On the far side of the Indian Ocean, a stay at a legendary Mauritian resort — the recently rebranded Shangri-La’s Le Touessrok — sets the pace for an exploration of the island nation’s rich, multicultural cuisine.
“I dedicate this book for Christopher, the fruit of my work and secret of my strength!” reads the freshly inked inscription in my complimentary copy of Jacqueline Dalais’s latest Mauritian recipe book, Tasty Delights. She doesn’t, of course, mean that I’m the fruit of her work, let alone the secret of anyone’s strength; we only just met 30 minutes ago. But it’s a delightful sentiment nonetheless. For Madame Dalais is a legend in these parts—I’ve heard her called “the grand lady” of Franco-Mauritian cooking and the “queen of Mauritius cuisine.” And her restaurant in the posh highland suburb of Floréal, La Clef des Champs, is arguably the most respected dining establishment in the country, a haunt of government bigwigs and visiting dignitaries.
I’m there now, talking to Dalais about her 40-year career and the remarkable mosaic that is Mauritian cuisine, which has been shaped by European, African, Indian, and Chinese settlers over the past 400 years. Unfortunately, I’m not eating. Though Dalais has been gracious enough to make time for an interview, her restaurant is closed during what she calls her “busy week,” when her entire staff is busy catering for a special session of the national assembly in Port Louis, a 20-minute drive to the north.
Just my luck—I wasn’t able to secure a reservation at La Clef des Champs on my last trip to Mauritius, either. I am, however, fortunate to be staying at Shangri-La’s Le Touessrok Resort & Spa on the island’s lagoon-fringed east coast, which just happens to offer the next best thing. The original Le Touessrok opened in 1978, back when the Republic of Mauritius, formerly a British crown colony, was only a decade old. Chic-ified and expanded as part of South African hotel impresario Sol Kerzner’s fledgling One&Only collection in 2002, then on its own again after that deal ended half a decade later, the low-slung Mediterranean-style hotel became part of the Shangri-La fold two years ago following a six-month, US$28 million renovation.
But long before all that, the original core of the 14-hectare property—an islet now known as Frangipani, connected to the mainland by a couple of wooden footbridges —was owned by Dalais’s Brittany-born grandfather, who built a guesthouse on it for entertaining friends and visitors. Dalais grew up there after her parents took over in 1940, learning to cook old family recipes in her mother’s kitchen. (“When I turned 15 and came of age, I tell my parents I don’t want a chevalière [signet ring], but an electric beater to make cakes,” she recalls in the warm French accent of the island’s Francophone community). In 1967, Dalais and her husband Cyril acquired the family estate and opened a 14-room inn of their own. This they ran for eight years until Cyril was diagnosed with cancer, which forced them to sell Touessrok in order to pay for his treatments overseas. Alas, he passed away, leaving Jacqueline to raise their four children—and embark on a career as a restaurateur—on her own. The rest, as they say, is histoire.
To mark its connection with her as well as the hotel’s upcoming 40th anniversary, the Shangri-La now offers a weekly Dalais dinner menu at its boho-chic Republik Beach Club, just steps from the azure waters of the lagoon. Created in collaboration with the chef and her team, it’s a five-course celebration of “revival” dishes that Dalais began serving guests in the 1970s—Brigitte Bardot and Belgian crooner Jacques Brel among them. Of course, I book myself a table.
First comes a sea urchin cappuccino with cassava fingers, a handsomely plated Dalais signature that’s still on the menu at La Clef des Champs. Then there’s lobster tail in red sauce served on braised palm hearts, based on a recipe handed down from her mother. (“The secret to my red sauce,” she tells me later, “is Lea & Perrins and Noilly Prat vermouth.” You can read this in her cookbook too, so I’m not giving anything away.) This is followed by a buttery piece of lime-marinated dolphinfish steamed in banana leaf with a moss-green spice paste of coriander, lemongrass, and ginger; then slow-roast venison accompanied by mashed taro root; and, to finish, something called Banana and Coconut Delight—the main delight being a dash of rum. Not bad for the first Mauritian meal of my trip. But soon enough, I’m hungry for more.
