An island nation
Mauritius is an island nation in the Indian Ocean, about 2,000 kilometres off the southeast coast of Africa. It includes the main island (Mauritius), as well as the smaller Rodrigues, Agaléga and St. Brandon islands. The country’s population is composed predominantly of people with European (mainly French), Indian, African, Chinese, and Creole descent. At present, the country’s population is about 1270000 people.
Whenever there is a mixing of cultures, it is inevitable that the food that people eat will change. Local cuisine gets influenced by the ingredients and cooking styles of the other cultures. So, instead of cuisine staying close to its roots, it becomes fusion food.
And this precisely happened in Mauritius. Before long, what perhaps may have started as a French dish, after being adapted with Indian influences, and maybe a hint of the African way of cooking would have become something else. A good example of this is Mauritian Daube . Similarly, Chinese cooking started taking on a Mauritian nuance. A typical example of this is Bol Renversé. (a rice stir fry). With all this diversity, Mauritian cuisine started developing a shape and character of its own. It was no longer French, Indian, African or Chinese cooking. It had become Mauritian fusion food
How it all started
So how did a small country that only spans 2,040 square kilometres get to have such a diverse population? How did this diversity, in turn, lead to the fantastic Mauritian cuisine we know and love today?
It all started in 1638, when the Dutch (under the Dutch East India Company) formed a settlement on the islands. Before this, the islands had been uninhabited. The Dutch introduced sugarcane and brought small numbers of African slaves to work in their plantations. This didn’t last very long. The Dutch had trouble maintaining their settlement and abandoned the island in about 1710.
The French under Dusfrene d’Arsel then claimed Mauritius for France. The French already had the nearby Reunion Island as part of their overseas empire. They used this group of islands as bases to launch attacks against the English in times of war. In retaliation, Britain attacked and captured the islands in 1810.
After their invasion, the British did little to alter the way of life in Mauritius. Things stayed the same. It may have been a British possession, but they invested little in time or capital there. They were far more interested in their colony in South Africa.
However, things were about to change. The repeal of the preferential West Indian sugar tariff in 1825 meant it would become lucrative to invest in sugarcane plantations. From that moment, the economy of Mauritius would become one based on sugar. This and subsequent events would result in the Mauritius we know today
With the abolishment of slavery, British sugarcane plantation owners brought indentured labourers from India to the country. The labourers were to replace freed slaves that had moved away from the plantations. Within ten years, these Indian labourers represented a third of the Mauritian population
In the 1780s, Chinese immigrants arrived in the settlement as voluntary migrants. They came from Guangzhou in China on board British, French, and Danish ships. These migrants soon found work in trades in which they provided skilled labour, such as blacksmiths, carpenters, cobblers, and tailors.
While some European influence (particularly French) is still found in Mauritian cuisine, this is dwarfed by the influence that Indian food has had. So much so that food that had its origins in India is today a dominant feature in much of Mauritian cuisine.
And what fine food is too! Be it street food or fine dining restaurants in Mauritius, one thing most people definitely enjoy is Indo Maurition food, with a bit of that “je ne sais quoi ” Some of the food that illustrates this brilliantly are Mauritian favourites, like Mauritian biryani, Dholl puri (rotis with chickpea curry), Sept Cari (seven curries), Gateaux Piments (Chilli fritters with spicy sauce), cauliflower koftas and Haleem (lamb curry made with lentils and broken wheat).
These are all dishes that have their origins in India, but were adapted to include local ingredients. These dishes may have originated in India, but became fusion foods unique to Mauritius
It was largely due to the influence of the Indians (and the Chinese) that led to rice becoming a staple in Mauritius. It is extensively used as the main ingredient in dishes like Biryani and Pulao. It is of course also eaten with the wide variety of curries found in the country. Examples of these curries include Cari Mutton (mutton curry), Masala Roche Cari, Sept Cari (seven curries), Cari Poulet (chicken curry), Cari Viande (beef curry) and Cari Fruit à Pain (breadfruit curry)
Completing the mix
Chinese & other influences
Similarly, the dishes the Chinese introduced to Mauritius have picked up local influences. An example of this is a popular Mauritian fusion food dish called Bol Renversé. It is a stir fry made with marinated chicken served on rice and a thick spicy chop suey type sauce topped with a fried egg. Another example of this is the Chinese inspired Mauritian stir fried rice called Riz frit. Riz frit is made by frying rice with chicken, eggs, shallots and other vegetables, aromatics, and spices. It is served with a tomato chutney made with tomatoes, ginger, chillies, vinegar, onions, and green coriander. Another example of Mauritian fusion food with Chinese influence is Hakien (spring rolls served with Chilli/garlic sauce)
French dishes like Daube, Civet de Lièvre or Coq au vin were adapted to the more exotic ingredients available in Mauritius. For example, where a French Daube de Boeuf Provençal is a stew made with beef cheeks, lardons, wine, vegetables, onions and spices like cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns, a Mauritian Daube could be a chicken curry served with a Chilli and lemon sauce known as Mazavaroo.
The influence of Creole cooking can be seen in dishes like fish Vindaye, (fish curry made with pickled onions, spices and any firm fleshed fish). Another Creole dish popular in Mauritius is Rougaille. It is a spicy tomato dish, not dissimilar to Shakshuka. Rougaille has its origins in the French island of Reunion. It has Indian influences, with the addition of ginger, coriander, garlic and Chillies. Its connection with European cooking is, however, given away by the inclusion of thyme. Thyme is not a herb,that is usually used in Indian cooking.
The Mauritians are so fond of spicy ingredients like Chillies that they even include them as an ingredient in a popular dessert. The Creole dish of confit is a fruit salad made with pineapple chunks, pickled mangoes, olives, jicama and other exotic fruits, such as guava, bilimbi, ambarella and cucumber. These fruits and vegetables are all mixed together and given a good sprinkling of Chilli powder.
No description of Mauritian fusion food would complete without mentioning this country’s love of seafood. Being an island country means Mauritius has easy access to the fruits of the sea. This includes giant prawns, squid, fresh tuna, octopus, marlin and much more. This seafood is often turned into Mauritian seafood curries (or Caris as they are known there). Typical examples of Mauritian seafood curries are Ourite et Chouchou (Octopus and Cristophine Curry), Cari Poisson, Prawn masala curry, La Daube Ourite and Mauritian Lobster Curry & Spiced Peas
Fish is also used to make a chutney. It is called Satini Poisson Sale. This chutney is made with salt fish, Chillies, onions, lemon juice and coriander. It is served with rice or butter beans
Bon apetit !