I do not know why it took me all those years to finally cook an entire Reunionese meal for friends.
Maybe it was because I did not think anybody would be interested. I am relieved to say that was not at all the case. In fact, I was asked to please make more of them in the future. I don’t know why I am surprised. Reunion food IS good.
Maybe it was because I felt I would have to get all those exotic ingredients , and that felt wrong. As it turns out, a lot of things grow or can grow in Virginia, but yes, I had to get some things grown far away – It was special, I got over the reluctance.
Maybe it was because I was not sure I could cook it right. Get the right cut of meat. Or be able to use a specific technique successfully. In fact, by carefully selecting the menu, one can make a fairly authentic Reunionese meal in Virginia.
Or maybe it’s just that as one gets older, one goes back to one roots.
The cuisine of Reunion Island is fascinating – a mix of French, Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese and African, along with numerous plants from South & Central Americas that have found a home there.
A dot on the map – albeit a steep one – in the Indian Ocean, pretty much at the Southern Tropic, a 1,000 miles east from South Africa, Reunion Island is to France was Hawaii is to the United States. Far away from the mainland (a 10 hour non-stop flight from Paris), but fully French – a “département” in fact since 1946; a colony before that. When the French took possession of the uninhabited island in the mid-seventeen century, they named in Bourbon Island (after the then reigning family of France), turned it into a freshwater and fresh-food refill stop for the ships on the way to the Far East. This was more than two centuries before the Suez Canal, when it took half a year to sail from Europe to Indochina. The ship followed the trade winds, going to South America first – generally Brazil – and then sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, crossing the Indian Ocean to Java, Sumatra, India, or other spice-rich countries. It was a long haul from Cape Town to South East Asia, so a re-provisioning stop was most convenient.
The French settled the island, and, as with all European colonies of that time, slaves were imported from Africa, indentured servants from India after the abolition of slavery. Immigrants came from Indochina in the early 2oth century. Not only did the island get fruit and vegetables, spices and herbs, trees and flowers from all over the world due to its position on the trade wind routes, but each people brought their own style of cooking and favorite dishes. From that history, grew a melting pot cuisine, with French, Indian, African, Comoran, Madagascan, and Chinese roots.
The plate pictured in the photo is quite representative. Rice – the grain of Asia – at the center is the starch of choice; in the past, maize, bread fruit or manioc was just as – if not more – likely to be there. Beans/pulses and several vegetables complete the meal. Meat (most often a fowl or pork) or fish is optional but most common today in all but the very poorest households. Ingredients from all over the world are part of the meal (but as they are grown or raised locally and are part of the everyday diet, nobody think of them as exotic) and the use of spices is liberal but judicious.
At 1 o’clock is a Civet de Cerf , Venison Creole Wine Stew. First the venison: game is a luxury item on Reunion. A few heads of deer ( Java deer, originally imported from Java) hide in the highlands. I used our venison, that Keith hunted last fall from the hills around us. A different species of deer, altogether, but it worked anyway. While the dish is called “civet”, it certainly is not a mainland French civet (where the blood of the animal is used to thicken the sauce and lots of wine is used). It does use a little wine, but also tomatoes, as well as ginger, four-spice leaves and cloves along with garlic and thyme – all slowly simmered for hours until the sauce is very thick and unctuous. Finely chopped parsley finishes the dish just before it goes to the table.
At 3 o’clock, a spicy peanut side dish, a “rougail de pistaches grillées”. It contains garlic, ginger, salt, chillies – all pounded together in a stone mortar, along with grilled peanuts, chopped shallots and tomatoes. A dish of African and Asian origins.
At 6 o’clock, Achards de Legumes. I have a hard time translating this Indian influenced dish. Achaar means pickling in India – pickling using lots of spices, lemon and oil to seal the vegetables in – not the type of pickling done in the US. A side dish (also served as an appetizer or a sandwich filling), achards are eaten typically at room temperature on Reunion. They consist of evenly julienned cabbage, carrots, cauliflower & green beans, cooked briefly (and separately) until they are limp and generously seasoned with ginger, garlic, salt & peppercorns all pounded together in a paste, and doused with lemon juice or red wine vinegar. They are better prepared in advance so the flavors have a chance to meld.
On the rice, a fat dollop of fresh green chilies (pounded with a little garlic, ginger, salt in bit of oil). Reunion cooking is spicy and spicy hot, but chilies are generally served on the side so each guest can season his or he plate to her taste.
At 9 o’clock, Daube de Chouchoux, braised chayotes. Originally from Central America, chayote is a very common vegetable on Reunion: the young leaves and shoots, the fruit and tubers are all eaten. While I can grow the greens in my Piedmont Virginia garden, my growing season is not long enough for the vine to produce fruit. So I buy my chayotes at the Hispanic market. They are boiled, sliced, and added to onions that have been sautéed with pounded garlic, ginger, peppercorn and thyme, and then braised until tender, but not falling apart.
At 11 o’clock are lentils. Very special lentils. Lentilles de Cilaos to be accurate – they are brown, very small and high-yielding when cooked. The bit of research I have done suggests that they descend from the green lentils from Le Puy in the mountainous central area of France of Auvergne – an area of very old volcanoes. Farmers on Reunion bred the lentils, making them particularly well adapted to the high-mountain climate, the steep slopes and the volcanic soil of Cilaos – a cirque in the middle of the island. Lentils grow on small terraces all over this the collapsed (and spectacular) caldera of the ancient volcano that still peaks (no longer active, though) at over 10,000 feet. Lentils are cooked in a soffrito-like base of onions, ginger & garlic, with a little water and thyme.
The funny thing, is that only by thinking about this menu, did I realize that my Reunion roots pervade my style of cooking, the food I cook every day for just us at home. The four main seasoning ingredients of Reunion are curcuma (turmeric), ginger, garlic and thyme – a mix of French and Indian cuisines indeed. The classic Reunion thyme is close to the Provencal thyme which I grow here, small leaved and very fragrant, and ginger which I love I grow … some years. Curcuma is called “safran” (saffron) on Reunion and has been making headlines in the last few years because of its anti-cancer and its the metabolism-straightening properties. I like it because it taste good, because it’s a spice of my childhood.
Thyme, ginger, garlic and curcuma: those are my spices of predilection, the ones for which I reach without even thinking. They are part of me.