Mirch masala in Mauritius

Joanna Lobo | Updated on August 23, 2019

Crunchy love: The diverse fritters or “cakes"—batter-fried eggplant, banana, arbi (taro) or sweet potato   -  JOANNA LOBO

The food of Mauritius has borrowed heavily from Indian cuisines. From chutneys to fried foods, you’ll find many delicious similarities

Every meal I had in Mauritius had a strong support cast — a small bowl of vibrant green chutney or paste. It was the first to arrive at the table and also the first to get refilled. The beauty of this dip was truly skin deep. One bite of piments ecrasés released a symphony of heat, enveloping the tongue and gently teasing the palate for what was to come.

This chilli paste had the consistency and vibrancy of freshly ground chutney. Piments ecrasés is typically made like chutney: Crushed chillies tempered with onion, garlic or coconut, and citrusy elements such as lemon or vinegar. “We eat it with everything,” says Venisha Gooriah, an image consultant who lives in Mauritius. “Many families add something sweet — apples or sugar — to cut down the heat. My family uses dried grapes.” The version at Salt of Palmar, a boutique resort, had young garlic and Muscovado sugar.

These fiery little peppers are an important part of Mauritian cuisine. I discovered that this need for heat in their food is a trait they share with the Indian palate. Mauritian food has a mix of influences — Dutch, Creole, French, Indian and Chinese — a nod to its cultural heritage.

Yet, it was the connection to Indian food that excited me; one that went beyond chillies.

Treats on the go

Mauritius has a significant section of people of Indian-origin, who make up about two-thirds of the population. The French and English colonists brought in slaves and indentured labourers from India to work on sugar cane plantations in the 19th century. Many of them came from present-day Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They stayed on, blending their languages (especially Bhojpuri), rituals and food with the culture of the island’s other residents.

It’s easy to glimpse this shared heritage everywhere. To start with, I turned to the streets. Mauritius has a vibrant street food culture, serving up comforting fried foods and munchies. There’s the creamyalouda, a variant of the falooda, which has milk, ice cream, basil seeds, agar agar and essence. There are samoussas, stuffed with chicken, fish or potatoes. And there are the diverse “cakes” — batter-fried fritters of eggplant, banana, arbi (taro) or sweet potato.

Chillies are also the hero of the gâteau piments or chilli cakes, which look like falafel. These fritters have chana dal — soaked overnight, ground and mixed in with coriander, spring onions, chilli and turmeric.

In the streets, the flatbread farata (a roti) turns into fast food. Stalls with the sign “roti chaud” (chaud means hot in the local language) sell fresh rotis slathered with rougaille, satini cotmili (coriander chutney) and served as a wrap. Rougaille, a Creole sauce made with onions, tomatoes and herbs, forms the common base for many gravy-based dishes.

The same ingredients find their way into the dholl puri, which could easily be called the island’s national dish. Just follow the nearest line in a market and it will lead to a dholl puri stall. A derivative of the Bihari dal puri, it is made with yellow split peas seasoned with turmeric and cumin. It is served in pairs, rolled up with gros pois (butter bean curry), pickles, satini, rougaille and bredes (spinach or watercress tossed in oil with onion, garlic and chillies).

Preserved flavour

My first meal in Mauritius was at Salt of Palmar in Flacq. The colours of the island state found reflection on the table, which had bowls of vegetables, salads, and chutneys. The Mauritian chicken curry was a platter of tomato chutney, mango takkar, farata and rice. The curry was a fiery dish, flavourful and well-balanced, but it was the accompaniments that held my interest. The takkar, executive chef Rehad Kader explained, was a tamarind compote eaten during or after a meal. It is sweet, sour and spicy and is also made with pineapple, apples or mangoes. His version was piquant and had the texture of caramel.

Another common accompaniment was achards (from Hindi achaar). The most common variant I sampled was achard legumes — carrots, cabbage, French beans and chillies cooked al dente and mixed with turmeric, mustard, garlic, chillies and vegetable oil. Here, too, there were variations: Some had the tartness of vinegar; others had the pronounced sharpness of mustard. It’s versatile too; I ate it with curry and rice, biryani and just by itself.

It’s easy to find ingredients for any of these curries and pickles at local markets. At the Central Market in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, the strong flavour of salted fish or snoek called out to buyers. This salted fish can be used in a rougaille, fried rice, a satini or stir-fries.

The market was a visual treat. Vendors sold boxes of Chinese guavas, purple custard apple and vegetables such as eggplant and chayote. There were sacks of powdered spices and organic herbs stacked against a wall and chillies of every kind. The market was a dizzying display of produce that migrated to Mauritius through slaves, settlers, colonisers and traders.

It was a true melting pot, just like Mauritius.

Joanna Lobo is a freelance writer based in Mumbai

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Published on August 23, 2019
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