THE time and place seemed all wrong for a curry.
Our group was sitting at a round table in a quaint rustic restaurant called Le Cottage that would not have looked out of place in the French Alps.
But although we were 1200m above sea level, the setting was tropical and I was sweating from both the early afternoon spring heat and the slightly fiery combination of flavours.
Cilaos – a small town in a mountainous basin on Reunion Island, off the east coast of Africa – was where I was introduced to authentic Creole cooking.
Reunion Island and neighbouring Mauritius are melting pots of cultural diversity and their cuisine reflects that rich and spicy heritage.
While the percentages may be in different proportions, the population mix on both islands is mostly French and other Europeans, Africans, Indians and Chinese. But many people on Reunion Island and in Mauritius see themselves as Creole.
This does not simply mean they are strictly of African/French descent such as, say, New Orleans in the United States, as even white-skinned people will call themselves Creole.
They generally mean that they were born and bred on the island, are of mixed heritage, and they speak Creole.
This unique family history plays a huge role in influencing the food on everyone’s table, as does the fact that most live in coastal areas where seafood – lobster, prawns, swordfish, marlin, mussels, calamari, tuna and shark – is plentiful.
Both Reunionnais and Mauritians love to eat, and cooking is not only a joy but a family affair.
Mauritians consider dinner to be an important family gathering each night, where conversation is king and good hearty food its humble servant.
And all over Reunion Island on a Sunday, families come together by the seaside or in the mountains for a huge picnic.
Families will stake their claim even before dawn to ensure a good spot, with rice in rice cookers and huge pots of hearty curries – known locally as cari – in tow.
Fragrant curries represent the traditional Creole dish, and there are as many different caris as there are ways of preparing them.
Generally, they are created by using tumeric, ginger crushed with garlic and black pepper, with or without tomatoes, and are served with rice, pulses and beans (lentils, cape beans or kidney beans), sauteed bredes (a chard-like vege) and the often spicy rougail (chutney of tomatoes, lemons, onions and aubergine).
On any visit to these islands, visitors will often find another new taste sensation: salade de palmist, often called “the millionaire’s salad”.
Made from the nut of the palmist palm tree, also known as the palm heart, the salad is considered a delicacy and rather wasteful, because not only does it take seven years for the palm nut to be ready, but the palm dies once that “heart” is removed.
The best palm heart dish I tasted was at Beachcomber Resorts’ Royal Palm Hotel in Mauritius as a lunchtime entrée: mellow palm heart, smoked marlin cigar with coconut and kaffir lime.
A typical long and indulgent restaurant lunch in Reunion Island may include salads with a baguette basket and perhaps choko au gratin for entree.
The main meal would consist of a range of curries (perhaps spicy pork sausage, chicken, prawn or fish) with plenty of steamed rice and maybe a lentil sauce, followed by a dessert to die for – probably leaning towards a French influence, and tropical fruits.
To finish, tea or black espresso coffee is served, with a rhum arrange (local rum and a secret blend of herbs and spices) as a post-meal drink.
Like the French, the Creoles certainly know how to eat well.
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