Mauritian food is a potpourri of flavours, borrowing from Indian, Creole and European cuisines, chef Sooraj Gooradoo tells Lounge. The chef who won the silver award at the Mauritius Young Chef Culinary Challenge 2009 for best starters and main course, was in Delhi for a food festival organized by Mauritius Tourism at The Lalit, in December. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Q: What is Mauritian cuisine all about and how did you end up in this profession?
Mauritius’s cuisine is a potpourri of Creole and European food variety, well influenced by both West and East. We all have our own distinct local styles of preparations that further lend the unique taste to a typical Mauritius food platter.
My interest in cooking came naturally since my mother liked to experiment in the kitchen and I used to help her a lot. She always tried new things and I think I inherited these qualities as well. I love the Chicken Curry with Coconut Milk (eaten with chapatti), which I learnt from her.
Q: What did they teach you in cooking school and how different is it from working in a real hotel?
In cooking schools you learn from books and in actual working conditions you learn yourself from the circumstances. In hotels you gain a practical approach. On the other hand, you have enough time in cooking schools to grasp concepts, think about how you can create something, apply the skill and actually cook with a lot of equipment available. For example, we can have four trays at our disposal for four different tasks. Something, which is particularly different in hotels, is using frozen foods; you have to manage with the given supplies even at the last moment, or in case of a higher-than-expected turnout.
Q: How exactly is the Indian method of cooking different from Mauritian Indian cooking?
Though Mauritian cooking style is quite similar to Indian, the most basic and common ingredients used in Mauritian recipes are tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic and chillies, which are quite similar to Indian cuisine. Indian chefs use different spices. In Mauritian cuisine, the use of chilli is limited to green chilles, no powders. We use very little spices as the clientele that we cater to have a temperate taste. It might be because we have an increasingly European clientele who appreciate Mauritian food. Also, in India vegetables are cooked a lot. However, in our cuisine we prefer relatively raw vegetables.
Q: Any specific dishes that dominate the menu in a Mauritian home?
One of the most popular cooked foods includes curry. Curries can be made with different ingredients like chicken, lamb and fish for the non-vegetarian eaters. For vegetarians, local items like christophene (vegetable pear), bitter gourd and cabbage can be used to make the stews.
Q: What would be the menu at a typical Mauritian wedding functions?
Well, at Hindu weddings, we usually have curries similar to yours—dal, green beans, etc. Of course, the Indian food we cook is much less spicy compared to the kind that you get in India. At non-Hindu functions, a popular dish is Curry Souk or goat curry. Usually you take mutton and cut it into small pieces. Heat the oil and add cumin seeds. Prepare gravy of onions and tomato along with ginger-garlic paste and put it in the heated oil. Add coriander powder (take coriander seeds and grind them), garam masala, cinnamon, dry red chillies and salt as per your taste. Follow that up with the meat cubes and stir for some time and it is ready to serve.
Q: Any tips on cooking seafood?
Seafood should not be too cooked. If it is too dry/overcooked, it loses its taste. It is good when it is eaten raw or a little cooked, keeping its suppleness and moisture intact. We like to use fresh seafood for a better taste. In Mauritius, good quality seafood is available fresh from the market, which we order regularly.
Q: Any useful tips from the chef’s kitchen? What are some of things that you’ve learnt over the years—cooking techniques or a few know-hows?
I always suggest people use the skin of the vegetables as it contains lots of healthy vitamins. I usually don’t prefer to boil vegetables and I like them steam cooked to keep their nutritious value intact.
Q: A dish that everyone enjoys eating there?
Our national dish is Rougaille; basically includes chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger and spices. We Mauritians don’t use much of curry powder. But dominant spices like cumin, chilli powder and coriander are used. We use a lot of coconut as well for salads, in curries, in rice; and a lot of coconut milk too.
Our salads are fairly interesting too. We have a potato and egg salad; black lentils, pumpkin and christophene salad. Salted fish is another popular dish here.
The dinner we eat is pretty much like yours. We eat a lot of dal, chapatti, pumpkin stews and we love achars (pickle).
The list is endless; another good dish is biryani; kalia is the meat-base we use for it; which is basically made of beef, big coriander, garlic, ginger, yogurt and fried onions.
Q: Name a few ingredients that you personally always use (even if they are not in the recipe).
There is a special paste (only available in Mauritius) known as Mazavaroo, which is made up of 26 indigenous ingredients. It is a unique paste in the sense that it combines the sour, salty and sweet flavours, which makes it really appealing to the tastebuds, no matter what dish you put it into. I use this paste in all my non-vegetarian preparations, such as the curry, as it adds an extra flavour to the dish.
Q: How has Mauritian food evolved over the year?
It has remained the same in essence. It has its own heart and soul while complementing with the various nuances and influences it has come across over the years. The main thing that I have noticed is the popularity of Mauritius cuisine, which has unmistakably grown during the past few years.
Q: What kind of chutneys do you have in Mauritius?
There are various types of chutneys that are available in Mauritian food—tomato chutney, pumpkin chutney, papaya chutney, jackfruit chutney. In non-vegetarian options, it is the dried shrimp’s chutney that is quite famous. In fact we can usually prepare chutney of seasonal fruits or ingredients, which are easily available.
Here’s the recipe of Chicken Curry with Coconut Milk
3 garlic cloves
5g ginger, sliced
1 tsp saffron powder
½ tsp cinnamon powder
30ml coconut milk
A pinch or two Oriental saffron
3-4 bay leaves
5ml lemon juice
A pinch of thyme
Parsley, for garnish
Salt and pepper to taste
Marinate the chicken with salt, pepper and saffron powder. Pan-fry it on both sides. In the same oil sauté the onions, bay leaves and cinnamon for 1 minute then add ginger and garlic. Mix well and cook for 2 minutes. Now add tomatoes, salt, pepper and mix. When the tomatoes are mushy, add coconut milk, thyme, chillies and Oriental saffron. Cover and slow-cook for 15-20 minutes. Before taking off the fire, add crushed ginger, parsley and lemon juice.