Subtle meaning of a Mauritian dinner invitation

Balaclava seaside

Balaclava seaside, about 100km north east of Port Louis, in Mauritius.

Photo credit: Aggrey Mutambo | Nation Media Group

Mauritius, the land of the now-distinct dodo bird is known for beautiful lagoons, beaches and rich reefs. Its cuisine, however, can be as confusing as the country itself. No wonder it is common for locals to find themselves educating visitors about what actually amounts to be Mauritian.

The country, some 2000km off the mainland of the coastline of Africa, has been a mix of different cultures. Its food, language and politics have taken on that trend, appearing African in one way, Indian or Chinese in another, and French or British at other times.

Consider that Mauritius is a member of the Commonwealth, the club of countries that include the UK and its former colonies. Recently, new entrants like Togo, Gabon, Rwanda and Mozambique have distorted that pattern though, making it more of a grouping of allies than former colonies of the UK. The island is also a member of the Organisation of Francophone Countries, the grouping of French-speaking nations.

Meal

A meal of farata, grated carrots, beef and French beans served at a hotel in Balaclava, Mauritius. Mauritian cuisine is often a mix of different cultures with historical ties to the island.

Photo credit: Aggrey Mutambo | Nation Media Group

To understand its blend of food, a visitor to this island may take more than a day, at a dinner table, to learn both the manners and foods eaten here. And like most islanders, fish and other seafood is common.

Touring the capital Port Louis and other major urban centres such as Grand Bay, you learn that foods common in Kenya such as chapati and biryani are also available, which suggests closer contacts with India and the Gulf. Mauritians also love roti and farata, a flatbread that looks like chapati but is thicker. And chilli, eggplants, garlic and herbal teas are just as common.

As most Mauritian families are of mixed cultural backgrounds, it is common to see families adapt their cuisines. For example, it is common to see French bread or French fries at a table where Biryani chicken is also served. Rice is the most common delicacy in towns here even though people adapt it to their liking. It may be boiled, spiced, fried or presented as a portion of another composite meal.

Bitings

Some bitings served at an event in Balaclava, Mauritius.

Photo credit: Aggrey Mutambo | Nation Media Group

Yet, the best thing about dining with Mauritians is their willingness to teach you about their country.

“Mauritians would take lunch with friends. But dinner is always with family,” remarked Jean-Michel, our host. Jean-Michel has spent years studying Mauritian politics, culture and economy.

Due to a long history with the French, and later the British, the islanders here speak both French and English fluently. Their political system borrows heavily from both the French and British, using both Common law and French municipal law. English is the official language although this is mainly a de facto arrangement, rather a legal provision. Which is why you can hear stories of how drivers caught speeding refuse to sign on charge sheets in English, insisting on a translation in French. Luckily, the police here can switch between the two tongues as songbirds.

And our host learnt something about the people on the island: as opposed to many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Mauritians are typically capitalistic people whose lunches are often about business, not friendship.

“If a Mauritian invites you to dinner, he probably considers you family,” he remarked over a meal of peppered rice and chicken, served with vegetable salad. His wife had prepared the meal. And by inviting us to his home, it appeared we had become family—Mauritian style.

Sauces

Sauces served with various bitings and food served in Balaclava, Mauritius.

Photo credit: Aggrey Mutambo | Nation Media Group

There is more, beyond just the meal. In Mauritius, bars aren’t as common as in Nairobi. If you want to have a drink, you would probably have to buy it and carry it home to enjoy in your house. Alternatively, you could go to a hotel or local restaurant or visit a night club to have a drink.

Mauritian culture, Jean-Michel explained, has come to live with the fact that there aren’t many friendly one-for-the-road moments among the people. So, if you are considered family, as Jean-Michel did to us, you are invited to drink at home, not meet up in the CBD and haggle a deal over a beer. Luckily, there are no ‘Mututho laws’ restricting the time one can buy a drink, but folk here have made a habit of drinking after work and children, as is convention, are forbidden from having alcohol.

A local brew known as Phoenix is found in nearly every supermarket and is seen by locals as a purely Mauritian beer, having been around since independence. A local rum known as Green Island is also common. But non-alcohol drinkers can take a ‘black jelly’ herbal tea, or just ordinary tea flavoured with vanilla.

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