That fact frustrates Selina Periampillai. “A lot of people think of these islands as luxurious holiday destinations and don’t really get out past their international hotel buffets,” she says in a phone interview from her London home. “They don’t get out and explore the street food, the real food.” Periampillai hopes to change that with her stunning new cookbook, “The Island Kitchen: Recipes from Mauritius and the Indian Ocean” (Bloomsbury, 2019).
Periampillai, 37, grew up in a Mauritian family in London, where her parents emigrated in the 1970s. While there were (and continue to be) only a handful of Mauritian restaurants there, her childhood was bursting with island flavors. Periampillai’s parents often hosted large family gatherings at their house, where the tables were piled high with such dishes as her dad’s beef cari, teeming with fragrant cinnamon, fenugreek, cumin and fennel; and her mother’s spicy mashed potatoes — satini pomme de terre — packed with thyme, softened tomatoes and a generous pinch of chile flakes.
Often, dishes would be made with ingredients smuggled in suitcases from yearly summer trips to Mauritius. “Airport security was much more relaxed then,” says Periampillai with a laugh. Most of these ingredients are more widely available now.
Periampillai grew up watching her parents — mostly her mother — cook but says that her passion for food came “much later on.” She studied food at school but then found herself in the classic situation of a stable but unfulfilling 9-to-5 job. Dissatisfied, she would go home and bake. “I needed to make myself happy,” she says. Periampillai would then take the goods to her colleagues, quickly impressing them with her deftness in the kitchen. She mustered up the courage to quit to launch a cake-making business during an era when supper clubs were thriving, and so she started one. Soon she found herself making Mauritian feasts for up to 15 people at a time.
“People would try the food and be really surprised by the flavors,” says Periampillai. But for anyone who knows the history of the islands, it only makes sense that the cuisine has such instant appeal. In many ways, the archipelago is the crossroads of the world. “There’s a melange of styles … influenced by the people that arrived on these shores: sailors and colonisers, traders and settlers, coming with their own cuisines and flavours,” she writes in the book’s introduction. That means influences from India, China, France, Africa, Sri Lanka and more, alongside a plethora of local ingredients. Even the dish names — which are in Creole — reflect this history. In many ways, it’s what fusion food tries to be, without any of the pretense. The result is food with flavors as vibrant and deep as the cerulean waters that surround the islands.
Though the nations that make up the archipelago are just a couple hours apart by plane, the cuisine — and influences — vary more than one might expect. “All these islands are linked by an invisible thread of flavour, but each of them is quite different,” Periampillai writes. On Mauritius, it is quite easy to see the Chinese influence in dishes such as bol renversé, a Sino-Mauritian dish that dramatically layers rice, bok choy and chicken with soy sauce, oyster sauce and fish sauce. Or in the riz frit, a vegetable fried rice that was inspired by the Chinese immigrants who came over as traders and merchants. But it’s just as easy to see Indian influences in such dishes as the range of caris throughout the book (“cari” is the Mauritian Creole word for curry), and in the gauteux piments, a spicy fritter made from yellow split peas that could easily be mistaken for an Indian vada. These fritters are eaten with a verdant cilantro chutney (more of India’s influence), though Periampillai notes that locals often stuff the fritters into a crusty baguette — which is a bit more French.
Visit Réunion, and you will feel “as if you are right there in France,” says Periampillai. “The food resembles the food you would find in France but with a Creole twist.” That means sausages in a tomato sauce packed with ginger, turmeric and red chile, and creamy gratins made with the local vegetable chou chou (a.k.a. chayote). The island is also famous for some of the “best lentils in the world,” writes Periampillai, which are often cooked down with aromatic herbs. The French influence is also heavily felt in the food of Comoros and Mayotte, where the national dish is lobster in a luxurious vanilla cream sauce made with white wine, shallots and butter. Can you get more French than that?
Head to the Maldives and tuna rules meal times. “They probably eat tuna a couple times a day,” says Periampillai. “They have it for breakfast and again for dinner.” That means bowls of garudhiya, a broth fish soup made with tuna steaks, curry leaves red chiles and lime; and dhon riha, the island’s tuna and coconut curry, punched up with turmeric and cardamom.
Periampillai is quick to emphasize that her book — which took her three years to complete — is for home cooks. “I am not a trained chef,” she says, noting that she learned to cook from instinct and by observation. Most of the recipes in “The Island Kitchen” can be made after work for a satisfying dinner.
In many ways, “The Island Kitchen” is the perfect book for the modern cook who has a decently stocked kitchen — soy sauce, ginger, coconut milk, plenty of spices — but is looking for new and unexpected ways to use familiar ingredients. Take the Chicken Wings With Tomatoes, which transforms smoked paprika, cumin and chopped tomatoes into an unexpected and sticky sauce for wings. She suggests that the dish should be served over rice. But you can eat them by hand — whatever feels right to you.
Periampillai really has only one rule when it comes to cooking from her book, which she notes in the introduction: “Essential to island-style eating is taking your time, sitting down with loved ones and enjoying the experience of eating together.”
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