The island flavours

Last Updated 05 November 2017, 09:29 IST

If there's one thing that shaped the landscape, cuisine, economy and in fact, the very destiny of Mauritius, it is sugarcane. Such is its importance that it features in the Mauritian coat of arms. Mauritius may be located just over a 1,000 kilometres east of Madagascar, yet its cultural and culinary influences are far-reaching - from African, Dutch, French, British and Indian to Chinese. The reason, again, is sugarcane

While the Portuguese were the first humans to set foot on Mauritius in 1505, the Dutch colonised the island in 1598 and named it after their ruler Maurice, Prince of Orange. Besides introducing African slaves, wild boar and tobacco, the Dutch also brought in sugarcane from Java in mid-17th century. Being inferior in quality, it was mostly used for producing rum. After the Dutch left in 1710, the country came under the French, who initiated sugar production and turned Il Maurice (French for Mauritius) into a successful trading base. Plantation workers and slaves brought from Africa and Madagascar during the French occupation to work on the sugarcane fields eventually formed the Mauritian Creole community.

By the end of the 18th century, Mauritius was producing enough sugar to supply passing ships and the Mascarene Islands (a collective term for Mauritius, Rodriguez and Reunion islands). In 1810, Mauritius was ceded to Britain, who freed the slaves and transformed sugar into an industry. The turning point came in 1825 when Governor Farquhar persuaded the British Empire to allow Mauritian sugar into the British market at the same rate as West Indies. The exploitative navigation law was also repealed, allowing Mauritius to trade with countries other than England.

After slavery was abolished in 1835, new immigrants were needed to develop the island and the workforce was replenished with workers from China and India. Indian immigrants landed at the Aapravasi Ghat in capital Port Louis to work as indentured labourers, and Mauritius became the first country to benefit from Indian labour under contract. Governor Higginson (1851-1857) called them "the key to colonial prosperity." Whether they came from Bharuch or Bhagalpur, the Indian immigrants brought their food with them.

From frata (paratha), achard (anchar), briani (biryani), samoussa (samosa), gajak (pakoda), alouda (falooda) and curries to an assortment of chutneys,  many dishes in Mauritian cuisine are of Indian parentage. Perhaps the most iconic crossover and easily the national dish is dholl puri. Borrowed from the Bihari staple dalpuri (a dal paratha), it is often rolled up with white bean curry, pickle and chutney.

A taste of India

In Mauritius, everything seems like a case of misheard lyrics. Familiar Indian words are softened and stretched like dough into convoluted forms, phonetically interpreted with Caribbean flair.

As we drive, the road is lined with sugarcane fields that extended to the coast on one side and collide against jagged mountains on the other. The island was formed after the eruption of the Bassin Blanc volcano, now a crater on the island's southwest with a freshwater lake.

It's a short ride to our resort, an oasis by the sea with diverse culinary experiences. At Rum Shed, manager Bobby Ghoora plies us with bottomless barrels of spiced rum, as we feast on prawn pancakes and calamari. There are signature cocktails like Rum Dawa using ginger-infused rum, Waw Mojito with cardamom & lime-infused rum, and Bab Daiquiri with banana and vanilla-infused rum!

At La Vanille Crocodile Park, a 3.5-hectare reserve, besides feeding Aldabra giant tortoises and petting iguanas, you could try crocodile meat. Ironically, the restaurant is called Le Crocodile Affam or the Hungry Crocodile, and it serves a sample crocodile degustation platter with mini spring rolls, mini kebabs, smoked crocodile and salad. The local favourite, “urs de palmier or heart of palm, makes a great salad, often mixed with salad leaves and a variety of seafood - oysters, shrimp, crayfish, prawns, smoked marlin and crabs - and tossed with sauce rouge (red sauce) into Millionaire's Salad.

The best place to learn more about the history of Mauritius and its tryst with sugar is L'Aventure du Sucre,  a  sugar factory and museum near the famous Pamplemousses Botanical Gardens. The self-guided tour, enlivened by info panels and videos, ends with tasting 12 types of sugars and nine rums! At Chamarel, besides exotic flavours like vanilla, mandarin and coffee rum on offer, the L'Alchimiste restaurant liberally uses rum for various dishes - Chamarel espresso, pork braised with Chamarel rum and Chamarel rum baba or baba au rhum, a small yeast cake saturated in syrup made with rum. Chateau de Labourdonnais, a historic estate started in 1771, has a distillery and old bungalow run like a heritage museum, showcasing Mauritian lifestyle in the 19th century.

July to December is sugarcane harvest season, when distilleries are busy with production. Mauritius is a tropical paradise also known for its sweet pineapples and coconuts, best enjoyed on the beach. Be it Casela Wildlife Park or La Vallee des Couleurs Nature Park, most tourist attractions have great dining options.

In Port Louis, a visit to the food market is a must. For an authentic French and Mauritian gastronomical experience, head to Le Courtyard, a boutique restaurant set in a courtyard around a fountain. They serve terrific seafood paired with French wines - scallops, scampi, salmon, mahi mahi and gueule pav(Goldlined seabream), with special touches like confectionery and amuse-bouche (literally 'mouth amusers' - single, bite-sized starter) as compliments from the chef. The desserts are to die for, especially the crème brulee, made with Mauritian Muscovado, unrefined brown sugar, a chef's favourite.

If sugar is a precious commodity in Mauritius, its salt is equally coveted. Fleur de sel or flor de sal in Portuguese - literally 'flower of salt' - is hailed as the Queen of Salts. It is formed as a thin, delicate crust on the surface of seawater as it evaporates, and is known for its characteristic crunch and clean light taste.

From around the world

Despite being a small island nation, Mauritius packs in great culinary diversity. The French touch is apparent in the love for bouillon, tuna salad and coq au vin. The Chinese influence can be seen in the spicy noodles, fried rice and seafood dim sums.

Mauritian favourites include calamari salad, daube (an octopus stew), fish vindaye (local version of the vindaloo) and rougaille, a Mediterranean dish of fish or meat with tomatoes, onions and garlic. Creole classics like Mauritian fish and aubergine curry & chicken curry are relished with rice and a chilli paste called mazavaroo.

At its peak in the 19th century, there were nearly 400 sugar factories in Mauritius. Many of these have now been converted into museums, resorts and restaurants. Radisson Blu Azuri Resort & Spa, built around an old sugarcane factory, has a dilapidated chimney as a reminder of colonial plantation life. Overlooking the pool, the Le Comptoir restaurant serves strawberry lemonade and hearty breakfasts with seafood.

Today, sugarcane is grown over 85% of the arable land in Mauritius, and on an average, 6,00,000 tonnes of sugar is produced annually. And yes, a lot of rum! I bite into my caramelised pineapple dessert flambed with Mauritian rum, and sigh... Joseph Conrad was right. Visiting Mauritius in 1885, the author set his story A Smile of Fortune  here, and called Mauritius the 'Sweet Pearl of the
Indian Ocean'.

(Published 04 November 2017, 11:02 IST)

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