It’s a sunny day at the beach in the French Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Couples are sprawled over large beach towels soaking in the sun. Skimming the sea are kayakers, surfers and parasailers. I am at a beach picnic hosted by Jacky Aroumougam, celebrity chef of Reunion Island; a French-speaking man of Indian origin. The spread on the picnic table is authentic ‘pei (local) or Creole cuisine. This is French country, but I see no croissants or baguettes in front of me. Instead, there’s rice, lentils, vegetables, pickles and curry. “80% of Creole cuisine is inspired by Indian cuisine,” explains Jacky.
The five-million-year-old volcanic Reunion Island was first discovered by the Arab traders plying the spice route. Then came the Portuguese, English and finally the French who claimed the uninhabited island in 1643. At first, they used the island as a prison site. They sent 12 convicts to decay and die. A few years later the officials discovered that the prisoners were thriving on the fertile island. The French then decided to move in and make it their paradise. In 1715 the first settlers landed in Reunion Island. Soon others followed. They brought slaves from Africa to work in their sugarcane plantations. When slavery was abolished in 1848, the French brought labourers from Tamilnadu and the Malabar coast in India.
Men, women and children got off the boats holding on to their meagre possessions and memories of home. Since French immigration officers could not pronounce the Indian names, the labourers were registered under French-and Christian sounding names. Arumugam became Aroumogam, Vaidyalingam became Vaitiling and so on. The immigrants were forced to convert to Christianity and dress and speak like the French. They had no choice but to ‘assimilate’. They lost their names, religion, language and even their way of life. But there was something that held steadfast – Indian cuisine. The immigrants cleaved to their handwritten recipes, spice pouches and nostalgia of family repasts.
Today, the 65 km long and 45 km wide Reunion Island, with 300 micro-climates, is filled with the fragrance of sugarcane and vanilla. The salt of the ocean lingers in the air. So, does the flavour of Indian spices headlining the Creole cuisine.
WHEN CURRY BECAME CARI
Earlier I met Mary Theresa Subramaniam at the Saint-Pierre market. Dressed in a skirt and blouse, the only visible Indian marker on her are her dusky South Indian features. She speaks and thinks in French. She knows she might have “few relatives back in India”, but has no clue about their whereabouts. She’s never visited India and has no great desire to do so. It’s a common narrative amongst the Indian community here.
Mary’s grandfather came to the island with his wife and nine children. After a few months, the dastardly man abandoned his family and returned to Tamilnadu. His young wife had to raise her brood single-handedly. She was cut off from all that was familiar to her. The only link to her life back home was a few hastily written recipes that she had brought with her. It included her mother’s chicken curry.
For numerous Indians in the island, the curry must’ve held warm memories of home. Their solace and comfort. Cooking curry back then must’ve been like Skyping home today. As Indians began to homogenise their curries too found diverse expressions. It allowed for the inclusion of local ingredients. Over time, the curry became ‘cari’ and a staple of Creole cuisine.
Like dal in India, no two caris on Reunion Island are the same. Families have their secret cari-recipes.
Today, cari is the most popular dish on the island. Like dal in India, no two caris on Reunion Island are the same. Families have their secret cari-recipes. The cari can be vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Chicken, duck, pork, mussels, chouchou, potato and jackfruit (which was originally brought from India) are some of the main ingredients used to make cari. However, the most famous cari dish here is the Cabri massale (goat curry). This spicy cari is similar to the mutton curry made in Tamilnadu. Cari is usually served with rice, pilaf or beans and lentils.
THE INDIAN IN THE FRENCH
Sitting on the beach, watching the white-tipped waves crest and ebb, I feast on the authentic creole spread prepared by Jacky. Vegetable and chicken stuffed samoussas, yellow rice, spicy chicken rougail, achards, and sweet potato pie. Jacky’s forefathers were from Bengal and South India. Jacky himself has never been to India. Some of his unique dishes are inspired by the secret recipes of his mother and grandmother who came from Bengal.
The Creole or pei cuisine in the island is a ghoulash of African, Indian, Chinese and European cuisines. Jacky sums it up aptly, “In Réunion, you can have a breakfast of croissants, a lunch of cari and rice and a dinner of steak and Rhum arrangé (rum infused with herbs and spices).”
Over the next few days, as I eat my way through the island, I learnt more about the Indian influence and infiltration of the local cuisine.
Samousass is a smaller version of the Indian samosa. Its filling (beef, pork, chicken, cheese, vegetable, pineapple etc) is as diverse as the people on the island. The filling depends on the roots of the samoussas-maker – African, Indian or Malagasy? Samoussas is like the national snack of Reunion Island. You can find it everywhere, even on postcards and t-shirts. Samoussas and bonbons piments (south Indian vada-like) are the preferred snacks to have along with beer or mulled rum.
Curcuma is turmeric which is also known as “local saffron” on the island. Kaloupile is our curry leaves or karuvepile (in Tamil). Garam massale or garam masala is used extensively in Creole cuisine. Each family, be it French, Indian or African have their own secret garam massale recipes. Achards come from the Indian achar and is made with julienned jackfruit, carrot, beans, cabbage or other vegetables mixed with chilli, curcuma, ginger, oil, vinegar and salt. There’s also another version of the evolution of the word achards; I am told it originated from urugua, which came from urugai (pickle) in Tamil.
Brèdes is a side dish made of edible leaves and stems of chouchou, cabbage or pumpkin fried with ginger, garlic, onion and chilli. Very similar to the porial that one finds in South India.
Rougail is a spicy sauce that’s made using both vegetables and meat. Or even wasp larvae which is a speciality here. The use of green tamarind or green mango and curcuma in the preparation of the sauce spells Indian influence. The Islanders, including Europeans, love their chillis so much that they even add a little chilli to their fruit salads.
Jackfruit, ginger, tamarind, turmeric, mango and even the banyan trees on the island can trace its roots back to India. There are more than twenty-five varieties of mango in Reunion Island, and the Islanders’ favourite way of eating mangoes is to cut raw mangoes into thin strips and eat it with a dash of salt and chilli. It reminded me of my summer holidays in Chennai which was never complete without green mangoes, uppu and molakkaipodi (salt & chilli powder).
Before leaving the island, I paid a visit to the local Mahakali de Bazaar (Mahakali temple). A tall and lanky man, whose forefathers came from Pondicherry and Tamilnadu, was the presiding priest. He called to someone in the inner room and told them, in fluent French, to bring some prasad – a generous helping of kesari, a sweet dish made out of rava (semolina), sugar and ghee and a traditional dessert from Tamilnadu. Yet so Reunionesse!
Reunion Island is a fine example of why we cook and eat a certain way—it is a reminder of all the bonds that tie us to where we are from.
WHERE IS IT? Reunion island is 680 km east of Madagascar and 180 km southwest of Mauritius.
LANGUAGE SPOKEN is French. Very little English.
DO YOU NEED A VISA? Indians don’t need a visa for a stay of up to 15 days. For longer duration, visitors will have to apply for a visa at the French consulate or embassy (a Schengen visa is not valid).
TRAVEL: Air Austral has direct flights to the capital Saint-denis, departing from chennai. It is a 6-hour flight.
CPRKCounsulting can organise travel packages to Reunion Islands
More info https://en.reunion.fr/
Published in National Geographic Traveller, Feb 2019