“Pineapples and rum, what else?” I said dismissively when a friend asked me what I was excited about trying on my weeklong sojourn to Mauritius. I was expecting a tropical paradise, not a cuisine of gobsmacking diversity.
The sheer dynamism of Mauritius’s food scene made me eat my words. Creole seafood curries, Indian flatbreads, fragrant Muslim biryanis, Cantonese dim sum, French daubes and coq au vin, English bacon and eggs, I found them all on the island, that too with a uniquely local twist.
The strikingly varied culinary traditions of Mauritians echo the island’s multiculturalism. Colonised by the Dutch, French and British over four centuries, the lush wonderland drew an influx of slaves, indentured labourers and migrants from Africa, India and China. Today, the majority of the population comprises Indo-Mauritians (75% of the population), followed by Creoles of African descent or mixed-race (about a quarter of the population) and Sino-Mauritians (around 20,000).
Indian cuisine forms a large part of traditional cooking. Dholl puri, often regarded as the national dish of Mauritius, was introduced by the first wave of Indian immigrants from Bihar. I snacked on this lentil-stuffed wrap filled with butter beans curry after a visit to Aapravasi Ghat, the immigration depot in the capital Port Loius where half a million indentured labourers from India had arrived between 1834 and 1920 to work on the island’s sugar cane plantations.
It was the wives of these plantation workers who devised the flatbread as a healthy all-in-one meal. Venisha Gooriah Jugnarain, an image and etiquette consultant based in North Mauritius, pieced together the evolution. “As resources were scarce on the undeveloped island, these home cooks used the same water in which the dal was boiled for kneading the flour. As a result, leftover grains of lentils found their way into the dough and got incorporated into the recipe. Also, maida replaced atta as it could be preserved longer. Voila, dholl puri was born.”
The Indian-inspired Mauritian curries also stand apart with typical touches. The chicken and prawn curry, which I tried at Waterfront Labourdonnais was a case in point. It was unusual not only in its combination of poultry with seafood but also in its addition of aubergines, which made the consistency a lot thicker. I liked it so much that I ordered it again after a round of safari at Casela Park, where it was served along with a piping hot bowl of dal and rice.
The side alleys of Port Louis ring with the clatter and chatter of Mauritians deep frying samoosas, gateau patat or sweet potato cakes stuffed with coconut and cardamom, gateau aubergine (eggplant fritters) and cassava chips, collectively called gajaks. I navigated these bustling food lanes with Shakti Calliken, co-owner of My Moris tours.
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Calliken kicked off the walk with some much-needed culinary context. When people from Africa, Europe, India and China arrived in Mauritius, she told me, they had to adapt their indigenous food to the local context and ingredients. This transformed their traditional cuisines into something new and truly Mauritian. “As an Indian, you might think you know a dish, but when you taste it, you’ll find it different,” smiled the soft-spoken Mauritian of French-Indian lineage.
Biting into a devilishly soft gateau piment, I realised what she meant. The deep-fried balls of split yellow lentils and chilli reminded me of the south Indian medu vada but also of middle-eastern falafels. Served on a warm baguette with eye-wateringly hot chilli sauce, they acquired a uniquely local flavor of their own.
Calliken also made me try chouchou boulette, a steamed dim sum unique to Mauritius. Locally known as niouk yen, the dumpling was filled with chayote squash or chou chou and differed significantly from its Cantonese counterpart. “Unlike China, Mauritius has a large population that doesn't eat pork, so we modified our dumplings by filling them with ingredients like chou chou and taro,” she explained.
Ti Koloir may not look like much, but it's a fabulous place to sample the authentic flavours of Sino-Mauritian cuisine. I headed to the bare-bones joint in Grand Baie after a imbibing a copious amount of the local Phoenix beer. Slurping on a meal of mine frite, or fried noodles, soupy juices drippling down my chin, miraculously cured my hangover.
Later, chatting with Elvis Follet, the GM of Lux Grand Gaube, I learnt that the Chinese had arrived in Mauritius by pure accident. They were headed to go to work in the Gold Mines in East Africa but a severe tempest forced them to anchor their vessels in Mauritius. “We aren’t complaining. They gave us mine frite, bol renversé, boulettes, and cantonese rice,” grinned the affable epicure.
One of the great Creole cuisines of the world, Mauritian creole cooking blends African, French, Chinese and Indian influences. Rougaille, a deep red creole sauce made with tomatoes, onions, curry leaves and thyme is the sine qua non of Mauritian food. From accompanying dholl puri as a relish to being a base for seafood curries, it showed up at virtually every meal I ate in Mauritius.
My favourite was the rougaille saucisse, or sausage prepared in the thick tomato sauce along with garlic, ginger and chilies, a dish traceable to the nineteenth century when people of African origin started to prepare their own meals after the abolition of slavery. I also tried the cari poule or chicken curry made with creole curry powder and thyme, at Escale Creole.
A week is woefully short to do justice to the attractions of Mauritius. Happily, many of the tourist attractions have excellent in-house eateries that serve local fare. After a tour of the sugar museum, I stepped into its restaurant Le Fangurin for a delectable salad of palm hearts with smoked marlin. At Rhumerie du Chamarel, the leading rum distillery of Mauritius, I indulged in a boozy baba au rhum soaked in double-distilled rum. And at Chateau Labourdonnais, a colonial-style residence of Port Louis, I ate the best crème brulee of my life flavoured with rare Tahitian vanilla from the estate.
As I spent time in Mauritius, I realized that its cuisine is as much a melting pot of assimilation as layers of different cultures. Over the years, each of the island’s communities has adapted and mixed each other's cuisine to their liking, resulting in an infinity of combinations and new tastes.
UK-based Mauritian food blogger Brinda Bungaroo affirmed this. The truly great thing about the island’s food, she opined, is its depiction of a combination of ethnic favourites. A Chinese dish could include an Indian take, European roast meat might have African/Indian tone to it with the addition of spices, and a creole dish like rougaille, so similar to an Italian tomato sauce, may have herbs de Provence added to it. “Our food is like a celebration that plays a different musical note at every mouthful,” dished Bungaroo.
I celebrated my last evening in town with a beach barbecue at Sofitel Imperial. Taking in a legendary Mauritian sunset over a pina colada, I feasted on a platter of succulent skewered treats, and some fish salad followed by a mound of biryani.
The final touch of decadence: a wickedly good pineapple flambé. And a glass of vanilla-infused Mauritian rum.
Mauritius will reopen for tourists in October. Sona Bahadur is a Mumbai-based food writer. She visited Mauritius in 2019.