By Veidehi Gite
It’s a beautiful winter evening in Mauritius in April, and I’m at the Crazy Fish open-air restaurant with Nisha Maistry of Veranda Tamarin Hotel & Spa. I can hear waves in the backdrop as we converse about diverse subjects, while the facedown patterns of the dangling cane chandeliers distract my gaze, on and off.
The Eurocentric ambience is noticeable, the waitstaff is moving about with beers and beverages, and a musical band on the other end of the line is singing American and Indian songs in a creole-French accent.
Several years back, Nisha’s grandparents sailed to this turquoise-coloured paradise from India. Despite a relatively Mauritian genetic drift, the Maistry family has maintained their Indian roots. Daneshwari, Nisha’s grandmother, is proficient in Bhojpuri, French, and English.
Nisha who speaks in a heavily French-accented English, laughs as she recalls her grandmother chatting in Bhojpuri with her grandfather so that they (the children) wouldn’t understand a word. I requested her to teach me a couple of Creole phrases that contain a Bhojpuri word or two. But instead, she taught me how to say, “How are you?” and “I love you” in French and Creole.
It was amazing to hear stories about Bihari ladies adjusting to life in Mauritius by speaking fluent English and French. I couldn’t help but think about my last Bihar visit, a few years ago, when I only encountered women who spoke entirely in the Bihari dialect. Right then, Nisha added, “If you remove a person from their comfort zone, they will learn anything! Any chance to become superior in knowledge was grabbed.”
I was greeted with a bonjour wherever I went in Mauritius, but I also heard Mauritians speak fluent Hindi on occasions, such as “Kaise ho?” (meaning ‘how are you?’), “Aane do, aane do” (literally ‘let it come, let it come’) while reversing an automobile, or even “Chalo”, which means let’s go.
Because of Bollywood movies, many non-Hindus are also familiar with Hindi. They speak Creole, which isn’t English, French, Bhojpuri, Hindi, Tamil, or Telegu, but is impacted by all of them. Mauritians who speak English with a heavy French accent may comprehend but not speak Hindi. But they attempt the Bollywood version!
The French influence prevails
I then inquired about the French influence that I’d noticed all across the island. The Châteauesque, a Revivalist architectural style based on French Renaissance architecture from the late 15th century, can be found all across the island.
Take Château de Labourdonnais or Château Bel Ombre, for example. Nisha threw light on some noteworthy facts. She told me that while the Arabs and the Dutch found the island in the early 15th century, the Malagasy (inhabitants of Madagascar) and Chinese traders also influenced the island’s culture equally.
The Dutch found the island; cultivated sugar to make rum; imported deer and mongoose from Java; and then left since Mauritius for them was simply a water stop between Africa and the Far East. Then the French arrived in the Indian Ocean, colonised it, and stayed. They built sugar refineries and planted more sugarcane.
In 1810, the British came, and they fought the French on the island and won the battle. They then governed the island. But the French families who’d been living on the island didn’t go away either! So they were the owners of the commerce, the land, and the factories, and it was just the management that was done by the East India Company. That’s why the French have enormous importance; their families and their descendants are still here.
But what about all the temples?
While the French influence is apparent in Mauritius, the Indian impact can also be seen in the resounding South Indian temples like Sockalingum Meenatchee Ammen Kovil, brimming with intricate sculptural renderings.
Nisha tells me, “In Mauritius, the temples were very basic and then some people brought in sculptures from India. Then more beautiful sculptures from South India were brought in. In Mauritius, you have two schools of thought. You have Vedic Hindus who do not believe in idol worship and temples but rather in havans (sacred fire rituals). And then you have those who are a hundred per cent religious in the Hindu sense.” There is a Chinmay ashram in Mauritius. You will also find Hare Krishna and similar institutions that run on the principles of the art of living.
The next day, I visited Grand Bassin, popularly known as Ganga Talao, in the Savanne district of Mauritius, to view the Mangal Mahadev and Durga statues, and it was here that I first spotted Macaque monkeys. They often come to grab all of the coconuts and bananas brought in as temple offerings.
200-year-old salt pans in Tamarin
In addition to temples, Mauritius’ ancient features include its 200-year-old salt pans near the coastal village of Tamarin. Nisha told me about the Tamarin salt pans while we resumed our talk over dinner and French cuisine. “For over two centuries, local families here have been harvesting white basalt rock crystals here using traditional methods,” she said.
The next day, I visited the salt pans, encircled by stone walls and with a beautiful mountain backdrop. The hot, dry atmosphere of Tamarin is ideal for salt manufacturing, and the pans cover about 30 hectares of land. While the gates were locked and there was no salt visible during my visit, the long sight allowed me to imagine the laborious process of obtaining salt from the blue oceans.
The numerous pools of water and gorgeous settings make Les Salines de Tamarin an ideal photo stop. Summer is perhaps a better season to spot fleur de sel (salt) taken lousse (loose) and large rock salt crystals from the pans’ bottoms.
This seaside community of Tamarin is also famous for dolphin watching, in addition to its beautiful salt pans. Simply sail a motorboat early one morning and let the dolphins fascinate you. You may also swim with them for Rs 15000 ($350 or €335) for about 15 to 30 minutes.
A melting pot of cuisines
Speaking of salt, my Mauritian culinary voyage took me in all four cardinal directions, and I discovered that traditional green chilli chutney and tamarind flavours are relished throughout the island. I even ended up tasting tamarind ice cream at Le Meridian in Mauritius!
Ajnisha Ungnoo, chef de cuisine at Domaine de Grand Baie, revealed how the cuisine in Mauritius is different. After winning the Concours des Meilleurs Ouvriers de Maurice 2018, this Mauritian chef of Indian descent is now a proud ambassador of Mauritian cuisine. Ungnoo, who’s never been to India, says she has always loved cooking and even assisted her mother and grandmother in the kitchen as a child.
“Since we have different cultures and different sorts of food in Mauritius, we mould cultural reinforcements into new flavours. The accessibility of many ingredients allows me the freedom to experiment,” she says.
Pepper is used in everything, according to Ajnisha, who enjoys working with spices and uses cumin, garam masala and fenugreek as the primary ingredients. Garam masala in Mauritius is made with Madagascar spices. As for the desserts, Ajnisha uses fresh and seasonal fruits.
She shares that Mauritians love pineapple both savoury and sweet, and that mangoes are a superb dessert fruit. Walking between tables at her resort and seeing how people are enjoying the food makes her feel appreciated as a chef, she says. Since she loves Mauritian spices, she cooked me her favourite Mauritian curry, the Indian-ish dholl puri, and a variety of cheese-laden French dishes.
Following the pandemic, tourists from all around the world are flocking to the island in search of experiences that will immerse them into something uniquely Mauritian. You will find these regional experiences across the island, with hoteliers like Nisha Maistry and chefs like Ajnisha Ungnoo curating bespoke experiences to highlight the cultural mix.
The epitome of a little world, Mauritius may be a pastiche of cultures but it still has a lot to offer that is its very own, be it spices, wildlife, political yore, film industry, salt pans or the seven-coloured earth of Chamarel.
Veidehi Gite is a travel writer and influencer based in Mumbai. She dabbles in many aspects of travel, culture, heritage, gastronomy, and fitness. She’s an idealist at heart and enjoys her sci-fi thrillers with a cup of espresso on the side.