A food lovers’ guide to Mauritius

On the far side of the Indian Ocean, the island of Mauritius unites surprising cuisine and culture with some of the most dramatic landscapes in Africa.

Dine like a local

Ahmed is a difficult man to find. His tiny food cart is set up down an unsigned alley in Port Louis, the Mauritian capital, tucked behind a row of rickety plastic stools. He’s been up since 3am shaping dholl puri, a type of flatbread made from spiced yellow split peas, which comes topped with cari gros pois (butter bean curry), rougaille (spicy Creole tomato sauce), pickled vegetables, coriander satini (chutney) and chilli.

There’s no polite way of eating it – it’s dripping even before I take a bite. But the culinary carnage is worth it, and the whole of the city knows it – Ahmed serves up more than 300 every morning. It’s a tasty introduction to the island of Mauritius, a petite drop of land off the east coast of Madagascar, carved by staggering volcanic mountains that appear like the jagged spine of a dragon on the horizon. Slavery, colonisation and immigration have, understandably, shaped Mauritian culture and cuisine, both of which are an intriguing melting pot of Creole, Indian, African, Chinese and French influences. It makes for an exciting, and diverse, week of exploration.

Mauritian cuisine
Chilli cakes and diverse flavours

Leaving Ahmed’s alley, I’m in the heart of Africa’s oldest Chinatown, passing hole-in-the-wall snack bars and colourful shophouses filled with textiles and the heavy scent of incense. The pace is fast and furious, with roadside cooks dishing up noodles, fish-ball soup and fat sesame buns to famished lunchtime workers. People queue at one stall for boulettes, a Mauritian-inspired dumpling made with octopus, beef or chicken and doused in a fiery green chilli sauce. Port Louis sits toward the top of the island – further north are a string of exclusive beach resorts that cling to the Indian Ocean.

Indulge at The Oberoi

As we drive toward The Oberoi, I’m struck by the heat, a concatenation of smells more than temperature: coconut husks, frangipani and warm damp earth, oil and salt air, a complicated, pungent layering of scents decaying as others bloom fragrantly in their place.

The hotel is a dream, its thatch-roof villas set across eight hectares of tropical gardens (replete with a waterfall and lake) that tier toward Turtle Bay. Staff from the watersports centre collect me to zip out into the marine park to dive with reef sharks, barracuda, kingfish, giant trevally and moray eels – I return to the resort just in time for sundowners beside the basalt adults-only pool.

The clear water off Mauritius and Paradis Beachcomber Golf Resort & Spa © Xavier Coiffic/Unsplash
The clear water off Mauritius and Paradis Beachcomber Golf Resort & Spa © Xavier Coiffic/Unsplash

The island of Mauritius, a mixing pot of culture

When Portuguese explorers landed on the island of Mauritius – known to Arab traders as Dina Arobi (‘Abandoned Island’) perhaps as early as a millennium ago – in 1507, the island was completely uninhabited and wild. It remained that way until 1638, when the Dutch established a small colony here. It proved a troublesome venture, and the settlement was eventually abandoned in 1710.

Immerse in the culture of Mauritius © Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority

But the Dutch did manage to do at least four things that would change the island forever: they brought in sugarcane from Java, the future mainstay of the economy; they began the sad business of importing slaves from East Africa and Madagascar; they gave the island a new name, in honour of Prince Maurits van Nassau. And, short on game meat – the only sizable land animals at the time were flightless dodo birds and two species of giant tortoise, all of which were soon extinct – they introduced hare, wild boar and Javanese rusa deer, now highlights of the island’s abundant local larder.

Driving inland, roadside stalls crank out sugarcane juice, perhaps muddled with starfruit, pineapple and mango. The crop is also transformed into rum at places like Rhumerie de Chamarel, a family-owned distillery on the southwest coast. The working estate offers tours of the grounds and its gleaming copper stills before a very civilised tasting of its wares, which range from a spiced rum aged in oak barrels to vanilla liquor and a treacle-like eight-year-old moscatel.

Fruit Markets © Phuong D. Nguyen
Fruit Markets © Phuong D. Nguyen

Favours of Chamarel

Chamarel is the gateway to eye-popping natural attractions like Seven Coloured Earth Geopark’s lunar-like landscape of undulating dunes in bruised tones of violet, purple, blue and brown, all wrapped in dense tropical jungle, replete with Mauritius’ highest single-drop waterfall that tumbles from a cliff before winding through a canyon to Baie du Cap.

Just when I think nature couldn’t be any more dramatic, Le Morne Brabant appears on the horizon, this soaring basaltic peak dotted with caves that once harboured runaway slaves. It’s my constant backdrop at Paradis Beachcomber Golf Resort & Spa, where tall palms frame a dreamy pool overlooking the ocean. The hotel’s La Ravanne restaurant is a wonderful dining farewell, its tables set under thatched kiosks on the sand. The menu is elevated Creole, and my plate is soon filled with wonderful flavours like fragrant chicken curry; vindaye (fried octopus); king prawn rougaille; and an endless parade of pickles. Every bite is fresh and surprising, yet somehow familiar and comforting. A bit like the island of Mauritius in a mouthful.

Hike Le Morne Mountain © Mauritius Tourism Authority
Hike Le Morne Mountain © Mauritius Tourism Authority

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