Reunion Island’s Indian Heritage

The French island on the Indian Ocean is awash in hearty flavours from the homeland, bequeathed by its migrant heritage.  
French Food
Beaches are at the centre of most social activities in Reunion Island. Photo by: Sudha Pillai

It’s a sunny day at the beach in the French Reunion Islands 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, a celebrity chef from Reunion Island. Aroumougam is of Indian origin and only speaks French. 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. “Eighty per cent of Creole cuisine is inspired by Indian cuisine,” explains Jacky.

 

The Beginnings

The five-million-year-old volcanic Reunion Island was first discovered by 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. Then the French decided to move in and make it their paradise. In 1715 the first settlers landed here. 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 Tamil Nadu and the Malabar coast in India.

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 lost their names, religion, language and even their way of life. But there was something that held steadfast—Indian cuisine.

 

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The seafront Saint Paul market (top) is one of Réunion’s prettiest and busiest; The 19th-century Colosse Temple built by Indian indentured workers is an important landmark. Photos by: byvalet/shutterstock (market), Thierry Grun/agefotostock/Dinodia Photo Library (temple)

From Curry to Cari

Earlier during this 10-day trip, 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 of 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, he abandoned his family and returned to Tamil Nadu. 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 were 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,’ a staple of the island’s Creole cuisine.

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 its main ingredients. However, the most famous cari dish here is the cabri massale (goat curry). This spicy cari is similar to the mutton curry made in Tamil Nadu. Cari is usually served with rice, pulao or beans and lentils.

 

French, with a side of India

French Food 2

The island’s creole culture, especially the food has many Indian elements—from the samoussas that Abdel Kader serves in his stall (left) to cari (right). Photos by: Sudha Pillai

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 cuisine of the island is a ghoulash of African, Indian, Chinese and European influences. 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 learn more about the Indian influence and infiltration of the local cuisine.

Samoussa is a smaller version of the Indian samosa. Its filling (beef, pork, chicken, cheese, vegetable, pineapple, etc.) is as diverse as the people in the island. The filling depends on the roots of the samoussa-maker: African, Indian or Malagasy? Samoussas and South Indian vada-like bonbons piments are the islanders’ preferred snacks to have, enjoyed with beer or mulled rum.

Curcuma is turmeric which is also known as “local saffron” in the island. Kaloupile is curry leaves or what is known as 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 vegetables, 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 denotes an Indian connect. The islanders, including Europeans, love their chillies 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 their roots back to India. 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 summers in Chennai, which were incomplete without green mangoes, uppu and molakkaipodi (salt and chilli powder).

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Celebrity chef Jacky (left), has been inspired by the secret recipes of his grandmother and mother who come from Bengal; Old-world cottages with lush lawns (right) are a common sight when walking through Reunion Island neighbourhoods. Photos by: Sudha Pillai

Before leaving the island, I visit the local Mahakali de Bazaar (Mahakali temple). A tall and lanky man, whose forefathers came from Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu, is the presiding priest. He calls to someone in the inner room and tells them, in fluent French, to bring some prasad—a generous helping of kesari, a traditional dessert from Tamil Nadu, made with rava, sugar and ghee.

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.

Essentials

Reunion Island, 680 km east of Madagascar and 180 km southwest of Mauritius, is a French overseas territory. Indians don’t need a visa for a stay of up to 15 days. For a longer duration, visitors will have to apply for a visa at the French consulate or embassy (a Schengen visa is not valid). To organise a holiday on the island, travellers have to follow one of two procedures. They can enlist an Indian or local travel agency on the island to organise flights and accommodation packages. Alternately, they can make independent flight bookings but will have to liaise with a local agency for accommodation. Only Air Austral has direct flights to the capital Saint-Denis, departing from Chennai.

  • Sudha Pillai is an artist, photographer, and writer. She writes about her encounters with people, places, art, and culture.

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