Mauritius probably isn’t the first place that springs to mind when you think of foodie travel, but the island’s melange of cultures – French, Chinese, Indian and Creole – naturally brings with it a menu that is as tasty as it is varied.
by Lucy Corne
When your mind’s eye pictures Mauritius, it’s probably painted in shades of gold, beige and turquoise. Beach and ocean are undoubtedly atop most people’s lists of things associated with the Indian Ocean isle but once you spend a few days on Mauritius, you quickly realise that the colour palette is actually heavy on greens. Palm trees skirt the coast, occasional pockets of forest dot the hilly interior and a blanket of sugar cane fills almost every gap in between. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find other crops thriving – acres of tea towards the south of the island, pockets of banana plantations here and there and a patchwork of ‘crown land’ plots, where locals grow vegetables to feed their families or sell at provincial markets.
It makes for a very pretty picture, but of course, the greenery is not just about aesthetics. It’s about agriculture, it’s about economy and for the visitor to the island, it’s about cuisine. Mauritius probably isn’t the first place that springs to mind when you think of foodie travel, but the island’s melange of cultures – French, Chinese, Indian and Creole – naturally brings with it a menu that is as tasty as it is varied.
Starters and Snacks
When it comes to appetisers in Mauritius, there is one that reigns supreme. It graces menus across the country and demands its own spot in island agriculture. Ingredients in the heart of palm salad – also known as Millionaire’s Salad – vary, but always include heart of palm itself, marinated in lemon juice, oil and vinegar. The slightly crunchy main ingredient, harvested from the inner part of a palm tree trunk, has little flavour, but it’s a long-standing dish that’s so popular there are palm groves around the country cultivated solely to harvest their hearts…
If you feel like snacking, head to one of the island’s markets and graze and browse an afternoon away. Mahebourg, close to the airport, has a food market that comes to life on a Monday, while Centre du Flacq, further north, is best on Wednesdays and Sundays, when you can grab a dholl puri or a bowl of boulettes and eat at picnic tables alongside the river.
Like the South African braai, dholl puri is the closest thing Mauritius has to a national cuisine – a dish that spans the country’s various ethnic groups. Its roots, though, are Indian as you’ll quickly realise when you bite into the mildly spiced split-pea pancake filled with chutneys and the ever-present green chilli paste. Although small, cheap and humble, it’s actually a dish with complex flavours that has you going back for more. Lucky then that it’s such a light and delicate snack.
Boulettes represent the island’s Chinese heritage – steamed dumplings served in a light broth and one of the cheapest ways to fill up in Mauritius. If you’re grazing, look out also for gateaux piment (chilli bites) and manioc cakes, gummy snacks that are not quite sweet nor savoury and yet are strangely moreish.
The Main Dishes
Mauritian cuisine owes its variety to the island’s history. First settled by the Dutch and populated with slaves from Africa, the island was later under French and then British rule. Add to that vast numbers of migrant workers from India and China and you have a fascinating melting pot of cultures. Today, the islanders – and their respective cuisines – come together to transform that melting pot into a cooking pot.
Cheap, tasty and filling are the various versions of mine frites (fried noodles), a Chinese-inspired dish found at tabagis (convenience stores), small restaurants and market stalls. The noodles come with chicken, beef, seafood or vegetables and are again served with a side of chilli, just in case the subtle soy and five-spice flavours aren’t potent enough.
From the Indian branch of the family, you find flavourful curries that have been given an island twist – think fish or octopus in a coconut milk-based sauce. They’re all mopped up with a farata, the local version of a roti. Indian-inspired eats can be found throughout, but there’s simply nowhere quite like Rasoi by Vineet, a snazzy restaurant jutting in to the ocean at the exclusive One&Only Le Saint Géran. The restaurant is open to non-guests of the resort and the delicate, full flavoured food is ideal for an end-of-holiday splurge. The slow roasted lamb with apricots and almonds is divine.
If it’s creole cuisine you seek, rougaille is an ubiquitous dish – a tomato-based sauce with garlic, onion and just a touch of chilli. It’s served with vegetables, chicken beef or sometimes lamb, but combine it with some fresh seafood for a true Mauritian classic.
With just a week or two on the island, the sheer range of local dishes to taste can be a little daunting but by booking a meal at one of the many table d’hotes, you’re likely to get a good all-round feel for Mauritian cuisine. These restaurants are often found in locals’ homes and offer a multi-course menu for a set price, which you enjoy at a table shared by all of the guests.
