Where am I? Tropical shores of an island in the Indian Ocean
What I do speak? Creole, French and English
How I say hello: Bonzour or Bonjour or Hello!
Best vegetarian dish I love to eat: Alouda (Basil seed milkshake)
Many moons ago in 2014, when I got an opportuntity at work to relocate to Mauritius, it took me all of one second to say yes. I didn’t think about the practicality of it, the hardship involved, or even the fact that my new boyfriend was living in Botswana at the time. All I thought was “I’m going to live in a tropical paradise”. It was as if all my dreams (that I hadn’t actually even known I had) came true.
And so off I went to this tiny island, some 2000km off the south-east coast of Africa. I didn’t really know much about Mauritius at the time, except of course that it was a tropical island and many of my relatives had boasted about being married there.
Soon after landing, and just a few miles out of the airport, I felt I had entered the sets of a Hollywood adventure movie.
I was surrounded by lush tropic vegetation, with more shades of green than a Pantone colour palette.
My boyfriend did not have a clue but I knew then that this is where I too was going to get married.
Welcome to Mauritius
Home became a town called Grande Baie, in the north of the island, which actually wasn’t too far away from anything given the island is a mere 45 x 60 miles. I loved the vibrant yet casual vibe of this part of the island, and was drawn to the beach life that was the heart and soul of this town. Roadside sellers offering sweet coconuts or fried food were mingling with sellers of fresh fish. On a Sunday, every public beach would get packed with busloads of families enjoying a picnic together.
If you ate in one of the many cool restaurants lining the beach road, you would first be offered an appetiser of bread with a delicious green chilli paste (simply blend green chillies, a garlic clove, lemon and salt). I would gorge on this and then have no appetite left for the mains!
As you can imagine, It didn’t take much to convince my boyfriend to join me in this tropical paradise. Together we began to acclimatise to our new environment and prepare for the tropical heat and cyclones. The best way to do this was to enjoy the seasonal fruits that were available, whether it was pineapples (cut open in a beautiful twisted fashion and displayed attractively by the roadside), or mangoes in December or lychees in January. In early December, we had so many mangoes growing in our garden, that even after pulping, drinking, eating and freezing them, giving them away to friends or strangers, we still weren’t getting through all the mangoes that were so generously colouring our garden.
Of course the best fruit and one that is available all year round, is the coconut, with its sweet water and flesh. We would wait to hear the sound of one crashing onto the ground in our garden and rush out to grab it before the ants got to it. Of course you always have to be careful where you walk to make sure one of them doesn’t fall on your head!
And so we settled in to a happy bliss, just two of the latest immigrants to arrive and settle in Mauritius. But what a line of them there was in front of us!
The Arabs, The Portuguese, and The Dutch
It all started with the Arabs who stopped by in 900AD, but being so far away from their usual trade route, they left the islands uninhabited. The Portuguese followed in the 16th century, but uninterested, left to focus on their territories in India and Sri Lanka.
And so, it was left to the Dutch, who in 1710, arrived to claim it and name it! Indeed, the island is said to be named after the Dutch Stadholder (steward), Maurits van Nassau. Over the next 40 years, Dutch East Indiamen used the island to rest and get refreshed on their long journeys between Europe and East Asia.
With them, all the way from Java, Indonesia, The Dutch brought the sugarcane plant, and changed the face of Mauritius, and indeed the world, for the next 300 years.
Allo Allo to the French!
Unfortunately, unable to cope with the tropical heat and cyclones, the Dutch abandoned Mauritius in 1710, and in came the French.
With the help of slaves from West Africa, the French set out to increase sugarcane production and even established the first sugarcane processing factory in 1744. This caught the eye of the Brits who were keen to add Mauritius to their empire, given its strategic position on trade routes between Africa, Asia and Europe. Many battles ensued but the Brits triumphed in 1810 when they defeated the French at Cap Malhereux, or the Bay of Misfortune, not too far from where we were living in Grand Baie.
What followed was surprising as the Brits allowed the French to stay, and implement French customs and language, thus forming the foundations of a Mauritian identity. This explains why many ingredients from France e.g. thyme and parsley, are so widely used in Mauritian cuisine today. This is also why if you drive in Mauritius today, you will see road signs in french, towns in English, all while you are stuck behind a brown-skinned man lazily riding his bike and eating a baguette. Bless the French though, my morning ritual in Mauritius would always include a croissant and café.
