A Culinary Journey through Reunion Island
We should mention that this text primarily examines the Hindu population's traditions. We'll return later with a more general overview.
A warm blend
No one's happier than a Reunion Islander with a plate of rice, usually garnished with all kinds of "grains" and curry with spicy aromatic flavors. Whether white or black, tracing his ancestry to Asia, Africa or Europe, he'll gather his family around these traditional and well-loved dishes that strengthen the islanders' attachment to their land.
From ancient sources
This traditional vibrant cuisine has a history intimately linked to the men and women who have lived here for four centuries, gradually expanding their presence, music and even their woes across the island. Over the years, each community has added to Reunion's culinary edifice: the French, certainly, bringing in the holds of their ships the rustic flavors of western France, in particular. But also Africans and Madagascans, slaves until 1848, southern Indians (called Malbars in Reunion), "Zarabes," Indo-Muslims originally from Goujerat, and the Chinese.
The dishes of these various groups, living in close proximity, ended up meeting, fraternizing and occasionally even mixing. From this cultural diversity has come a rich and varied cuisine. It has certain cherished essentials, classics of the Creole table, with the famous "cari" holding the top spot, a cousin of the curries known around the world whose origins are in India. Reunion curry is a spicy stew of meat, poultry or fish, traditionally served with rice and "grains." The "grains" are simply beans, Cape peas or lentils. As popular as curry are the spicy pickles known as "achards," and rougails, "bouchons," steamed dumplings of Chinese origin, and samosas, brought by Indian Muslims. When it comes to beverages, vanilla-flavored coffee and all kinds of rums - strong liquor combined with tropical fruit - are on the menu. Among the latter, we should mention the succulent lychee, a festive fruit gathered around Christmas time.
Aside from these pillars of the local gastronomy, visitors will also be intrigued by a few strange specialties: for example, the great variety of "brèdes," or greens. These leaves are prepared as a side dish, or in broth. We can also mention the tenrec, a kind of hedgehog that is hunted and prepared as curry, or "bichiques," fish fry beloved by Reunioners and sold at exorbitant prices. Travelers might be more wary of wasp larva, which is said to have a delicate flavor. Finally there's Cilaos wine, produced in small amounts in the high parts of the island. It may not have the qualities of a grand cru, but the producers are working hard to improve it.
Picnic on a volcano
There's a popular Creole song about picnicking on a volcano - and the picnic reference is apt.. Picnics are a Reunion institution, drawing crowds of families every Sunday to the beaches in the cool season or to the mountains when the weather turns hot. Zambrocal and other rice-based dishes are the usual fare. In most cities, food vans also offer sandwiches, dumplings and cooked dishes.
When it comes to holidays and other celebrations, particularly weddings, hundreds of people gather for huge banquets set out in "green rooms," abundantly decorated with flowers and foliage.
There is still much that could be said about this cuisine that draws inspiration from all four corners of the world: the tart flavor of the kaffir lime, a bumpy little citrus fruit whose zest is widely used; the "zourite," an octopus that is stewed; goat massala, a staple of Tamil cooking; and biryani, its cultural equivalent among Indian Muslims; guava trees that redden the mountainsides in the southern autumn; delicious nasturtium flower fritters... and much more.
There's no better way to understand a country than to attend its celebrations.
January - Mango festival (First Frenchmen's Grotto - St. Paul)
Réunion has about 150 mango producers, representing almost 320 hectares. The orchards reach from Possession to St. Pierre, concentrated around St. Paul, where more than half the land is planted. Producers welcome visitors to discover, taste and buy their fruit, jam, juice and mango cakes.
June - Coffee Festival (Pichette - La Possession)
More than just a celebration of coffee, the festival aims to restore the nobility of Reunion coffee growing and a centuries-old tradition. It's a unique occasion to travel back in time and take in the scent of "real coffee." Coffee cultivation is inextricably linked to the history of Reunion; in fact you could say that Reunion did not exist until coffee. Until the 1700s, the island, a French possession, was simply a stopping point for ships on their passage to the Indies. In 1713 Moka coffee plants were introduced.
June - Guava Festival (Plaine des Palmistes)
In just over 10 years, the Guava Festival has given Plaine des Palmistes its emblem. This succulent fruit attracts thousands of visitors each year to the island's smallest community. Jam and fruit paste manufacturers welcome all lovers of sweet treats.
July - Vacoa and oil palm festival (Saint-Philippe)
The event takes place over several days and celebrates the merits of the vacao, a tree that grows along the ocean. It was originally planted as a windbreak. Also known for its hardiness, the vacoa has leaves that are woven into baskets, hats, place mats... The poorest residents once made them into large baskets to collect lychees. The festival expanded on the culinary level a few years ago. The vacao's fruit is a delicacy on Reunion tables, added to dishes and made into delicious confits. We should also mention the kernels of the oil palm, which are eaten in gratins, salads and curry.
Hints & Tips