A Fine Balance: Réunion Island embraces its multicultural influences

Gastronomie plats créole

Sometimes, a bird’s eye view is all we need to develop a healthy perspective. Taking a helicopter ride above Réunion Island, between Madagascar and Mauritius, was a much needed experience to understand the diversity that exists there.

Réunion’s history dates back to 17th century — the earliest settlers were French colonists who called it Bourbon, after the royal family of France. African and Malagasy slaves were brought to work; and, later, Chinese and Indians (locally called Malabar) were brought in.

Réunion was named differently across two centuries — Bourbon by the French, Dina Morgabine by the Arabs and Bonaparte Island. In 1848, it was finally called Réunion and a century later, in 1946, it was declared as an overseas department of France.

As if to give a gentle nod to Réunion’s kaleidoscopic culture, my first encounter happened to be with a Tamil Brahmin in the Mahakali Temple of Saint-Pierre. Balaram spoke broken Tamil but fluent French. He was dressed in a red wrap (or lungi) and a shawl. He traced his lineage to Tamil Nadu though they had moved to Réunion 50 years ago. The shrine had an idol of Goddess Bhadrakali in the centre, flanked by Ganesha, Narayana and Hanuman. “The biggest festivals here are Mahakali Maha Utsav, Navratri with Agni Pravesam and Dipavali,” said the priest.

Then, as I wandered around Saint-Pierre’s promenade looking for unique features of Réunion, I came across Abdel Kader’s samoussa snack bar. Not too different from the Indian samosas, Réunion’s samoussas are smaller in size and come in a variety of stuffings: I quickly went on to sample cheese, crab, tuna and chicken samoussas.

The region’s mulitcultural origins can really be seen converging in the cuisine. I realised this when I met Jacky, a renowned chef of Réunion. An outdoor picnic at Trou d’eau, by La Saline les Bains on the eastern coast began with an alcoholic punch. Vegetable and chicken stuffed samoussas soon followed, and, as we were finishing up a salad, the chef arranged five pans of varying sizes for the main course. The chef said with a smile, “80 per cent of Creole food is inspired by India.”

There were more examples: yellow rice, zambrocal, is a mix of beans, potato and turmeric, which is as widely used as “massale”. Not very different from the Indian masala, it is a blend of cumin, fenugreek, coriander and mustard. The rice was spiced up by rougail, a thick sauce made of onion, garlic, chilli and tomatoes. Usually cooked with pork sausages, our breezy picnic had chicken sausages. The fiery red curry was flavoursome without overpowering taste of chilli.

Our long lunch ended with a sweet potato pie, which I devoured, as I finished my French Bordeaux wine. I walked towards the sun-kissed ocean once Jacky left. The ocean glistened under the sun even as people lay afloat on kayaks and surfboards. As I admired this beautiful landscape, I could guess how Réunion’s diversity was not limited to its food and people. Its geography is an equal contributor.

From the sandy beaches of the West Coast to contrasting grove of Japanese cedars in the mountain town of Cilaos, the confluence of cultures here is displayed with pride. While driving to Réunion’s volcano, the Piton de la Fournaise, we drove up an incline crossing dense clusters of fog and spells of rain, as the sun kept peeping from behind the clouds.

Just before reaching the site of the active volcano, the long and straight roads ahead were suddenly flanked by red sandy plains and rocky formations. The crater rim, too, made a fleeting appearance through the white clouds.

Later that day, we followed the lava flow towards Grand Brûlé. Also called Lava Road, this is where I saw static, dark grey wrinkles from the 2001 and 2007 eruptions.

I sprinted from one lava cast to the other, looking at the textures on them, which evidently gave their age away. Lava from 2001’s flow was defined, solid and nurtured short plants. But the lava from 2007 was a black rubbled cast. Still, the most stunning aspect of the trip wasn’t this.

In all the time I spent on the island meeting people of different races — African, South Indian and French, and taking in the banter in French between them — I realised how Réunion has humbly welcomed and embraced its diversity.

Amrita Das is a blogger and freelance travel writer.

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