In the Indian Ocean, there is a small island, between Madagascar and Mauritius. Part of the Mascarenhas archipelago, this island reunites almost every civilization of the world. Once a colony, now a French department, Reunion Island is one of a kind.
Its history tells us that, born from a volcanic eruption, the island was first discovered in the 12th century by Arabs, who named it “Dina Morgabin”. In 1642, the island was renamed “Ile Bourbon”. It was a tribute to King Louis XIII, a member of the Bourbon dynasty. When the French Revolutions happened, the island gained its name of Reunion Island (Ile de la Réunion), to remember the reunion of rebels from Paris and Marseille. Another great event of Reunion history is the abolition of slavery. The settlers refused the first abolition in 1794, until 20th December 1848. Today, this date is celebrated every year, during the 20 Désamb’ festival.
Throughout its history, Reunion Island is what I call “the island where immigration worked”. The island community is united around its culture, no matter what their individual differences are. As long as I lived here, I was always welcomed to traditional celebrations, like the Chinese New Year, the Indian Dipavali or the Holy Friday. The greatest heritage can be found through food. With Chinese, Muslim, Indian and European migration, but also with the heritage of the slave community (Creoles), the Reunion gastronomy allows a round-the-world trip while staying on a 2 500 square kilometers island. The island gastronomy is above all creole. The different waves of immigration in the island’s history contributed to the development of the Creole culture.
We are starting with something big (and extremely popular on the island): samoussas ! Samoussas are little triangle-shaped beignets made of brik pastry sheet and can be filled with various stuffing like vegetables, meat, fish or cheese. And most of the time, samoussas are not samoussas without spices. So the stuffing always contains spices (mainly cilantro and turmeric) and samoussas can be eaten with spicy sauces (like the famous rougails (an emblematic sauce from the island) or even Sriracha hot sauce).
This little beignet comes from Central Asia and the Middle East and may date from the 13th century. When workers from India arrived on the island in the 19th century, the samoussa became extremely popular on the island. The cheese samoussa is a local creation; it popularized this dish even more, especially with the youngest customers, who learn to love the various tastes of samoussas while growing up.
Funny fact: This beignet exists in many civilizations of the Middle East and of the Indian Ocean. Therefore, it has various names, forms and preparation techniques. On Reunion Island, it is called a “samoussa”, but on Madagascar, it is called “samboss”. And believe my experience, the name of this beignet could be a fighting motive between an inhabitant of Reunion and a Madagascan.
A « bouchon » can be translated as a “Chinese meat bite”. Made of pastry filled with pork or chicken meat, the bouchon is as popular as the samoussa on Reunion Island. It was imported from the Guangzhou region of China (the Chinese sibling of the “bouchon” is the shaomai). Served warm with toothpicks, bouchons are usually eaten as an appetizer with soy sauce or even Sriracha. Sometimes, the “bouchon” can be flavored with Kaffir lime. It gives the “bouchon” a special, yet delicious taste.
« Chilli candy » would be the translation for this appetizer. But you will realize that the dishes of Reunion Island have strange names which can be the opposite of their composition. So, the “bonbon piment” is not a candy made of chilli, it’s a small salty and spicy pastry, coming from Pakistan. Made of minced lentils or Lima beans, this dough is flavored with chili, cilantro, chives, cumin, turmeric and ginger. Then, the dough is divided into several little balls, which will be fried. In fact, the “bonbon piment” is the Reunion’s version of the falafel. It can be dry sometimes, so make sure to drink something beside it, like the local “Dodo lé la” beer.
Yeah, I realized that many of the Reunion dishes don’t have a translated name in English. The “sarcive » can be translated as « dried pork meat covered with honey”. This little delicacy is really appreciated on the island, most of the time eaten as an aperitive. But sometimes, you can find it served like a kebab in some restaurants. I would not recommend eating it like this, because its sweet taste can quickly be cloying.