As sugar gained importance across Europe at a time when slavery was meeting resistance, the Brits started what would become known as the “Great Experiment”.
They began to explore the idea of bringing in labour from across their colonies to work in sugarcane plantations, for a fixed salary and for a fixed number of years. Africans were not sought after for this experiment given the recent scrutiny with slavery, and the Chinese were not suited for the tough tropical climates. And so it was the Indians, notably from the East Indian state of Bihar, that were brought in for this scheme. Once established in Mauritius, the Brits rolled the scheme out to many more colonies within their empire where sugarcane was grown e.g. the Caribbean.
And so this started the great migration of Indians abroad, explaining in part the wide Indian diaspora across the globe today.
More often than not, indentured labour was just a small step above slavery and conditions were harsh for the labourers. Perhaps comfort came in the form of language, customs and cuisine that the labourers brought with them from India. Over the centuries these have become “creolised”, helping to create a unique identity, whilst at the same time contributing to the development of a common Mauritian identity.
One of the most famous street snacks in Mauritius today, Dholl Puri, originates from the fried flour breads, or puris, that are a staple in India. Due to restrictions in the local availability of ingredients, legend has it that the labourers replaced the flours used in Indian puris with a flour made from split yellow peas, thus giving birth to this true Mauritian dish.
Along with the Dholl Puri, the Roti Chaud (Hot Roti) which is more similar to its Indian counterpart, is also sold by street sellers across Mauritius. It is accompanied by an achard (pickle), and a curry (typically a bean curry). I would often spot one particular roti seller on my way to work, who apparently was so successful that he managed to send three kids abroad to be educated. His roti was certainly delicious, and like all rotis, it was cheap and quickly served, perfect for a lunch break.
Despite a growing number of good restaurants, street food is still the norm in Mauritius today. Until the 90s, most Mauritian dining took place mainly at home and in communities where events were celebrated with gusto.
The majority of Indian immigrants to Mauritius were Hindu, and this is reflected in the proliferation of the Hindu religion and culture across Mauritius today.
This means a large variety of vegetarian food is widely available, particularly curries and breads. Our dear friend Sudha once cooked us a meal with 7 vegetarian curries, and this is often on the menu if there is a wedding or religious function. Indian sweet desserts, made with flour, jaggery and milk, are also widely consumed.
Given that the Indians originated from the non-coastal state of Bihar, most Mauritian curries do not include coconut. They do however include chilli, and lots of it!
Tamarind is also used to make lovely sauces and dips that I used to liberally pour over my salad, or eat with Gajak, (deep fried snacks). These are often sold on the backs of motorbikes or at the beach. From samosas, to manioc goujons (cassava chips) to gateau patat (potato fritters), the variety is endless and mostly vegetarian.
The most famous gajak is gateau piment (chilli cake), made from a batter of chilli and lentils.
Gateaux piments are often eaten by Muslims during Ramadan. Muslims form a significant proportion of Mauritians and trace their history back to the original indentured labourers from India, who comprised both Hindus and Muslims. One of the most significant contributions to Mauritian cuisine is that of briani (mixed rice dish), traditionally enjoyed at a wedding but now available through the year. This dish can be offered in a vegetarian version and is flavoured with saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and other aromatic spices.
Without a doubt, the most intriguing community of all are the Mauritians of Chinese descent. A close-knit and rather hidden lot, the Chinese first arrived in Mauritius as traders and quickly established themselves in the port city of Port Louis.
Wandering through Port Louis, we found several Chinese food establishments, discreetly situated, but where the smell of its tempting food could not stay hidden.
At one of these places, we were served Gato zinzli rier (sesame balls) or literally laughing cookies. This delicious fried snack can be made from red beans or sweet potato, and rice or normal flour. Make your own with this great recipe from local Mauritian blog, Inspired to Bake.
Today Chinese food has found favour with all Mauritians, and I was delighted to find a mini Chinatown in Port Louis, with the giant entrance gate and all, and packed with tiny alleyway restaurants serving a variety of Chinese food.
The Creoles are the descendants of African slaves (many of whom are of mixed white/black/Asian heritage) and it was on the sister island of Rodrigues that we really got to experience their contribution to Mauritian food and culture.
With no sugarcane in sight, Rodrigues is a true paradise – lush, rich in food, and peaceful.
Many people say Rodrigues reflects a Mauritius of 50 years back.