If you’re seeking something sugary, the Indian mithai will satisfy your craving. These sweets come in many guises and can feature nuts, seeds, dried fruit or a generous dollop of syrup. Bombay Sweets Mart in Port Louis is a one stop shop for those with a sweet tooth, though syrupy snacks are found on many market stalls as well.
Over on the southwest of the island, there’s another foodie tour to take, this time for afternoon tea. The Rault Biscuit Factory has been in business since 1870, making its signature manioc biscuits. The secret recipe’s main ingredient is cassava flour and with one exception, they use no butter in their production. The result is a slightly dry biscuit that is ideal for dunking in a cup of vanilla tea. Short tours of the factory end with a tasting of the various flavours and while the coconut and cinnamon versions were good, it turns out biscuits do need dairy after all, with the only ones containing butter being the first to get demolished.
As you meander through the mountains, along the coast or through small interior towns, it can’t escape your attention that you’re constantly flanked by walls of sugar cane, so the chance to sample some of the local sweet stuff should be high on everyone’s Mauritius must list. Make a beeline for L’Aventure du Sucre in the north to get the history of the island’s main agricultural product and learn about its production. The self-guided tour ends with a low-key tasting of a dozen different types of sugar, two of which were created in Mauritius.
Just as you might take sugar for granted, so too does its savoury counterpart tend to be under-appreciated. La Route du Sel on the west coast of the island is barely a route, but it is a worthy stop for a foodie. Guides explain the traditional process of using natural evaporation of sea water to produce salt and while the tour rather happily does not end with a tasting, you can buy flavoured salts to take home and sprinkle on your chips. Visit early in the morning for the best chance to see the harvest in action.
Vanilla is grown in the grounds of the 19th century plantation estate St Aubin and while the tour is a little disappointing when it comes to learning about the plant, the restaurant here is a great place to taste vanilla chicken – one of the island’s more unusual dishes (think chicken-flavoured dessert). Other local accompaniments to look out for include the slightly sweet coconut chutney, often served with curries, and mazavaroo, the ubiquitous chili paste that comes in fairly hot and blow-your-head-off-varieties…
If sampling sugar isn’t the thing for you, perhaps the other product of the island’s vast sugar cane plantations will appeal. You won’t be on the island long before you start to realise that rum is pretty much the national drink. The short but excellent tour at Rhumerie de Chamarel is a great place to start your education – the distillery was clearly built with visitors in mind, with every stage of the process easily accessible to the public. Tours conclude with the all-important tasting of their rums and flavoured liqueurs.
The rhumerie is also a good place to sample a Ti’Punch, though this small-but-potent cocktail is found pretty much everywhere on the island. If you want to make-it-yourself, crush a glassful of ice and two halved limes, add two teaspoons of sugar and a shot of rum and serve. Some add mint, others Angostura’s bitters, but what you never add is anything to water down the rum – save for the rapidly-melting ice that is.
It’s not all about the spirits though – Mauritius is definitely blessed with beer-drinking weather and the island’s ubiquitous pint, Phoenix, is a pale lager suited to the climate. For something a little more full flavoured, try Blue Marlin, a slightly stronger version produced at the same brewery (sadly not open to visitors). To see the brewing process in action, head to the Flying Dodo Brewing Company, the only Mauritian microbrewery, based 15km south of the capital. Here, brewers brought in from Munich produce small batches of beer, with the menu changing from month to month.
If you’re looking for something non-alcoholic, try alouda, a super-sickly concoction of milk, evaporated milk, basil seeds and agar agar, often flavoured with almond or vanilla essence – a common fixture in markets alongside cheek-puckeringly sweet vats of tamarind juice. Or for something less saccharine, head to the Bois Cheri Tea Plantation in the central plateau. As you approach, the vegetation seems to shrink from the five-metre high sugar plantations to the dumpy, deep green tea bushes – 250 hectares of them surrounding the factory. The full tour takes in a small museum and informative video before visiting the packing plant, but the best bit (and an option you can take by itself) is the actual tasting, taken on the restaurant’s lakeside deck. Tastings are informal, with eleven different teas and a pot of hot water being placed before you as you work your way through cups of black tea flavoured with island specialities like vanilla, coconut and tropical fruits.