I spent a week in Mauritius discovering all that it has to offer in terms of vistas, history, and, of course, food.
Among the many food discoveries, there were two dishes I couldn’t wait to try at home. These were two condiments to go with bread, lip-smacking goodness to kick off a hearty appetite and to add to every bite of food.
On my very first meal in Mauritius, a vibrant green paste was served with a basket of freshly baked bread and a friendly warning regarding its spice quotient. I asked the stewardess what it was and she simply said,“Chilli.”
After a bit of asking around the restaurants and googling, I discovered that this green paste is called piment écrasé (meaning crushed chilli in Mauritian Creole). Rehad Kader, executive chef at The Restaurant at Salt of Palmar, Flacq, in Mauritius, uses his mother’s recipe, a perfect blend of citrus, young garlic and chillies. The aim is to keep it simple to bring out the flavour of the chillies.
Since this recipe is all about chillies, Kader specially sources them from Belle Mare, which has the perfect climate for cultivation of chillies and is a few kilometres away from the hotel. “These chillies have very few seeds and they are handpicked before sunset to be used in the piment écrasé. Blending in muscovado sugar makes it kid-friendly,” he adds.
Venisha Gooriah, a Mauritian image consultant who was crowned Mrs Indian Pacific Universe 2016, is full of food, history and culture stories from Mauritius. She told me over a meal that her mother’s trick is to add soaked raisins while grinding the chilli paste, making it more acceptable for people with lower spice/heat tolerance.
I was looking up piment écrasé recipes online and realized that some directions include that the paste be cooked in oil to dry out any moisture and increase its shelf life, while others stuck to the simple blend-and-serve version. The latter must be kept refrigerated or consumed immediately.
I asked Mauritian food blogger Anoushka Aodhorah (her blog is Peachy Tales) to help me understand the omnipresence of this dish better. “It is the perfect complement to all our local dishes—fried noodles, fried rice, cari (Mauritian creole for curry), finger food, etc. It is similar to how chilli oil is used in Asian cuisines,” she says in an email.
Chillies are crucial to Mauritian cuisine. “A special note needs to be made of the pickled chilli. It is symbolic of the difficult times faced by the indentured labourers who were sent to Mauritius from the 1830s. Poor economic conditions meant that rice, dal and pickled chillies would sometimes be the only meal until pay day,” says Aodhorah.
Over to my next favourite condiment, achardlegumes (pickled vegetables in Mauritian Creole). The minute I tried this, the food writer in me was fascinated by the name. I was also trying to dissect the ingredients and flavours so I could replicate it at home. I did manage to get a rough recipe from Pandita Amrowtee Moheeputh, a friend’s mother, who lives in Petit Raffray, in the north of the island. Incidentally, the word achard is derived from the Hindi word achaar (pickle).
“It is more than just a condiment in Mauritian households,” says Aodhorah. It is baguette’s favourite partner. An achardlegumes-stuffed sandwich makes for an easy grab-and-go lunch. Achard is made fresh at least twice a week. The islanders love to make a sandwich with achardlegumes and crumbled gateau piment, a deep-fried lentil and chilli-based dish, something like a dalvada.
On my visit to a local supermarket, I picked up the achard spice blend which promises to make quick work of this popular side dish. Moheeputh sometimes adds julienned apples to the mix to give it a fancy touch. The combination of carrots, cabbage and apples gives me the feeling of a curried coleslaw. Try adding julienned green beans and thinly sliced cauliflower florets to this mix during winters when these vegetables are in season.
Makes over L cup
Ingredients16-18 green chillies (about 50g, should be mildly hot ) 3 cloves garlic, peeled 1 large lemon 1 small onion, roughly chopped 2 tbsp vegetable oil, such as sunflower 2 tsp salt (depending on heat in chillies) 1 tsp sugar
MethodRemove the stalks of the chillies and slice them coarsely. Quarter the lemon and remove all the seeds.
In a small blender, add chopped chillies, garlic, lemon chunks, onion, oil, salt and sugar. Blend to get a smooth paste. Adjust the salt to balance the heat in the chillies. Serve with bread, parathas, as an accompaniment to dal and rice, or along with a bowl of noodles.
Use the least spicy variety of chillies for more flavour and less heat. Adding more oil also helps reduce the heat in the paste.
Makes 1 bowl
2 cups cabbage, finely julienned
2 medium carrots, cut into matchsticks
2 tsp salt
3-4 green chillies, finely julienned
1 tbsp black mustard seeds
3-4 cloves garlic
K tsp turmeric
1 tsp chilli powder
3 tbsp vegetable oil, such as sunflower
2 tbsp white vinegar
Bring 2 litres of water to boil with 1 tsp salt. Add the julienned cabbage and carrots. Allow to come to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes. Drain and wash with cold water. Drain and spread out on a kitchen towel. Sun-dry for 1-2 hours.
Meanwhile, in a small mixer jar or mortar pestle, blend the mustard seeds, garlic, turmeric, chilli powder and oil to a paste.
Toss the vegetables, along with green chillies, in this paste. Finally, add the vinegar and mix thoroughly. Keep in a dry, airtight jar in the fridge. This can be had immediately but tastes better after a day in the fridge. Consume within a week. Serve with sliced baguettes or as an accompaniment with parathas.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting seasonal ingredients. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.