“Have you eaten curried tenrec, similar to hedgehog?” asks Nicolas Barniche, my tour guide in Réunion Island - formerly Île de Bourbon, a French outpost 700 km from Madagascar in the Indian Ocean - as we wind our way through the 420 bends to Cilaos, a cirque, or volcanic amphitheatre that has been created through gradual erosion. Tenrec isn’t a hedgehog per definition but a mammalian species similar to it that’s hard to find in restaurants these days but a local speciality worth trying. In Cilaos, we don’t find tenrec on the menu, but we do sample a stew of soft brown lentils that are grown within the basin surrounded by mountains, and cooked with local pork sausages.
CARI AND ROUGAIL
In Reunion Island the food is like a mirror to the culture: a veritable culinary melting pot of French (as former colonisers), Malagasy, Indian, and Chinese heritage that has, in parts, fused to produce the Creole cuisine of the land. A top tip for travellers: anyone born on the island is referred to as Creole. Cari, or curry is the one dish found everywhere, enjoyed by everyone. Heat levels differ and a side of minced chilli is always served - piment zoiseau is the hottest variety. Tamils on the island, who introduced the dish, still make the version we associate with India. For the rest, the milder Creole version dominates. At La Marmite in Saint-Gilles, a Creole restaurant popular with locals and tourists, the dinner spread of caris and stews may include: cabri massalé (goat curry), the country’s most famous dish and popular with the Tamils, who usually sacrifice goats during prayers, duck cari, mussel or other seafood caris, chicken cari, rougail saucisse (sausage in tomato with onion), pork trotter stew, duck with vanilla, smoked pork with potatoes and fat roasted aubergines. These are served with an assortment of chilli relishes and achard –salads of vegetables or fruit like green papaya with vinegar, garlic, oil and chilli.
The Réunionaisse are exceptionally fond of three things, says Nicolas, himself a Creole with French ancestry, ”To eat, to drink, and to discuss”. I find him to be right on all accounts. Along with boisterous Maximilia Vitry, a coffee farmer in the mountainous region of La Chaloupe, her mother and cousin we enjoy the favourite weekend pastime: pique-nique. While the food is sometimes cooked with all the mod-cons under a thatched roof in the garden, and not the traditional way on big pots over wood fires, the essential element remains eating outdoors. The wood fire, everyone I chat to agrees, imparts a sought-after flavour that can’t be replicated by normal stovetop cooking. Our pique-nique style meal consists of rougail saucisse, chicken with greens Chinese-style, rice, brown lentil stew and a green mango achard. The meal starts and ends with tumblers of rhum arrangé –the fruit and spice-infused rum loved by locals. Sugarcane remains one of the pillars of the economy and locals are proud of the superb rums produced. Ice-cold Dodo beers made for fine rice and chilli companions too.
When I visit Elourda and Yves Severin who run a guesthouse in chilly Les Avirons with homecooking lessons, they take me through some essential spices for Creole cooking: allspice leaves, turmeric, curry leaves, different ginger varieties, garlic, tomatoes and chilli. I discover that every Creole home uses massalé – or garam masala made from coriander, cinnamon, cloves, cumin and curry leaves (recipes differ). We make tiny fish samoussas that Elourda fries as an appetizer; they match perfectly with homemade litchi rum. The kitchen fills with smoke from the wood-fire as we cook zamboukal – a local pilaf with onions, chicken and potatoes in this case, smoked sausage rougail and bake chouchou (a local gourd) filled with bacon and onion. To end, we are challenged by rich sweet potato gateaux.
At Blue Margouillat, arguably the finest restaurant on the island, chef Mark Chappot tells me that the cuisine reflects the blended nature of the population. He uses his culinary skills learned in France to complement the best of local ingredients. “Tourists want the exotic and locals are looking for special moments,” he says,” Food has to be beautiful to look at and the feeling magical. It’s not too hard with the produce we have in Réunion.”
DON'T MISS THESE
1. Saint-Paul market for fruit, vegetables, coconut sorbet, samoussas and bouchon (Chinese dumplings) and bouchon gratiné – cheesy grilled dumpling sandwiches.
2. La Vanilleraie – tranquil working vanilla plantation where you can learn about the entire process and purchase top quality vanilla beans (avoid buying at the market).
3. Chinese-Creole food at any roadside diner.
4. Learn about the history of rum on the island at La Saga du Rhum
5. Look out for Bourbon Pointu coffee – some of the world’s most exclusive and expensive coffee.
6. Visit the bars and restaurants around the cathedral in Saint-Denis, the island’s answer to Paris. The crêpes and pastries in boulangeries are fabulous.