Mauritius, known to Arab traders as Dina Arobi (“Abandoned Island”) perhaps as early as a millennium ago, remained uninhabited until 1638, when the Dutch established a small colony here. It proved a troublesome venture, and the settlement was eventually abandoned in 1710. But the Dutch did manage to do at least four things that would change the island forever: they brought in sugarcane from Java, the future mainstay of the economy; they began the sad business of importing slaves from East Africa and Madagascar, 800 kilometers to the west; they gave the island a new name, in honor of Prince Maurits van Nassau; and, short on game meat—the only sizable land animals at the time were flightless dodo birds and two species of giant tortoise, all of which were soon extinct—they introduced hare, wild boar, and Javanese rusa deer, now highlights of the island’s abundant local larder.
The French colonizers that followed contributed their own gastronomic flair, including gratins, roulades, bouillons, fricassees, and a passion for baguettes and charcuterie. Then came the British, who ruled the island from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until independence in 1968. Despite their long tenure here, the British left little imprint on local cooking—lovers of bangers and mash or Yorkshire pudding, look elsewhere for your pleasures. But they did establish tea on the island and, more to the point, they abolished slavery, which planters replaced with indentured Indian labor, largely from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Indo-Mauritians, most of whom are Hindu, now comprise the majority of the population, though almost everyone speaks the local Franco-Creole dialect. They dominate civic life, and their influence on local gastronomy has been no less profound, infusing Creole dishes with subcontinental herbs and spices and adapting their own ancestral recipes to native ingredients. Forget fish and chips: fast-food here means griddle-cooked dholl puri flatbread or crispy split-pea “chili cakes” called gâteaux piments, while some of the island’s best-known recipes, like vindaye du poisson, a tangy fish dish derived from the vindaloos of
Portuguese Goa, have their own Indian DNA.
Add to that Muslim biryanis, African starches, and the cookery of the island’s small but influential Chinese community, and you have one of the world’s most multicultural cuisines. Which might come as a surprise to most visitors, who—and one can hardly blame them—spend much of their time lazing about the island’s many resorts, where the food generally revolves around European or Asian fine dining and themed buffets.
Shangri-La’s Le Touessrok does better than most. Apart from the gourmet Franco-Mauritian fare delivered—albeit only once a week—by the Dalais menu, I enjoy a broad sampling of local seafood during a “Diamond Night” beach barbecue at Republik (the surrounding waters of Trou d’Eau Douce Bay are said to be particularly bountiful, with oyster banks, lobster colonies, and fish-breeding grounds). Another day brings a lunchtime excursion to the hotel’s private-island beach club on Îlot Mangénie, a short speedboat ride across the lagoon, where I stuff myself on masala gros pois (a lima bean curry), crisp-skinned slices of spit-roasted pig, and tomato-based Creole rougaille stews. I even manage to work in a cooking class with the resort’s soft-spoken Indian chef, Ramesh Bundi, who shows me how to make octopus curry from scratch, with many ingredients plucked fresh from the resort’s kitchen garden. (I’ll never be able to re-create the recipe, but it sure was delicious). Yet the signature dining experiences here cater to foreign tastes: Kushi, a brand-new Japanese restaurant where supremely fresh sushi is presented on red-lacquered “boats” shaped like the traditional Mauritian fishing pirogue; and chef Bundi’s open-air Safran, with its copper-clad tandoori oven and menu of updated Indian classics like ghee-roasted chicken and yogurt-marinated lamb leg. Both restaurants are excellent. Neither one, however, does much to satisfy my cravings for local flavors.
For that, I’ll need to venture beyond the resort, which is both easy (fixed-rate taxis are readily available, and the roads of Mauritius are never too crowded) and difficult, in the sense that it’s hard to pull myself away from the Shangri-La’s bubble of laid-back luxury. Did I mention that my room—a thatch-topped and marble-floored suite outfitted with smart mango-wood furnishings, hand-dyed fabrics, coral-like wall art, and a fabulous freestanding bathtub—is just a few paces from the gently lapping waters of the lagoon? Or the lush, mesmeric gardens of frangipani and hibiscus and coconut trees, complete with a date palm hung with weaver birds’ nests like so many Christmas tree baubles? There’s also the newly refitted Chi spa, where treatments incorporate such local touches as sugarcane and séga music; and a tempting selection of tiki cocktails and island-made rums at the poolside Sega Bar, which employs its own rum sommelier. For more active pursuits, guests can try water-skiing, kayaking through the mangroves, or, on the resort’s other island playground, Île aux Cerfs, play a full round of golf on a Bernhard Langer–designed course.
