Blending of cultures in Mauritius

There is more to this Indian Ocean island than stunning shores – stray from the beach to discover how centuries of immigration created diverse traditions and a richly mixed cuisine.

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.

That said, it is still a beautiful setting. When American travel writer and humorist Mark Twain visited Mauritius on his round-the-world journey in 1896 he wrote that – having seen the place and talked to locals – he’d gathered ‘the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then Heaven, and that Heaven was copied after Mauritius.’

Certainly the island was a pristine paradise when Portuguese explorer Diogo Fernandes Pereira happened upon it in February of 1507, while pioneering a new route to the East Indies. Up until then, the 700 square mile island had been sitting in splendid sunlit isolation for about 10 million years, since it first emerged from the Indian Ocean in a series of volcanic eruptions.

Over countless millennia it evolved its own vibrant ecosystem, its volcanic peaks cloaked in deep tropical forests still riot with life: exotic birds, flowers and reptiles, many of these species found nowhere else on the planet. With the exception of a few probable but unrecorded visits by Arab seafarers centuries earlier, the island had no human history at all. Nobody lived there. Its white sand beaches were a blank page waiting to be written on.

But its pages weren’t written upon by Pereira, nor the Portuguese for that matter – or at least, not very much. Pereira named it Ilha do Cerne, the Island of the Swan, after his ship, then sailed away to obscurity. Although the galleons of the Portuguese spice trade would call in at Ilha do Cerne occasionally over the next few decades, to refill water casks or re-stock their larders with fresh fruit, fish or meat from the giant flightless birds – the dodo – found in abundance there, nobody settled the place.

It was the Dutch, nearly a century later, starting in 1598, who wrote the very first chapters, introducing sugar cane, importing the first slaves, and giving the island the name by which we know it today, Mauritius, after a wealthy shareholder of the Dutch East India Company. It was they who famously hunted the poor old dodo to extinction, killing off the last of the forest-dwelling creatures sometime around the year 1680.

By 1715 Mauritius was in French hands, the Dutch having abandoned it a few years earlier. The money men of the Dutch East India Company back in Amsterdam had been dissatisfied with the island’s profitability. Not so the French. They came to stay and, thanks to the efforts of an aristocratic sea captain-turned-governor named Bertrand Labourdonnais, the island – renamed Ile de France – blossomed into one of the most prosperous places in the Indian Ocean. Gone were the primeval rainforests, replaced with mile after mile of sun-drenched sugar cane, and grand plantation houses that look lifted from Gone With The Wind (and indeed are occasionally used as movie sets).

‘They say that it is fangourin, the first juices of the sugar cane, that runs in the veins of the Mauritians,’ says Edwige Gufflet, director of L’Aventure du Sucre, as she walks through the gardens of the museum. Devoted to the history of the sweet stuff, it is set in a restored 19th-century mill in the Pampelmousses district in the north, near the village where Governor La Bourdonnais had his villa. ‘Sugar is the lifeblood of the island.’

Few Mauritians could claim fangourin-filled veins better than Salim Soobun, a cane cutter and seventh-generation Mauritian whose ancestors came over from India more than 150 years ago. Sunrise in a nearby northerly field finds him and his fellow cutters taking a breather from harvesting. ‘We’ve been out since 2:30am,’ he says, sitting shaded by a patch of tall cane. ‘We start early to try to avoid the heat.’ Because of the rocky ground on the island, much of the sugar cane still has to be cut by hand, with machetes, rather than with the big harvesting machines used elsewhere.

Even today more than 80 per cent of arable land on the island is covered by cane fields. The soft, hazy, eroded nubs of ancient volcanoes form an almost painterly backdrop – reminders of the rich, red, volcanic soil that made the island perfect for growing sugar. To work this abundant crop, slaves were imported from French possessions in West Africa, Mozambique and Madagascar. Later, after the English seized the island from the French in 1810, and abolished slavery in 1835, indentured workers were shipped in their tens of thousands from India and China, each bringing their own cultures and traditions to add to the mix.

Most of these workers remained after their term of indenturement was up, so that by the turn of the 20th century an island which 200 years earlier had no human population had been transformed into one of the great cultural melting pots of the Indian Ocean – and one of the most successful. Mauritius is tolerant, colourful, cosmopolitan, and its calendar is filled with a huge array of festivals, rites and observances. Some, such as Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, are large and formal; others, like the sega dances common to Creole parties or beach picnics, small and spontaneous. One hot Sunday evening at the Draupadi Amman temple in the Vallée des Prêtres in the island’s north, a boisterous firewalking ceremony unfolds. ‘This is not part of any particular festival,’ one of the worshippers explains. ‘Each temple conducts these throughout the year – it’s an expression of our faith.’ Men, women and even children each take their turn to walk serenely across the hot coals, before sitting down to a shared meal as the sun sinks behind the hills.

Even after three centuries, Mauritius’s rich stew of nationalities, flavours, spices and styles is still continually evolving, becoming ever richer and more complex. It is carried abroad in the minds and imaginations of Mauritians who live overseas, such as Shelina Permalloo, as well as freshened with ideas brought to its shores by 21st-century settlers.

When Venetian-born chef Fabio de Poli decided to open a restaurant of his own, after years of trotting the globe working for others, he returned to the place he had fallen in love with 15 years earlier – Mauritius. His bright, airy, modern restaurant, La Table du Château, on the grounds of the grand old Labourdonnais plantation house, is a counterpoint to the château’s tropical colonial architecture.

As with generations of earlier migrants, de Poli brought something from home to add to the pot – in his case a modern European spin on an old and rare Mauritian ingredient: coconut-palm hearts. ‘It was always a delicacy,’ he says of the subtly flavoured pith from the trunk of the coconut tree. ‘But since you have to cut down an eight or 10 year-old tree to get it, it wasn’t often served unless a cyclone happened to flatten a grove of palms. Over the years it was all but forgotten.’

De Poli made an arrangement with nearby coconut planters to supply him with a few trees for the kitchen each week. He removes and finely chops their tender hearts and serves them with an Italian twist: mingled with mascarpone and lemon juice and garnished with thinly cut slices of local smoked marlin. ‘You could say it has become my signature dish,’ he says. ‘What I like best is the look on the faces of the old Mauritians when they discover we serve coconut-palm hearts; their eyes just light up.’

Mauritius’ effortless and amiable fusion of cultures finds daily expression in the countless vignettes and tableaux that unfold around you as you explore the island. It’s sundown, and a boisterous barbecue is being held by a couple of dozen construction workers on a beach near Le Morne Brabant, a jungle-clad volcanic nub near the southern tip of the island, whose caves once harboured runaway slaves.

‘He is my friend,’ one of the men, a Creole named George, proclaims, throwing his arm around the shoulders of an Indian colleague. ‘I am a Christian, he is a Hindu and my friend over there is a Muslim – but here in Mauritius we are all friends and we all get along beautifully.’

The crew, who have been building a new resort on the island, have come together to mark a successful end to the project with a sega dance, an intensely emotional and improvised form of music and movement that evolved out of the days of slavery in the 18th century. Like the platters of food they have brought, it is an intermingling of African and European elements that has blossomed into something all its own. With drums and singing and the air heavy with fragrant barbeque smoke, they celebrate their lives as Mauritians. And when the dancing and feasting is finished, they pick up every scrap of litter, wish each other the very best and go home to their families.