Mauritius diary 4: Life and Food

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Chicken seller, Port Louis

A continuation of Mauritius diary 3: Conservation

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Perceptions of Mauritius among people I know tend to swing between two extremes. Some mistake it for the Maldives, imagining $1,000 per night villas overlooking crystal waters. Others think it is an African backwater without proper electricity.

While there are chichi all-inclusive resorts in Mauritius, the vast majority of the country feels like any other coastal, middle-income place, with shades of Goa, Pondicherry and Sri Lanka. Long-term rentals for two-bedroom apartments range from about US$300-US$1,200 per month, depending on the area. A street side chicken biryani—or biryani de poulet—runs about US$3-4.

Within two days of landing here, I knew I could stay. The internet is fast, the food is hygienic, and the tap water is potable. The streets are eerily safe. Ling walks around at any time. Young ladies in bikinis stroll on beaches while sipping wine, their only preoccupations beeping from their phones.

Granted, we do live in an expat zone, Tamarin, where Ling’s school is. Yet any crime involving tourists in Mauritius generally seems to be non-confrontational—limited to occasional theft or unarmed house break ins. The more serious violence is very localised gang warfare.

The flip side are the harsh laws and regular police abuse. Mauritius might have the most battle-scarred Rastafarians anywhere, sometimes engaged in dramatic shootouts with cops who are trying to cull illegal marijuana plantations.

There is remarkable religious tolerance here—Rastafarianism aside—with much cross-faith, cross-ethnicity celebration of auspicious occasions. The Jummah Mosque in the middle of Port Louis could be the most relaxed I’ve ever visited. Ling and I, nonbelievers, are waved in with smiles despite wearing knee-length shorts; we sit in the serene, meditative courtyard, from where an Indian almond tree grows out like an umbrella over the mid-19th century green-and-white structure, with its Mughal and Moorish influences.

Driving is not for everybody. “Mauritians are nice people until they get behind a wheel,” goes one aphorism. People drive very fast and can be impatient. Worst of all, perhaps, are the bus drivers, who seem to be in endless competition for passengers. I panicked, slightly, the first time I saw an old, growling Mauritian bus thundering towards me on a narrow, single-lane coastal road. One Mauritian bus’s rear windscreen stickers says: “Don’t angry me. Chase me.”

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The road fatality rate is a political hot potato, with every government striving to lower it. I like driving here—there are some incredibly scenic routes—but tend to avoid rush hour. Ling has also become comfortable jetting around on her own. The roads aren’t as maniacal as India’s, but probably more so than Malaysia’s.

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Mauritius seems to be blessed with wonderfully diverse produce, including many citrus fruits, such as calamondin, a delightful little orange with limey accents—we eat it in jam and I squeeze it into my rum.

The cauliflowers and pumpkins are enormous; the herbs pungent; the tomatoes of endless variety. That said, with Mauritian agriculture more broadly, the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides is blamed for affecting taste, soil quality and much else.

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Beetroot and two kinds of radish

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Suran (elephant foot yam), made into curries and pickles

With such a bountiful ocean around them, Mauritians love to fish. So many of them, rich and poor, simply go to the beach to catch their dinner.

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Driver fishing during lunch break

Walking through a Mauritian fish market is akin to visiting an aquarium, with a bewildering mix of coral reef and deep-sea fish. The likes of red snapper, yellowfin tuna, marlin, angelfish, octopus and crabs are on offer just hours after being caught. Grilled Mauritian seafood is possibly the simplest and tastiest thing to eat here.

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The two things we have fallen in love with are dholl puri and napolitaines. Dholl puri is a kind of slave food borne out of local improvisation. Indian labourers, so the story goes, were unable to find sufficient wheat, and so started adding mashed chana dal (yellow split peas) into their parathas. Commonly sold for US$0.35, it cuts across class.

Good versions boast bread as soft and thin as a rumali roti, with savoury, buttery mashed lentils inside, finished with a splash of four of five curries, including potato, chilli, broad bean and tomato. We devour two each at a sitting—red, yellow, and green gravies bleed into one another as they drip off our fingers.

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The best dholl puris seem to congregate in the Quatre-Bornes/ Rose Hill area. The old favourite is Dewa. Locals who believe standards there have dropped go instead to Chez Bye or Raj.

Napolitaines, testament to Mauritius’s French-influenced baking tradition, are like little shortbread cookie sandwiches, with jam in the middle—often guava or strawberry—and a pink sweet icing on top. I’ve had them for tea, after dinner, and even breakfast. The best ones strike the right balance between soft butteriness and crunch, and the right consistency of jam. We like those from Gourmandises d’Anne and Pat’s.

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Traditional Mauritian curries are tasty, if mild. The fish vindaye, a yellow, mustardy pickled dish, has a piquant sour-spiciness that I like. Mauritians love their octopus curry, although I feel it is better either in a salad or grilled.

One can find little curry stalls everywhere, fronted by clear plastic displays through which eyes can salivate over a smorgasbord of colours. In keeping with their love for (government-subsidised) bread—baguettes are ubiquitous—Mauritians also eat their curry in bread. They choose one or two dishes, which are then stuffed into a giant roll, and either eaten immediately or packed.

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For heat, Mauritians add to their food a range of achars and sauces, including a customary green chilli salsa, which has the freshness of a vegetable juice and the intensity of Thai spice. My other favourites include one made from bilimbi (belimbing in Malaya), a sour gherkin-looking fruit; a shrimp pickle in a base of red chilli; and a devilishly spicy passion fruit salsa.

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Typical achar stall

While this is all interesting, ultimately, though, Mauritian cuisine can’t really compare to the world’s best. Fried rice and fried noodles—riz frit and mine frit—are extremely popular but really a far cry from anything in Asia.

The Indian food, similarly, is decent but not as good as what one finds in the motherland. Ling disagrees—she prefers Indian food in Mauritius because it’s lighter, with less ghee and spice, as if it’s been toned down for the French palette.

I’m also not a huge fan of rougailles, another national dish, which is a tomato-based stew that often supports one main ingredient, like prawn rougailles (here again, our opinions differ). Incidentally canned tomatoes, including pomodoros from Italy, are a cheap mainstay in Mauritian kitchens.

On the surface Mauritius seems to have the same basic multiethnic food characteristics as Singapore’s. However, in Singapore, various ethnic groups of a certain income level—only a few arrived as slaves—have experimented with each other’s foods for centuries, in a major trading port for spices and other agricultural products.

The Mauritians just don’t have that history of culinary cross-pollination. In Mauritius you can try everything you need to in three days. In Singapore two weeks isn’t enough. Yet the Gods found a way to compensate—in Singapore, three days are enough to see the sites. In Mauritius, you probably need two weeks.

Thankfully, we still have a month.

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An interesting recent culinary innovation is what is known here as kebab: spit-roasted chicken meat, mixed with a cabbage-and-carrot slaw, and stuffed into a toasted French baguette (as opposed to pita bread). It’s delicious. I think I prefer it to other spit-roast meat sandwiches around the world. Try the one at Shabaan in Quatre-Bornes.

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Back-of-the-truck biryani

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Mauritian boulettes, dumplings, are a popular street food

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Roadside grills are popular

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Making dholl puri

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Some of the boudin blood sausages are delicious

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Winter is deer-hunting season

Napolitaine image credit: A Martian’s Search for Food

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