with sauce (often peanut tiga diga na, tomato/onion/oil, or leaf/okra based – usually with some fish or meat if purchased or prepared for guests). To, a gelatinous corn or millet food served with sauce, is another Malian classic, though more a village food than something most tourists would encounter. In the north, couscous is also quite common.
In the largest cities, decent western restaurants can be found, charging near western prices. Bamako even has good Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Lebanese and more. In smaller places, the standard Malian restaurant serves chicken or beef with fries and/or salad – usually edible and affordable, but boring and not particularly Malian. The better places in the more touristy areas may also have some local specialities. Street food is a lot more fun (and super cheap) – breakfast will be omelet sandwiches, lunch is usually rice with a couple sauces to choose from, and dinner presents many options including beans, spaghetti cooked in oil and a little tomato, potatoes, fried rice, chicken, meatballs, beef kebabs, fish, and salad. You can find little table along the road sides and near transport centers.
Snacks you may find for sale include little cakes (especially in bus stations), various fried doughs (either sweet or with hot sauce), peanuts, roasted corn if in season, sesame sticks, and frozen juices in little plastic sacks. Fresh fruit is widely available and always delicious. Some of the best are mangoes, papaya, watermelon, guavas, bananas and oranges – the particular selection depends on the season.
Of course, as in any tropical, underdeveloped country, food borne disease is a major concern for the traveler. The main culprits for diarrhea are untreated water (especially in rural areas) and fruits and vegetables which have not been peeled or soaked in bleach water – salads (even in fancy restaurants!) are likely to cause problems. You should also be sure any food (especially meat) is thoroughly cooked – generally more of a problem with Western food in restaurants than with Malian foods (which are usually cooked for hours). Drink bottled water, and talk to your doctor about bringing an antibiotic like cipro to treat diarrhea that is severe or does not improve over a couple days.
Treat tap water with suspicion. It is often so heavily chlorinated that one suspects few bugs could possibly survive in it. But short-term visitors will be safer with bottled water. There are several cheap local brands, but be warned that they are only drunk by foreigners and wealthy Malians: don’t rely on finding bottled water in shops patronised by ordinary Malians. Soft drinks such as Coca-Cola or Fanta are more widely available and safe. But remember that Coke will make you want to go to the toilet, and so may leave you more dehydrated than before you drank it – a serious problem in this stunningly hot country. Street vendors sell water and home-made ginger and berry drinks in little plastic bags. They are often iced which makes them very refreshing in the heat. Generally, you shouldn’t drink these without treating them first. However, one which is called bissap in French and dabileni (red hybiscus) in Bambara, is made from hibiscus leaves that are boiled during preparation, and so generally is safe to drink. In Bamako, it is possible to purchase at most corner stores treated water in small plastic bags for 50 CFA; these are much cheaper, and of course more environmentally friendly, than bottles. The bags are marked with a brand name; be careful not to mistake them for the tap water that is sold in unmarked plastic bags by street vendors. Also widely sold in this way is sweet milk and yogurt, which are normally clean because the bags are industrially filled. Fresh milk can also be bought from buckets at the roadside in some villages, although it should always be thoroughly boiled before drinking as it can carry tuberculosis bacteria (often Malians do this before selling, but it is safer to do it yourself or at least ask).
Mali is generally a safe country with low rates of violent crime, however, you should always be aware of your belongings and never carry valuables in a backpack in a crowded area like the market as petty theft in such areas is not uncommon. The train between Bamako and Kayes is notorious for theft – if taking the train you should exercise extreme caution, be sure to carry a pocket flashlight, and keep your belongings with you and valuables directly on your person at all times. You also have a good chance of encountering the police. They are generally mostly concerned with directing traffic and fining people for improper papers, so you have little to fear from them but should always at least carry a copy of your passport and visa (and preferably the original provided you keep it secure). Only carrying a driving license is not sufficient and might lead to a ride to the police office – if you’re not prepared to bribe your way out. Notice that the police in Bamako often stop taxis, although this can be somewhat avoided by never putting more than 4 passengers in the car and by only taking official cabs (the ones with the red plates ONLY – in Bamako a car with white plates is not an official taxi even if it has a taxi sign on top, regardless of what the driver may tell you!).
You are technically required to have an international vaccination card showing immunization against yellow fever, although customs officials do not often check that you have the card. It is also recommended to get Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, typhoid, and meningitis vaccinations. You may also consider getting a polio vaccination due to the recent outbreak of polio in Northern Nigeria that has spread around the region.
Mali is highly endemic for malaria, including s. falciparum malaria, the most accute variety. All travelers should plan to take a malaria prophylaxis throughout their time in Mali (mephloquine and Malarone are the most common). The other main precautions are to use insect repellent in the evenings and to sleep under a mosquito net in all but the fancy, sealed, air-conditioned hotels. This will significantly lower your exposure to malaria as the mosquitos that carry the parasite are only active at night, but you would want to take these precautions even without the risk of malaria simply to avoid being covered in itchy mosquito bites! You will almost never see or be bothered by mosquitos during the day.
Food and water
Stay away from dirty food and water. The rule cook it peel it or forget it should be followed. Also water should only be drunk out of sealed bottles or after it is sterilized through boiling or chemical utensils. The food is another issue. It’s sometimes difficult to know if it’s cooked long enough. Also the, to Westerners, unusual spices are sometimes the cause for sickness, especially diarrhea. Also expect little stones or bits of grit in the meal, especially the local couscous (this doesn’t mean it’s unsafe though, as it has been cooked long and thoroughly). For the traveller the main danger is diarrhea. For mild diarrhea you should be sure to rest, drink lots of clean water and eat soft plain foods, and be prepared to take antibiotics if the diarrhea is severe or lasts several days. During the illness the body will lose a lot of water and salt. With Coca Cola (sugar and water) and pretzel sticks (salt), which are available everywhere, usually one is after a couple of days again on top. There are also instant powders available which have the amount of glucose and salts that are needed.