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With robust mix of culinary cultures, Mauritian food is both familiar and exotic

Alone boat bobs along the clear blue of the sea. Is there a patient fisherman on board, looking to catch a quick-finned, elusive blue marlin? Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea is on my mind as I watch from the powdery white sands of Le Saint Geran, possibly Mauritius‘ most secluded beach. Far away from Cuba, where Hemingway’s story is set, the warm waters of Indian Ocean lap around me. The man in the boat is more likely to be a tourist engaged in line fishing. Yet, it is not the brilliant shades of blue — turquoise merging with indigo — that inspire contemplation.

It is the marlin. One of the world’s quickest and most beautiful fishes, the blue marlin is the holy grail for sport-fishers. While it is overfishing in the Atlantic that may have given cause for worry, here, in the bountiful waters of eastern Mauritius, it is not endangered. Sighting it is common — both in the deep blue and on your table. The evening before, chef Vikash Coonjan at Prime OneOnly, Le Saint Geran, one of Mauritius‘s hot spots, had paired for us fresh seafood with other local ingredients, and wines from South Africa, the neighbouring country.

On his menu was smoked marlin, thinly sliced, cured almost like a gravlax (the Norwegian technique of curing salmon with a dry marinade of sugar, salt and herbs), served with an unusual dash of local honey. There was tuna rubbed with sesame, inspired by Mauritius‘ Indian heritage, and then there were sauteed scallops topped with a frothy emulsion scented with vanilla from the island’s plantations. Everything was a homage to the country’s natural bounty and its mixed cultural heritage. That is what makes Mauritian food so exciting. A robust mix of culinary cultures — Dutch, French, English and Indian — and the potent, abundant African ingredients give food that is at once familiar yet exotic.

The beach at Le Saint Geran is among the most secluded in Mauritius.
The humble Indian dish, dal-stuffed paranthas, has metamorphosed into Mauritius‘ unofficial national dish, the dholl puri. Available everywhere, from roadside stalls to fancy restaurants, the dholl puri comes topped with green chutney made from local green chillies.

In the mid-19th century, Indian indentured labourers from Bihar and Maharashtra came to the island to work in plantations set up by British colonialists. Dholl-puri was their quick and easy mid-day meal. Mauritius has come a long way but the legacy of colonial enterprise can be glimpsed everywhere.

One of the world’s quickest and most beautiful fishes, the blue marlin is the holy grail for sport fishers

Like rum, the island’s spirit. An offshoot of sugar cultivation, it is the spirit that defines Mauritian food and drink, splashed liberally not just in cocktails but also in desserts, curries and roasts.

Then, there is vanilla, one of the world’s most expensive spice. There’s nothing plain about the pods harvested from a variety of orchids that were brought to Mauritius from South America by the French. It is still grown in some plantations but large amounts are imported from nearby Madagascar. Despite the fact that it is quite expensive even in Mauritius, it is widely used in cocktails, desserts and in gourmet fish preparations. In the local wet markets, it is possible to get a single pod for around Rs 200.

Chef Vikash Coonjan teaches how to cook Indian food, the Mauritian way
The colonial influence is also present in the wide use of French cooking techniques but the dishes are also spiked with the potency of African lemons, chilli, thyme, cinnamon and spices, making them unique and different from the restrained European fare.

Cooking Vacation

It is this cultural mishmash reflected in cuisine that makes Mauritius compelling. While most Indian tourists head to the island for their honeymoon or for stereotypical beach vacations and water sports, it is a unique experience to enjoy the island and its culture through food. Instead of gorging on exotic eats, a more immersive experience can be a cooking vacation. For those passionate about cooking, it can be frustrating to not be able to lay your hands on pots and pans when confronted with this kind of cornucopia and cook their way to a deeper understanding of a diverse culture.

Illusion of caviar being cooked from black-coloured sago at L’Artisan

Luckily, there is a booming interest in food and millennial travellers are undertaking journeys to partake of interesting gourmet cultures. Luxury travel and hospitality in many parts of the world, including Europe and South America, therefore, is increasingly focusing on customised cooking vacations.

La Terrasse restaurant has five cooking stations devoted to different cuisines

In Mauritius, the recently relaunched OneOnly, part of the highly regarded boutique hospitality company set up by South African business magnate Solomon Kerzner of Sun City fame, stresses on personalised services and experiences, including cooking. On the island, it is the only resort that can tailor a cooking vacay for you, including classes by top chefs who have worked in Michelin-starred establishments in Europe.

