Whenever I find myself with an unplanned day in a foreign city, I turn right to the local version of the yellow pages and take a look at the restaurant listings. Granted, this is a chancy approach, but it can lead to some great adventures, like the one I had recently in Sydney, Australia.
While trying to decide among Korean, Lebanese and Malaysian restaurants, my hungry eyes fell upon the listing MAURITIAN. A Mauritian restaurant? Called Le Dodo? Who could resist?
The impending adventure was made all the more fun by my lack of a clear idea of what Mauritian cooks cooked. I knew Mauritius to be an island in the Indian Ocean, east of Mozambique. By coincidence, my guide on a safari in Kenya was the great-grandchild of a Frenchman who had settled in Mauritius when it had been a colony of France, so I deduced that the food would have some Gallic overtones.
It was just approaching noon when I arrived at Le Dodo and it was completely empty. Not a good sign, but then again, it was still quite early for lunch. Two colorful dodo birds smiled at me from the front window and I soon found myself inside a small, unpretentious restaurant with ceiling fans and a blackboard menu.
Quite soon, a broadly smiling man with dark, twinkling eyes entered the dining room from what seemed to be a kitchen in the back. It was owner/cook Serge Theophile. We talked about the food listed on the board and the more we talked, the more difficult it became for me to decide what to order. So, Theophile volunteered to give me a small portion of a variety of appetizers and entrees. The perfect solution.
Then the real fun began. I first tasted a spicy meat-filled samoussa, a delicate fried pastry that, Theophile told me, reflected the strong Indian influence on Mauritian food. I was instructed to dip the samoussa into a clear vinegar sauce redolent of garlic and was told that the sauce was definitely of Chinese origin. The delicious samoussa exprience being over all too soon, I moved along to a Pate St. Geran, a small spring roll stuffed with a remarkable filling of minced crab, prawns, scallops, and green peppers. (The seafood in Sydney is sensational and always wiggly-fresh.) By this time I had moved into the kitchen, to save Theophile the trouble of moving back and forth.
While downing the spring roll, I watched him concoct "Serge's Seafood Salad." After cutting some cooked squid into rings, Theophile doused it with olive oil, vinegar, mustard powder, salt and a healthy grinding of coarse pepper. He added some chopped onion, tasted, and then added some more salt and vinegar, tossing all the while.
The salad was delicious, the squid perfectly cooked and easy to chew, the sauce full of exclamation points. It tasted to me quite like an appetizer I'd had in an Italian restaurant, but Theophile said that the olive oil was a gift of the French and that Mauritians ate and adored all seafood, being a small island nation.
I tried to ignore the fact that I was already sated as we had not even begun to explore the list of entrees. Theophile was heating up some boeuf vindaloo for the customers who had begun to fill up the restaurant.
"They are my regulars," explained Theophile, who learned cooking at his grandmother's ladle and opened Le Dodo nine years ago. "They come every week. It's reckoned that my vindaloo is the hottest food in Australia."
Whoever did the reckoning was right. I washed down my potent portion with some cold Australian beer and moved on to a superb rougaile de camarons. To prepare this dish, Theophile briefly cooked large shrimp in a sauce made by adding tomatoes to saute'ed onion, garlic, ginger, thyme, and parsley. It was the best dish of all.
I dared not eat another morsel and had to be content with descriptions of those dishes I would not be able to try. Carri de Crabe, I learned, was made by cooking crab claws in a mild curry. Poulet saute' a l'estragon is, as the name suggests, chicken saute'ed in wine, cream, and fresh tarragon.
"The French influence on our cookery has been very strong," said Theophile, "even though France was in charge of my country for only 95 years. The British took over in 1810 and, although we do like a good cup of tea, they were never able to stamp out the impression which the French made on our kitchen. The Indians, too," he continued, "have made themselves strongly felt, especially with our curries." ROUGAILLE DE CAMARONS (Shrimp in a Tomato-Creole Sauce) (4 servings)
The ginger in the sauce lends a haunting, pungent flavor to this shrimp dish. Plan to serve it over plain, boiled rice.
28-ounce can peeled plum tomatoes, drained
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
6 medium (or fewer, to taste) cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons finely minced parsley
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Salt to taste
1 1/4 pounds shrimp, shelled and cleaned
Pure'e the tomatoes in a blender or food processor and set them aside. In a large saucepan, heat the oil and saute' the onions until they are translucent. Pass the garlic through a press into the pot, stirring to blend. Add the thyme, ginger, parsley, tomato paste and salt, and simmer the sauce for about 25 minutes. Adjust the seasonings. Add the shrimp and cook over medium-high heat for about 3 minutes, stirring frequently, just until the shrimp are done. Serve over rice. SERGE'S CHILI-HOT FRUIT SALAD (4 to 6 servings)
The fresh chili in this tropical fruit salad adds a remarkable zing and an unusually delicious flavor. The salad tastes best when eaten chilled, about two hours after it is prepared.
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint (or substitute 1 tablespoon dried mint, soaked briefly in the rum)
1/2 cup rum
1 teaspoon chopped fresh green chili pepper, seeded (or substitute dried, crushed red pepper flakes to taste)
Sugar to taste, if desired
Prepare the fruit in the usual way, removing the peel and dicing the flesh into bite-sized pieces. Place the fruit in a large serving bowl and toss with remaining ingredients. Chill before serving.