A warm rain is falling gently on the sea of umbrellas that fills the streets of Port Louis, the colourful seaside capital of Mauritius. It’s a Saturday, and the horses are running at Champ de Mars Racecourse this afternoon, so the city is bustling with the happy buzz of a weekend just getting started.
While Mauritians do love their horseracing, a hangover of their century as a British colony, having a flutter on the ponies is the last thing on my mind. Rather I’m dodging the puddles and piles of produce on the streetside stalls for a peek into the Central Market, a cornucopia of fresh produce that draws both basket-toting locals and curious tourists.
Sadly, most visitors to Mauritius see little more of the island than the airport and their resort. Granted, the waving palms and white coral sands are impressive, and a tempting enough reason to stay glued to the lounger for your seven-day break. But then you’d be missing out.
Missing out on the sea of waving sugar cane that blankets the island like a great shag-pile rug of iridescent green. Until harvest season that is, when machetes lay bare the fertile volcanic soil that makes the island a garden cast adrift in the Indian Ocean. You’ll be missing the dramatic scenery of the central plateau and the charming town of Curepipe. Missing the colourful corner stores of Port Louis, or the expansive Sunday market in the east coast town of Flacq.
And, most importantly, you’ll be missing out on the food.
For Mauritian cuisine is, if you’ll excuse the cliché, the proverbial melting pot of cuisines. If the saying ‘you are what you eat’ rings true, then the Mauritians are a globetrotting lot. The French and British colonists brought classic European techniques, Malagasy slaves the beginnings of colourful Creole cuisine, and Chinese traders the Cantonese cooking typical of southern China.
But it was the end of slavery in 1835 that, perhaps more than anything, laid the foundations of modern Mauritian cooking. In the century following the abolition of slavery over 500 000 indentured Indian labourers arrived on the island to work the endless fields of sugarcane. Stepping ashore at Aapravasi Ghat, a World Heritage Site on the quayside in Port Louis, they brought with them the spices and recipes of their homeland. Coconut curries from the backwaters of Kerala, and the fragrant, fiery masalas of Delhi; the tandoori techniques of Rajasthan and rich dhal makhni of Punjab.
On my rainy Port Louis pavement, there’s just one dish I’m looking out for though. On an island infamous for its expensive restaurants and pricey resorts, this delicious mid-morning snack will set me back all of 12 Mauritian rupees. The grand total of R4.
It should be a crime to visit Mauritius and not juggle a piping hot dhal puri in your hands, biting through the soft pillowy bread to reach the hot bean curry within. Perhaps the closest thing to a national dish, this thin fried bread stuffed with yellow lentils is far and away the most popular street snack on Mauritius, and the flag bearer of island cooking.
Dhal puri is sold across the island, from tiny kiosks to mobile kitchens on the back of a motorbike. If there’s a queue and the bean curry is hot, you’re good to go. And if you’re passing through the village of Rose Hill the tiny Dewa & Sons restaurant, I’m told, dishes up the best dhal puri on the island.
On the rainy streets of Port Louis I toss my wrapper in the bin and head towards the Central Market. Hawkers sell piles of deep-fried samoosas and manioc fritters, while the glutinous sesame-coated rice-flour balls are a delicious sweet ending to the dhal.
On the pavement the kebab stalls are also doing a roaring trade, slicing masala-crusted chicken breasts off a shwarma-style roaster. Alongside, a queue is forming outside a bakery selling pain poulet [chicken rolls]. Despite the Creole character of the island, there remains a strong connection with France: in the Le Caudan waterfront mall a bread festival is on the go, offering baguettes and croissants and rustic farm loaves.
Back at the Central Market the trading floor is a cacophony of colour. The ‘fancy goods’ on the mezzanine level tempt tourists with T-shirts and hand-stitched tablecloths, while at street level the traders loudly extol the virtues of their fresh produce.
Across the island you’ll find lush market gardens planted with rows of spring onions, aubergines and manioc. Vines of chouchou, an edible gourd also called Christophine, sprout like weeds in vacant lots and along fences, while tomatoes thrive in the rich volcanic soils. Chilli plants grow in abundance, and it’s a rare dish that isn’t offered with chopped petit piment on the side.
At a pavement stall I find bottles of mazavaroo, a Mauritian chilli paste served with just about anything, but that goes especially well with mine frite. Another popular street snack, these fried noodles are one of the many Chinese dishes that have become commonplace across the island thanks to the influx of traders and workers over the centuries.
The other Chinese dish that will surprise most visitors here is dim sum. These steamed dumplings typical of Cantonese-speaking China are found across the island, with some of the best on offer at First Restaurant, a short walk from Port Louis Central Market in the heart of Port Louis’ Chinatown.
I find mine in a humble roadside restaurant in the village of Flacq though, where the fish boulet are dished straight from the steamer and topped with a salty fish broth. They’re not the only variation you’ll find here though: dumplings filled with shrimp, taro and chouchou are popular across the island. In Hong Kong they’d be washed down with pots of green tea, but here it’s island rum that’s often the libation of choice.
Sugar has long been the backbone of the island’s economy. While much of the island’s produce is exported the ubiquitous cane is also distilled into rum of varying flavour and quality.
One of the top producers, and a fine place to discover the world of island rum, is at the Rhumerie de Chamarel in the south-west of the island. Unlike many larger producers, the rum here is distilled from pure, fermented sugar cane juice, not molasses, before being aged in tanks or oak casks.
Chamarel’s premium aged rum, matured in oak for four years, is one of the finest on the island, although rums flavoured with everything from chilli to cherries are commonplace. The estate restaurant L’Alchimiste uses plenty of local farm produce, including the rum, to conjure up an interesting menu of Creole specialties. Millionaire’s Salad, using the rare and expensive palm hearts, is often the talk of the town but can be an unexciting blend of bland and crunchy. Rather look out for dishes using local deer and wild boar.
The deer and boar weren’t here when the first sailors set foot on the island in the late-1600s. Neither were the fields of sugar cane, nor the steamers filled with delicate dim sum. Mauritius has always been an island of travellers, welcoming visitors from far-flung lands and blending new cultures with old. Lying on the beach it’s easy to miss the colourful cocktail of cultures and cuisines that have shaped this island over the centuries. But enjoying a taste of the island’s rich history is easy: leave the lounger behind, and set off in search of a dhal puri…