Mauritius, with its brilliant blue waters, pearly white sand beaches and lush green topography, is most often thought of in the West as a honeymoon destination. It's less thought of for its culinary charms, with visitors choosing to spend their time at extravagant resorts. The same can be said for Mauritius's neighbors - Rodrigues, Réunion, Madagascar, Seychelles, and Comoros and Mayotte - which all float in the Indian Ocean and have local cuisines that are often overlooked.
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 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.
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. The influences include Chinese, Indian and French cuisines.
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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CHICKEN WINGS WITH TOMATOES (MBAWA YA TOMATI)
Active: 25 minutes | Total: 1 hour 10 minutes
4 to 6 servings
These wings are a street-food staple on the islands of Comoros and Mayotte and come together with basic pantry ingredients. They're mostly hands-off and need just a little time for the sauce to thicken and the flavors to develop. Once done, the final dish is saucy and smoky. They're great as a starter or a main course.
The wings will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 4 days.
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon kosher salt or fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons peanut oil or another neutral oil, or more if needed
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika (pimenton, mild or hot)
2 pounds chicken wings
One (14 1/2-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 cup water
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoons sugar
1 scallion, sliced diagonally, to garnish
Cooked basmati rice, for serving (optional)
In a small bowl, stir together the cumin, salt and pepper until combined.
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, warm the oil until shimmering. Add the onion and paprika and cook, stirring, until the onion has softened and turns reddish in color, about 5 minutes.
Add the chicken wings and the salt-spice mixture, stir to combine, and cook the wings, flipping them midway, until browned on both sides, 5 to 7 minutes. If the pan seems dry, add more oil, 1 tablespoon at a time.
Add the tomatoes, water, tomato paste and sugar and stir to thoroughly combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce has reduced to coat the wings, about 45 minutes.
Garnish with the scallions and serve as is or with rice.
Nutrition (based on 6 servings) | Calories: 305; Total Fat: 10 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 86 mg; Sodium: 340 mg; Carbohydrates: 8 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 4 g; Protein: 34 g.
Adapted from "The Island Kitchen: Recipes from Mauritius and the Indian Ocean" by Selina Periampillai.