Freshly baked French-style breads

Since dabbling in local ingredients is exactly what I love, I enrol myself in a cocktail class with an emphasis on Mauritian rums, in a French desserts class (using local ingredients) and in one where chef Coonjan teaches me to cook Indian food, the Mauritian way.

One morning, we make our way to a local wet market accompanied by a bunch of Europeans, all interested in learning how to cook curry and to buy vegetables and spices for the day’s cooking. The market has everything: from vanilla and thyme (Mauritius‘ favourite herb) to chillies pickling in vinegar in old rum bottles and different varieties of gourds, tomatoes, cauliflower. We go from stall to stall bargaining, collecting our supplies, and I bring back a packet of curry powder.

As every food enthusiast in the subcontinent possibly knows, there is neither curry nor curry powder in any Indian cuisine. Though modern kitchens use spice mixes that range from generic garam masala to sambhar powders to chaat masala, food in India has been traditionally cooked using individual spices. Curry powder is a British colonial invention. It is ironical that it should have made its way to another former colony, Mauritius, and established itself as a fixture in local kitchens.

Chef Coonjan, himself of Indian heritage, tells me that every home used to have its own version of the curry powder till convenience retail took over. That afternoon, we make chicken using the curry powder, which tastes like a mild version of sambhar powder sans any heat. Without black pepper and without the indiscriminate use of red chillies in its cooking, Mauritian-Indian food is fragrant without being hot.

To accompany the chicken, Coonjan teaches us to make stir-fried bitter gourd flavoured with Dijon mustard! Nothing illustrates the cultural mix better than karela cooked with French mustard.

Then there is the heart of palm salad, one of Mauritius‘ most famous dishes. Though hearts of palm — the soft, nutty, white core of certain varieties of palms — are used in other cuisines as well, including in South and Central America, in Mauritius, only fresh hearts (no canned stuff is used) go into a popular salad called millionaire’s salad. It possibly got its name from the fact that the hearts are fairly hard to get. Once a tree is harvested, most of its bark gets wasted to reach the core. The palm hearts are dressed in lime vinaigrette and a burst of flavour added with cilantro and perhaps chilli and some onions. It’s a dish you could live on throughout your holidays.

Pastry chef Simon Pacary used to work at a one-Michelin star restaurant in the south of France before Mauritius‘ French heritage and tropical charms brought him over to preside at L’Artisan that serves freshly baked French breads and desserts with a tropical twist.

Caviar and Colada

His signature recipe, perfected in France but tweaked in Mauritius to work with the island’s flavours, is a stunning “caviar illusion”. Served in beluga tins, it is a beguiling dish. There’s no caviar at all, instead just a clever layering of crumble, lemon cream and black-coloured sago, which once left a fancy diner with black teeth in Pacary’s old restaurant because the sous chef had forgotten to rinse the sago properly and wash away the extra colour. That is the first warning I get before Pacary sets me to work.

While the mock caviar may be for visual appeal, it is really the lemon cream that is at the heart of the dessert. It’s a useful confection to learn, versatile in its use. A good lemon cream can instantly elevate any boring dessert — you just have to pipe it on a trifle, fill a choux, or top cakes and crumble with it.

Pacary gives detailed tips on how not to let the milk split when you add alcohol and lime to it and how not to let the eggs cook when you add these to the boiling milk (keep whisking vigorously).

These are the basics to making the recipe. The real punch to this particular lemon cream comes from two Mauritian ingredients — vanilla rum and fistfuls of African mint.

The rum is rich with the fragrance of real vanill, not the syrupy synthetic fragrance. This gives the dish its depth of flavour.

No food or cooking experience in Mauritius can be complete without its rum. Today, there are just three distilleries producing the agricultural “rhum”, made in old-fashioned pot stills.

These allow the flavours of sugarcane to be retained unlike the industrial rum where the spirit is distilled till it is clear of natural fragrances and flavours. Since sugarcane grows along with vanilla, lime and other plants, many of these notes seep into the craft rhum, which makes it an excellent base for cocktails.

Even otherwise, Mauritian rum is flavoured with coconut, spices and vanilla, making it slightly sweeter and smoother than what we may be used to drinking.

Pina Coladas are the tropical drinks to have here, full of fresh pineapple and coconut. However, in my cocktail class, I discover a twist to a mojito, using vanilla-rum, lots of mint and a secret ingredient — tamarind syrup.

The tamarind syrup is reminiscent of the saunth that we use in India to spike our chaats.

In Mauritius, it is sweeter because the tamarind is less tart. It’s strange to put it in a cocktail but when we sip the concoction, it’s in cheery acknowledgement of the fact that the best cultures are those that encourage a melting pot.

The writer looks at restaurants, food trends and culinary concepts

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