But chef Jean-François Ladine, who oversees the Dalais menu at Republik, is quick to recommend a handful of Mauritian restaurants around the island, and soon after I’m racing through the cane field–swathed hills of central Mauritius in a cab. Our first stop is the harbor-side capital of Port Louis, whose hurly-burly Central Market is an obligatory stop on any food-wise itinerary. Built in the early Victorian era and restored 16 years or so ago, it’s a showcase of Mauritian bounty, from seafood of every description to a remarkable fruit and vegetable section overflowing with gourds, beans, herbs, tubers, roots, and leafy greens. And the adjacent food hall is as good a place as any to snack on street-food favorites like dholl puri stuffed with lentil curry (which cost a mere 12 rupees a pop) to alouda, a cloyingly sweet milk drink flavored with vanilla, basil seeds, and agar.
From there, we head down the coast to Le Chamarel, set high on a hillside with sweeping views that stretch from Tamarin Bay to Le Morne Brabant, an iconic basalt summit that once served as a refuge for escaped slaves. Modeled after a Creole house with a terrace thatched in sugarcane leaf, the restaurant dishes up what my waiter calls “terroir fusion,” with a focus on local produce and game. Deer hunted in the reserve below appear in a lusty venison curry presented to the table in a cute little cast-iron pot; roasted wild boar is served atop creamed cauliflower; and a salad of palm heart, avocado mousse, sun-dried tomatoes, and grated feta comes dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette. The restaurant’s trump card may be its views, but the food isn’t far behind.
The bucolic Chamarel area is also home to two of Mauritius’s top natural attractions: a geological curiosity called the Seven Colored Earths; and a viewpoint over the wild, wooded hills of Black River Gorges National Park, which even on a drizzly afternoon is a sight to behold. But before I leave Le Chamarel, the waiter implores me to try the coffee. It’s from a nearby plantation, harvested from plants originally brought to the island by the French in the 18th century, he says. Who am I to resist a pitch like that?
Lunch the next day takes me to one of the grandest of the island’s surviving plantation houses, Château de Labourdonnais. Surrounded by fruit orchards and banyan-shaded gardens outside the northern village of Mapou, the colonnaded, two-story colonial mansion dates to the 1850s and is today preserved as a museum, with rooms filled with original period furnishings in French and British styles. It’s well worth a visit to see how the Franco-Mauritian sugar barons once lived. There’s also a gallery space upstairs where you can pick up pieces by local artists, and the ticket price includes a visit to Labourdonnais’s tasting bar for a sampling of rums from the estate’s own distillery. (Go for the cinnamon-infused Spiced Gold—it’s as smooth as can be.)
The restaurant here, La Table du Château, is another highlight. Sharing space with the tasting bar and a gift shop in a discreet wood-and-glass bungalow across the lawn from the mansion, it is helmed by Fabio de Poli, an Italian chef who’s been cooking in Mauritius for more than a decade. Something of a disciple of Dalais (he calls her “my mother”), de Poli has made it his mission to help popularize Mauritian fine dining. Mission accomplished, I think, as I tuck into a chicken-and-prawn curry and luscious cumin-flecked pork sausages in a garlicky rougaille sauce.
The last dinner of my trip unfolds amid humbler surrounds. Chez Tino is a family-run affair in Trou d’Eau Douce, just up the road from the Shangri-La. It’s apparently been around since the 1980s and sports a vaguely nautical theme that extends to boat paintings, fishing nets, stuffed puffer fish, and an old-timey teakwood canopy bar. It won’t win any prizes for its looks, but its home-cooked Creole food is widely recommended, even by Dalais herself. I take a seat on the terrace and order: crab salad with palm heart; fish-and-eggplant daube; and ourite safrané—morsels of “saffroned octopus” that you eat with toothpicks. Chez Tino’s food doesn’t disappoint, and nor does the view, which looks back across the bay to the twilit beachfront at Le Touessrok. It’s as pleasant a sight as any on this beguiling tropical isle.
The country’s flag carrier, Air Mauritius, flies four times a week from Singapore and twice weekly from Hong Kong.
Where to Stay
Shangri-La’s Le Touessrok Resort & Spa; Trou d’Eau Douce; 230/402-7400; doubles from US$340.
Where to Eat
Trou d’Eau Douce; 230/ 480-2769.
La Clef des Champs
La Table du Château
Domaine de Labour-donnais, Mapou; 230/266-7172
Le Chamarel Restaurant
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Mauritian Magic”).