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’ 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 said 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 immigrated 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,” said 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 of hours apart by plane, the cuisine — and influences — varies more than one might expect.
“All these islands are linked by an invisible thread of flavour, but each of them is quite different,” Periampillai wrote. 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 Chicken Wings with Tomatoes, which transforms smoked paprika, cumin and chopped tomatoes into an unexpected and sticky sauce for wings.