Many people open up their homes to offer lunch to guests, and these places are known as tables d’hote. These are great places where you can enjoy local cuisine in an authentic relaxed setting. With a different set menu on offer depending on the season, vegetarians can enjoy a true Creole meal of a mixed salad, rice, a delicious lentil curry. Rice, now a staple food of Mauritius, was until the 70s a luxury food item in Mauritius as it was subject to an import embargo dating back to World War II.
An abundance of vegetables are grown and harvested in Rodrigues, and used in different curries. One of my favourites is called “fricassee de chouchoux”, a curry made from chouchou (vegetable pear). This lovely gourd grows on vines, and with its thick green skin and melon-like texture, it thrives in the Rodriguan climate.
A staple Creole sauce of Mauritius, Rougaille, forms the base of many curries. This spicy tomato sauce is flavoured with onions, garlic and thyme. Learn to make your own here!
And this is where it all comes together, this bustling capital city where all cultures meet and unite. It is here that one can truly begin to appreciate the different waves of immigration that brought people to Mauritius, and the impact that this globalisation has had on developing a Mauritian cuisine.
Today, Port-Louis bears witness to its rich history, and serves up every available cuisine of Mauritius.
We spent a truly unique morning experiencing this heritage on a walking tour with My Moris, a Mauritian company that fully delivered on its promise of an exploration of the island from the inside. Their apt vision? “Opening Mauritian Doors”.
Wandering through Port Louis, it’s easy to get lost among the alleyways, amongst a myriad of shops and food stalls and government buildings. One place where this hustle and bustle converges is the city market. Markets are still common across Mauritius, especially at the weekend, although the main market in Port Louis is open all week. It’s a wonderful working market with fresh produce coming in daily and searching for its buyer among a screaming cacophony of scales and bargains. I’ve always loved markets and this one is definitely a thrill.
Organic and sustainable farming practices are gaining popularity across Mauritius and I was incredibly lucky to make friends with Gabby Steel, a man with a vision to provide Mauritians with natural local produce, as well as sustainable methods of managing food waste. Go Orgasmic Garden!
And what is tea without a biscuit to accompany it? If you’ve got the chance, do visit the Biscuiterie H. Rault where you can try a truly Mauritian biscuit made from the cassava plant. Created over a 140 years ago, this biscuit became popular when imported food supplies became scarce during World War I.
One cannot leave Mauritius without trying some rum. With the decline of the sugarcane export industry, local entrepreneurs are turning to producing rum to give a boost to the industry. Rums are usually flavoured with local fruits and spices e.g. vanilla or lychee, and every bar we frequented had their own special brew. Rum is starting to give a serious competitive nod to the brilliantly refreshing local beer, Phoenix, whose one-time tagline provides the inspiration for the title of this article.
Let’s get refreshed!
Has all this talk of drinks made you thirsty for one? Let’s check out a staple drink of Mauritius, Alouda. This is a non-alcoholic drink that’s a favourite of many in Mauritius, and it originates from the Indian drink Falooda (which in turn originates from Persia). This refreshing milk drink can be bought from sellers in Port Louis or at the beach.
Click here for the full recipe. Enjoy!
A few words to say goodbye
Like the visitors before me, it was soon also my time to leave Mauritius and travel to new shores. I will never forget this island with its crazy mix of people and languages and culture. A place where different people have struggled and worked together and succeeded to make a new culture where there was none before.
The food reflects this story of conquest and struggle and determination, and with every bite, you become a travelling companion on their journey to be Mauritian.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our vegetarian food safari through Mauritius today. If you’re feeling inspired by Mauritian cuisine, check out Shelina Permalloo’s cookbook Sunshine on a Plate. Shelina is the 2012 Mauritian winner of Masterchef UK and her book is a treasure trove of delicious Mauritian recipes. Purchase a copy here!
And if you’re got plans to travel to Mauritius, be inpired by Mauritian resident, Christian Bossu-Picat’s photos. I was lucky to get the opportunity to see his exhibition at L’Aventure du Sucre museum in 2015, and was mesmerised by his vision of Mauritius and Rodrigues.
And so, I bid you Orewar! I hope you’ll join me next time as I explore vegetarian delicacies on offer in Sri Lanka!
And yes, in case you were wondering, I did get married here and it was perfect 🙂
If you ever do travel through Mauritius, I wish you an incredible delicious adventure! If you need any help with ordering vegetarian food, please use this handy translation guide that lists all the main food groups in English, Creole and French.
Ps. if you loved reading this post on Mauritius, check out my previous post on Sweden. I hope you enjoy it too!
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