Author Mark Twain wrote that ‘Heaven was copied after Mauritius’, but there’s more to this island than palmy good looks. Stray from the beach to explore how centuries of immigration have created a diverse culture, a relaxed prosperity and a richly mixed cuisine.
By half past nine in the morning the old Central Market in Port Louis has become a swirl of colour, the sultry air filled with voices and redolent with scorched chillies, street-hawker curries and over-ripe mangoes. Every kind of spice, fruit or vegetable you can think of is crammed in here, piled high along with a good many things – chayote root? – you have probably never heard of. Every daybreak this glorious cornucopia is trucked in from the market gardens and plantations scattered in the hills around the island, or brought up fresh from the harbour, just a few streets away. Here, local fishermen land their catches of tuna and amberjack, giant prawns and curious, brightly-coloured tropical species netted out among the coral reefs.
Since 1844 this noisy, pungent, crowded market, down on Farquhar Street in the heart of town, has been where Port Louis – capital of Mauritius – has come to buy its groceries. The cheerful jumble of French, Creole, Chinese and Hindi spoken by shoppers and traders tells a story of Mauritius far richer and more piquant than anything found in a history book.
And what a rollicking story it is: of pirates and explorers and East Indies spice traders and the Napoleonic Wars; there are Arab seafarers, early Dutch navigators, Portuguese galleons, the English navy, French plantation owners, slaves from Mozambique and Madagascar and migrant labourers from India and China. And this magnificent saga is set on a flowering Indian Ocean paradise that – until its chance discovery in the early 16th century – was one of Earth’s last Edens.
‘Here is where it all comes together,’ says Curtis Saminadas, a 42 year-old Creole chef who often comes down to the Port Louis market to shop both for his own family’s groceries and in his capacity as sous chef at the Angsana Balaclava resort, a 20-minute drive up the coast. ‘The story of Mauritius is a blending together of different cultures, races, religions and spices – and then making this into something special, something that is unique, all our own.’
Nowhere does this find more joyful expression than in Mauritian-style cooking, with its seamless blend of Creole, Indian, French and Chinese traditions. Once best known for its crystalline beaches, turquoise seas and as a palmy honeymoon spot, the tiny island is increasingly being celebrated for its accessible yet unique cuisine, full of richly spicy native-inspired dishes such as biryani and rougaille.
Just last year a 29 year-old British-born Mauritian woman, Shelina Permalloo, came out of nowhere to win the BBC’s Masterchef competition. Only the second woman in eight series to take the title, she wowed the judges with traditional Mauritian flavours and fusions they hadn’t encountered before. ‘I really wasn’t doing all that well in the contest until I decided to go back to my roots,’ Shelina recalled when we spoke on the phone before my visit. ‘Although I was born in England, I have been visiting Mauritius since I was 11 years old. One of the tastes that most reminded me of home was the pickled octopus that street vendors sell on the beaches, so I made my own interpretation of that, accented with mango and apple cider vinegar. That dish marked the turning point for me.’
Now the former project manager has a cookbook coming out this year, plans to open a restaurant in London, and in March (and again in October) will be running a cooking school at Maradiva, one of the upscale beach resorts clustered along Mauritius’s southwest coast. ‘We’ll be taking people into local gardens to pick fresh spices and curry leaves, then showing them how to use them all together to create the flavours of the island.’
Shelina is in good company. An increasing number of Mauritians are realising that – in a much-photographed world, where crystalline beaches and azure seas are two-a-penny – their colourful past has bequeathed a legacy that sets their pretty little island apart from the rest.