Try a slice of Indian Ocean island life
THINK of Mauritius, the Maldives and Seychelles, and chances are you imagine white sandy beaches, tropical heat and honeymooning couples.
And you’d be right – but what about the food?
“People don’t really know much about that part of the world,” says Selina Periampillai. Yet, the incredible multiculturalism of this pocket of the Indian Ocean has created a unique cuisine made up of seemingly disparate culinary influences and styles that work in mysterious harmony.
Born and raised in Croydon, South London, Periampillai calls Mauritius her second home – her parents are from there and moved to the UK in the seventies for work – but as a child, she spent long summers every year back on the island.
“I remember my nan cooking outside, she had a massive rock slab and used to crush spices on it with a cylinder tool – fresh spices, garlic, chilli – she would roll it and crush them every morning and cook with them that evening,” says the 37-year-old. “You can see from her arms and build today that’s what she was doing for all those years – it’s not that easy!”
So how did Mauritian cuisine come to be what it is today?
“It was colonised by the Dutch, then the British came, and Chinese came over, all these people from all different cultures settled on the island,” says Periampillai. Throw Indian, French and African influences into the mix and it’s considered one of the great Creole cuisines of the world.
“We’ve ended up with biryani and curry from India and fiery hot, chilli chutneys. The Chinese set up as merchants near Port Louis [the capital] and they’re still selling dumplings on street corners.”
It surprises first-time diners, she says; it’s lighter and more fragrant than people anticipate. “People expect an Indian-style curry but we might use cinnamon to make it sweet or thyme leaves and parsley.”
In her first cookbook, The Island Kitchen, Periampillai takes you on journey, not only around the fascinatingly diverse Mauritian cuisine – think fish biryani, slow-cooked duck with cinnamon and cloves, and potato and pea samosas – but Madagascar, Maldives, Seychelles, and the lesser known Reunion, Comoros and Mayotte, and Rodrigues.
What’s most surprising though, is that the classic dishes of these islands, and Periampillai’s take on them (like the pineapple upside-down cake her supper club-goers rave about), are all pretty simple.
It’s stews you chuck everything into and leave, curry that doesn’t take hours, and vibrant salads with sweet notes of coconut, lime or mango.
“I’m all for really down-to-earth, nothing fancy, really good comfort food,” she says.