“We’re a bit like a puzzle,” said Santosh, when we reunited on his turf over 15 years later. “There are very distinct pieces. People have held onto their own identities but found a way to make it work, so it fits into a picture of its own.”
In the end, it’s that compelling mosaic that lured me to Mauritius’s shores. Scouring social media would lead a prospective visitor to believe that the island ends where the resorts do. I was eager to explore what lay beyond plunge pools and bath butlers.
The volcanic isle was first discovered by the Arabs in 975; but when the Dutch landed on Mauritius in 1598, it was uninhabited — aside from wildlife like the dodo, a bird famously rendered extinct by Europeans but still resplendent on Mauritian rupee notes today. The French came in the 1700s, followed by the British. With the 1835 abolition of slavery, migrants flooded in from the east: Indian indentured laborers and Chinese shopkeepers. The Indians’ struggles are chronicled in Port Louis’s poignant Aapravasi Ghat museum, at the immigration depot turned Unesco World Heritage site where they first came ashore.
Layers of migration have left an indelible imprint; today, nearly 70 percent of Mauritius’s 1.3 million citizens are of Indian descent, with Creoles, Sino-Mauritians and Franco-Mauritians rounding out the mix. Emerging from Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport on a humid evening, I followed signs that read “EXIT” in English, French, Hindi and Chinese.
“Ultimately, the uniqueness of the place is in its people,” Santosh said. “We’ve evolved our own breed — fairly distinct from the origins each one of us came from. You have people who are sort of Indian but not really Indian, sort of African but not really African.”
Today’s Mauritius could be a role model for racial harmony (in these troubled times, the rest of the world might want to pay attention), but the country’s cultures mingle most effortlessly in the food. Disparate culinary traditions have collided here for centuries, and the result is a cuisine simmering with Indian, French, Chinese and Creole flavors. The next morning, I left Santosh’s sea-facing apartment on Trou-aux-Biches to explore Mauritius’s cultural synergy with my taste buds.
At the covered market in Quatre Bornes, a hilly burg cradled by mountains that look photoshopped into the background, I tried my first gâteau piment, a deep-fried fritter made of ground chickpea flour studded with chiles. “For breakfast, many people have bread, cheese and gâteaux piments,” my driver Raju explained, as he helped select four perfectly plump morsels for 10 rupees, about 30 cents.
With his limited English, my kindergarten French, and some Hindi thrown in, Raju and I were able to cobble together a reasonable facsimile of a conversation. We ambled through the food court, where stalls hawk everything from riz frit (fried rice) to curry agneau (lamb curry) to puri chaud (fried flatbreads); next, Raju took me to a residential street in Rose Hill, where I joined the lunch rush at the no-frills Dewa and Sons. I was there to try the national street food, dholl puri — what the banh mi is to Vietnam, what a doner kebab is to Turkey, this messy lentil-potato mix slapped onto a soft puri is to Mauritius. It’s as delicious as it is sloppy, spicy but not so strong as to overpower nuanced flavors redolent in turmeric and cumin.
Later that night I joined an American expat couple for a food crawl around Rue Desforges in Port Louis, gorging on poulet roti (roast chicken), mine frite (noodles) and crepes draped in Nutella and condensed milk and dusted with fresh coconut. On Gris-Gris beach the next day, I ordered a piping-hot farata (flatbread) with chicken and cheese from the Hungry Angry Girl Cabana.
For more refined fare, Santosh and his wife, Deepti, took me to Gymkhana, a members-only golf course with a restaurant serving local classics: octopus curry, dim sum and millionaire’s salad, an expensive local delicacy of hearts of palm paired with smoked marlin. At the elegantly appointed La Clef des Champs in Floreal, the revered chef Jacqueline Dalais serves haute-Mauritian food — “La cuisine Française qui parle Creole,” she describes it, French cuisine with a Creole accent. “Here in Mauritius, it’s a cuisine with a lot of spice. Not a lot of chile, but a lot of taste.”
Santosh and Deepti also took me along to a Mauritian Muslim wedding, where beef, chicken and vegetarian variants of the local Mauritian biryani were on the menu. The festive and pleasantly disorderly setting reminded me of India, where an extra head — or 20 — is always welcome.
My culinary anthropology saw me crisscrossing the island, bisecting its interior from all angles and touching down fleetingly on its sandy fringes. The beaches are undoubtedly some of the most spectacular I’ve seen, and the water stretched my understanding of what shades of blue can be plausibly found in nature, but I was more intrigued by Mauritius’s dense, rugged core — a verdant tableau rife with visual synonyms for the color green.
A 10-minute drive unfolds more like a cinematic montage than topography: corrugated tin shacks giving way to gleaming high-rises; children cycling against the backdrop of sugar cane fields; mountains in jagged shapes seemingly culled from the mind of Picasso; a procession of hot pink and cobalt blue bungalows popping against the never-ending emerald expanse. The weather vacillates as regularly as the scenery. We’d spend two minutes barreling through a rain cloud before emerging to a glorious stretch of sunshine; thickly humid air dissipated within minutes into a crisp autumnal chill.
The lush setting brought to mind Costa Rica, save for the Bollywood blaring on the radio. In fact, Mauritius comes across as a cleaner replica of India. You momentarily forget where you are as you pass buses emblazoned with “Hey Ram,” candy-colored South Indian-style temples, and signs for Khoobsurat Beauty Parlour or Indira Gandhi Road. But all it takes is a glimpse of a Dodo Supermarket, Bijouterie Oomar or Trois-Bras Pooja Shop, or eavesdropping on a snatch of conversation from a sari-clad auntie speaking English with a Gallic accent, to reorient yourself.
Mauritius’s hills are also flecked with graceful colonial manors in various stages of disrepair. The alluringly ramshackle Maison Eureka is a 175-year-old Victorian-era home replete with uneven doors, a sagging roof and broad chunks of shingles absent like gap teeth. I explored a warren of rooms filled with family antiques before retiring to a veranda lined with wicker loungers for coffee. On another afternoon I explored Château de Labourdonnais, an immaculately preserved pile where I feasted on fish salad, Creole rougaille, and crème brûlée laced with local vanilla. In the former capital of Mahébourg, the National History Museum has crammed a 1772-built French country house with everything from antique beds to nautical wreckage to a dodo display. Like many museums in small countries, it strives to fit every last vestige under one roof, making for a sense of disheveled urgency as you navigate the rooms.