While Mauritius is known for its sugary beaches and top-notch resorts, the tiny Indian Ocean island also has a rich food culture that is as alluring as its powdery palm-fringed sands. I’m not the kind of person who’s happy to lie on a beach lounger sipping cocktails for my holiday, so instead of staying in an all-inclusive resort you never have to leave, I rented a car and decided to explore the island through its food – Mauritian cuisine is richly diverse, made up of a mixture of influences from France, China, India and Africa.
Whenever I’m on a foodie trip, I always start with trying out street food. It turns out I didn’t have to look very far. Street food is everywhere in Mauritius – it’s sold from the back of motorbikes, on the beach, in small streetside stalls and in the many food markets all over the island. I tried gâteau piments (deep-fried chilli bites), spicy Indian samosas, pickled unripe mango, fried eggplant fritters and in Chinatown in the capital of Port Louis, a big bowl full of fried Chinese noodles topped with chopped spring onions and lots of fresh chilli followed by a strange looking (but tasty) bowl of quivering black jelly. Luckily I can handle the heat, because, as I soon realized, almost everything in Mauritius comes with a hefty dose of chilli! I did also discover that the best chilli-fire quencher is a Dodo beer. After all that eating, I decided my favourite street food is Mauritius’ unofficial national dish – dholl puri. This delicious but simple snack, beloved of most Mauritians I met, is comprised of thin Indian flat bread filled with split peas, curried beans and pickles.
Trying out some Mauritian Creole dishes was next on my agenda, so I headed inland to the quiet town of Moka to Escale Créole, a lovely small garden restaurant run by a mother and daughter team dressed in matching tropical outfits, who offer tasty dishes from family recipes such as chicken curry and salted fish. I especially loved their homemade infused rum (and bought a few bottles to take home to friends – which got me into trouble at customs back at Cape Town International Airport) and coconut cakes. Close by, the atmospheric Maison Eureka is a beautifully preserved 180-year-old wooden mansion with an excellent restaurant serving up Creole curries with peanut sauce and chutneys. One of my highlights of the whole trip was chatting to the charismatic owner about his Bollywood acting career while tucking into a steaming bowl of curry on the veranda of the mansion during a rain shower.
I’d tried Creole, Indian and Chinese food by this point, so all that was left was French cuisine. French restaurants are found all over the island serving things like lobster thermador and seafood gratin, but undoubtedly one of the most atmospheric I found was at the Château de Labourdonnais, a grand 18th-century mansion which made me think of scenes from Gone with the Wind, where I had pan-fried dorado on steamed bredes (leafy Mauritian vegetables) and the best crème brulee of my life, made with local Tahitian vanilla.
Escale Créole had given me a taste for the island’s rum, so I couldn’t miss trying out two of the island’s best artisanal distilleries. I started off with a tour and a tasting at the award-winning Rhumerie de Chamarel, where the rums have been matured in oak barrels and are infused with coffee, vanilla and other flavours. I couldn’t resist trying out their ridiculously indulgent boozy rum-soaked chocolate cake in the restaurant, which scored pretty highly on my dessert rating. The next stop was Saint Aubin, a sugar plantation two centuries old with a small rum distillery that produces a delicious array of rums, including a spiced one that I decided would be the perfect winter evening tipple (and bought another bottle, adding to my future customs issue).
After all that rum, I had to try something non-alcoholic, so I drove south to the Bois Cheri Tea Estate, a spread of emerald-green fields of tea with a factory (that smells like a pot of brewing tea), and museum telling the story of Mauritian tea plantations. While the history was interesting, what I was really after was tea, so I did a tasting of all the estate’s flavoured teas – my favourite was the coconut one, which tasted like tropical island – and sat down to lunch at the restaurant, which offered lovely views across the fields, as well tea-infused dishes. I tucked into salad with tea dressing, calamari with green tea and papaya panna cotta with tea jelly, accompanied, of course, with a pot of tea.
A culinary trip around Mauritius turned out to be the best way to escape the resort crowds, discover gems off the beaten tourist track, and best of all – delve into the history and culture of a fascinating island.
Sarah Duff is a freelance travel writer and photographer from South Africa whose assignments have taken her all over Africa. In the name of work she’s tracked mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda, driven around Malawi and Mozambique in a Mini, trekked over sand dunes in the Namib Desert, sailed dhows around Lamu Island in Kenya, eaten her way around Mauritius, hiked into an active volcano on Reunion Island and explored the South African bush on foot. www.sarahduff.com