Diverse and indigenous cuisine brought by the many ethnic people to St. Maarten from all over the world piques our interest. To this end, we are on a quest to find where it comes from, if it is used for celebrations, if it is exotic to some but normal food to others. Anything to do with keeping the body and soul nourished with what is produced from good old terra firma is what makes the world go around.
Réunion is an island like St. Martin, but it lies in the Indian Ocean. It is a smallish round-shaped island lying east of Madagascar and southwest of Mauritius. There are a few similarities between the two islands, and one is that they are both an overseas department and region of France; however, the whole of Réunion is French.
During the Second World War, Réunion was under the authority of the Vichy regime until November 1942. The island became an overseas department of France in 1946. The official language is French, but the islanders speak Réunion Creole – very few people speak English. The Creole spoken on Réunion Island is a mixture of French, Malagasy and the African languages; it is not at all like the Creole of the West Indies.
Réunion has been inhabited since the 16th century. People from France and Madagascar started settling on that island about the same time people were settling on St. Martin. Slavery was abolished in December 1848 (there is an annual celebration) when the French Second Republic abolished slavery in the French colonies. Indentured workers were taken to Réunion from South India, as well as from other countries.
The arrival of the Portuguese in the early 16th century brought about the first real knowledge of the island although Arab traders were familiar with it by another name. History research seems to suggest that Swahili Africans had made their way to this island as well as Austronesian (from ancient Indonesian – Malaysian) sailors, who sailed to the west from the Malay Archipelago, also left their mark.
The first Portuguese discovery of the island took place around 1507. Réunion was dubbed Santa Apolónia after a favourite saint, but they only apparently made actual landfall in 1509.
By the early 1600s, France took over from the Portuguese, but it was only formally part of France in 1642 when a dozen French mutineers from Madagascar were deported to the island. (Those convicts were sent back to France several years later.) The island was named Île Bourbon after the French royal House of Bourbon in 1649, and colonization began in 1665. The first settlers were sent in by the French East India Company.
“Île de la Réunion” was the name given to the island in 1793 by a decree of the Convention Nationale (the elected revolutionary constituent assembly) with the fall of the House of Bourbon in France. The name commemorates the union of revolutionaries from Marseille with the National Guard in Paris, which took place on August 10, 1792. ~Wikipedia
The island then went through a few more name changes: “Île Bonaparte” in 1801, after First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1810, a Royal Navy squadron invaded the island and it was then renamed “Bourbon” again. The island was restored to France in 1815, but the name “Bourbon” was kept until 1848 during the French Revolution when it once again was given the name “Île de la Réunion”.
French colonization – 17th to 19th centuries – saw Africans, Chinese and Indians sent to the island as workers. This, of course, contributed to ethnic diversity in the population. Many slaves became indentured workers too, after the abolition of slavery.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 reduced the importance of the island as a stopover on the East Indies trade route. Human leaders, being humans of course, did some despicable things with the islanders. In more recent times (in the late 20th century, 1963-1982) 1,630 children from Réunion were relocated to rural areas of metropolitan France. These children were settled mainly in the region of Creuse. Sent there apparently for work and education opportunities, many of these children were abused or disadvantaged by the families with whom they were placed. Lawsuits have come to light on these cases, but have been dismissed by the high courts.
Réunion has suffered badly by an epidemic of chikungunya (255,000 people contracted the disease between 2005 and 2006). The neighbouring islands, Mauritius and Madagascar, also suffered the epidemic.
The French government of Dominique de Villepin sent an emergency aid package worth €36 million and deployed about 500 troops in an effort to eradicate mosquitoes on the island. ~Wikipedia
Island life, similar to island life everywhere, centres on feeding from the land and the sea. (St. Martin/St. Maarten is having an upsurge at the moment regarding farming, and with luck will one day produce food like other islands do. The one main problem is that there are no rivers on St. Martin/St. Maarten!) It is a good thing, though, to see just what these other islands produce on the farms.
Space is limited on the island of Réunion, and farms are therefore quite small; the farming is intensive and diversified and assisted by subsidies from France. The farmers supply nearly half the island’s meat needs; this meat includes “Boer Goats”. Most individual farms are on plots smaller than 20ha subdivided into even smaller parcels. The Boer Goat meat is very popular on the island, particularly with the Tamil community.
The island also has an active volcano, which, along with a good rainfall, helps the right conditions for farming fruit and vegies and raising livestock. The farmers receive substantial government subsidies from France; without this help, farming would not work.
What is great is that the farmers have to adhere to the EU’s strict rules on the use of agricultural chemicals and other substances. A healthy island to live on, by all accounts – there are good sized piggeries, poultry farms and French beef and dairy cattle. The livestock also have to be vaccinated against diseases with EU recommend and approved vaccines.
All the races and nationalities contribute to the cuisine of this lovely French island. The regional specialty is “cari” – a Creole curry. Almost all dishes are served with a fiery “rougail” sauce as an accompaniment. Favourite special dishes are cari bichique, cari tangue (meat from an animal similar to a hedgehog) and wasp larvae. It goes without saying that “chili” is used to spice up every dish.
Cari bichique – The tiny fish used in this recipe are called Banga in Jamaica. Called “Réunion caviar”, these fish are caught by nets in the river-mouth and are only about one centimetre long.
1 kg bichiques
5 small onions, thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch fresh ginger, grated
Thyme, 2 sprigs
Turmeric, good pinch
Grated rind of the Kaffir lime (called combava in Réunion)
1½ green bird peppers, finely sliced (deseeded to taste)
Half of green mango, grated
Brown chopped onion in oil.
Add garlic, ginger, thyme, turmeric, chopped tomatoes, grated kaffir lime and chili.
Cook 10 minutes over low heat.
Gently rinse the small fry in a colander without crushing them.
Add the fish, cook for 15 minutes, stirring gently from time to time (the dish will be quite dry).
Stir in the green mango, cover and set aside for 10 mins before serving.
Serve with white basmati rice and rougail.
(Rougail recipe published last week. Ring the changes and use fresh skinned and chopped tomatoes.)
Rougail Saucisse – This is possibly one of the most traditional dishes in Réunion.
6 smoked sausages (or 4 smoked sausages of the Montbéliard type)
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp ground ginger
1 tsp masala
1 whole bird pepper
Prick sausages and cook them in boiling water for 10 minutes.
Remove and reserve sausages, discard water.
Heat olive oil.
Add chopped onions, crushed garlic and brown slightly.
Cut sausages into 1-2 cm pieces, add to onions.
Fry about 5 minutes.
Add chopped tomatoes, turmeric, masala, ginger and pepper.
Simmer over low heat with lid set askew.
Garnish with thyme leaves of chopped spring onion tops.
Serve with rice, chutney and sambal.