Intensely Flavourful

By Lisa McGregor

The Réunionnaise are proud of their unique heritage and relationship with France—the island is aptly known as “France of the Indian Ocean”. They also love to eat, we are told repeatedly by locals. Influenced by the diverse populace on the island—including Malagasy, Indians, Sri Lankans, Chinese and Europeans, the latter mainly from France—the food found here is a reflection of this. Collectively, the cuisine is termed Creole.

Réunion Island, once known as Île Bourbon, after which its famous vanilla has been named, lies 880km east of Madagascar in the south west region of the Indian Ocean. It is one of the lesser-known southern islands and, along with Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros and the Maldives, is now part of the rebranded “Vanilla Islands”. The history of its 850 000 inhabitants is the combined product of conquest, slavery, colonialism and immigration.

Travellers seek out Réunion for the numerous adventure activities on offer. It has an abundance of natural beauty—courtesy of Piton de la Fournaise, the most active volcano in the world—with circular valleys, challenging hiking and mountain-biking routes, dive sites, and waterfalls. Yet there is still more to enjoy.

Some of it is to be found in the humble street-food carts, cafés and bistros dotting the island. Unlike neighbouring sister island, Mauritius, Réunion’s cuisine is not predominately vegetarian; nor is it wholly based on Indian food—though cari, or curry, is widely popular, with chicken and seafood versions particularly commonplace. Instead, it is a vibrant mash-up of cultural intermingling. Rice, beans and rougaille—a type of relish made from a Creole spice mix and ingredients such as mango, aubergine and tomato with peanuts or sausage slices—constitute the backbone of the everyday plate.

“Our food is rich in spices, very perfumed and colourful..." 

Chef Jean-Claude Cléret, who founded the Cercle des Epicuriens de la Réunion, a gastronomic body that focuses on promoting local produce and cultural exchange, says the ingredients that best represent his home country are combava (limes), turmeric, garam masala and vanilla. “Our food is rich in spices, very perfumed and colourful, and reflects our multi-ethnicity,” he says.

For several reasons, the French refer to Réunion as the severe or “intense” island, alluding to its geography, flora and fauna, and no doubt its people.

Cléret describes the food of Réunion further as “atypical” because of the variety of influences—Africa, India and China meet France on the plate, and this can be found whether you’re dining from the street-food carts or in one of the elegant fine dining restaurants.

Red beans, large haricot beans, boiled rice and steamed vegetables are served with a side of fiery chilli relishes. The piment zoiseau is the hottest of the lot and is used in the local relish and salsas.

Baby goat curry is a dish introduced by the Tamils from Sri Lanka. The more unusual dining offerings include a local type of curried hedgehog, the large lentils specific to the Cilaos region, smoked fish and bacon, blood sausages, palm heart salad, peanut butter relish and breadfruit jam.

The markets are a delight, overflowing with tropical fruit—there is a dizzying variety of mangoes available between December and January—and local varietals of bitter gourds, taro leaves and calabashes.

Seafood is, as can be expected, very popular and widely available. Octopus, cod, shellfish and fried gobies are some of the tastes of the island. 

“Old-fashioned, traditional fishing methods are still used, and we support predominately small fishermen,” Cléret says of his catering business and the hotel and restaurant he runs, called The Villa Angélique, in the north of the island.

Sugarcane is the mainstay of Réunion’s economy, and the molasses is used to make rhum arrangé, which is “arranged” or macerated with fruit such as pineapple, litchis, passion fruit, limes, or cherries, or herbs and spices.

In the capital city, St Denis, the atmosphere is distinctly European. If it were not for the palm trees and the tropical heat, you could imagine yourself in a mini Paris. The city boasts very good cafés, bistros and boulangeries (bakeries), and local specialties such as samoosas and French pastries are excellent. In fact, starting the day with strong coffee and a croissant is a popular choice.

Naturally, the best way to sample what locals eat would be if you were fortunate enough to be invited to dine at someone’s home. Second best would be to ask a local to help you order off the menus—the language is predominately French, though some English is understood.

There are also tour guides who can arrange market visits and cooking classes. This gives one an opportunity to exit the usual packaged holiday programme and get to know the locals by chatting over a curry, a Dodo beer, or a slice of gâteau patate, the island’s famous sweet potato cake.

For more information visit the Tourism Board at www.reunion.fr

It’s All Available at Lux

LUX ÎLE DE LA RÉUNION is a beach resort with exclusive views of the coral-sheltered lagoon at L’Hermitage. To work up an appetite, get out onto the tennis and volleyball courts, or in the swimming pool, if that’s your thing. Once you’re ready to eat, enjoy fresh, locally sourced seafood at the beach resort’s various restaurants and bars. If it’s relaxation you’re after, find your inner zen with yoga in the gardens, or a private in-room spa treatment. Then take in the rugged beauty, volcanic peaks and waterfalls of the World Heritage Site, the Pitons, Cirques and Ramparts of La Réunion. Go to www.luxresorts.com