The Palm Heart Salad
The palm heart salad is a special dish from the island. It is very popular, considered and a fine dish. Actually, this salad is extremely easy to prepare. All you need is around 1.5 kg of palm heart, oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. You must remove the palm’s pods to reach its softest and eatable heart. Then, this part has to be plunged in iced water and lemon juice. It will maintain the palm heart’s white color. After that, the palm heart is grated, mixed with lime, salt and pepper and ready to eat. It is extremely refreshing, ideal for hot summers and picnics on one of the island’s beaches.
Carries are the most popular main dish in Reunion’s culture. It comes from the Tamil curry, pronounced “kari” in the Tamil language. And the fact is that one of the ethnic groups of the island is Tamil. The carry is therefore a strong symbol of Reunion’s identity.
This dish is composed of cooked meat with various spices like turmeric (also called “safran péi” (the saffron from the Island)). To these are added onions, garlic, Reunion’s thyme, ginger, salt, pepper, palm heart (sometimes with pork and chicken), “bringelle” (eggplant) and the jackfruit.
What’s amazing about carry is that you can choose any meat you want. The most popular meats used in the composition of carries are chicken, pork and smoked meat (this carry is called “Ti’ Jacques Boucané”, cooked with jackfruit). If you prefer fish, there are delicious carries made with lobster or octopus (called “Carry Zourite’, my fav). And for the more audacious, you can try the carry made with “bichiques” (fish larvas, the island’s favorite on Christmas time), wasps larvas or even with a small local hedgehog called “tangue”.
Like many dishes in Reunion’s gastronomy, carry is served with rice, “grains” (kidney beans, lentils, or Lima beans) and the local “rougail”. This sauce can be made with tomato, local chilies, green mango, onions, peanut butter mixed with tomato and “achards” (pickled vegetables).
With the great wave of immigration, various dishes of the island’s gastronomy come from China. In the world, there are various versions of the Peking Duck, and Reunion Island has its own. It is cooked with water, local sauces, sugar, star anise, rum, black vinegar and Chinese sauces, available everywhere on the Island. Indeed, the Chinese immigration was strong. Nowadays, various shops are referred to as “Chinese stores”, where you can find everything you need (when I was 6, I remember my favorite snacks came from these shops).
Sauté Mines (Chinese Noodles) and Shop Suey
This dish is always a success! On the island, the Chinese noodles are called “mines”. Why? Good question, still unsolved today. And the « sauté mines » refers to Chinese noodles cooked in a wok with vegetables, meat, shrimps, eggs and soy sauce.
Another dish coming from Chinese tradition and very popular on the island is the “Shop Suey”. Like the “sauté mines”, it is a sauté dish with tofu, vegetables and meat (most of the time pork or chicken), served with rice. And if it’s so much appreciated on the island, it’s because it is delicious and very affordable.
The « Pain Gratiné » can be translated as an “au gratin bread”. Me, I call it the “Reunion’s kebab”. It’s a piece of baguette, emptied of its crumb and filled with bouchons. Then it is brightened up with sauces like ketchup or mayonnaise (sometimes both) and grated cheese. And if you ask for it, you can get French fries on top of your sandwich. Then, this “pain gratiné” is considered “American”.
These sandwiches are sold in Chinese shops but also in food trucks, all around the island. Rumors say that the best “pain gratiné” on the island can be found in the city of St-Paul. You know what you must do when you travel to Reunion Island.
Even though it is a “rougail”, this dish is not a sauce. It’s the most appreciated dish on the island, coming straight from India. It is creole sausages cooked with onions, chilies and fresh tomato. Most of the time, the sausages are smoked, giving them a special taste, made in Reunion. Traditionally, the “rougail saucisses” is served with “zembrocal” (a mix of rice and kidney beans, or rice and baked potatoes). But it can also be served with lentils or Lima beans.
This was my childhood dish when we went to the beach with my family. The fried chicken of Reunion Island is locally called “poulet goudron” (tar chicken). Well, this name is not appetizing at all. This chicken is served by the roadside, cooked in a half iron container. And if it’s called “tar chicken”, it’s because the chicken is cooked in so much grease that its color turns brown-yellow. The grease, which burned has the texture of tar. But don’t worry, only its smell will prove to you this chicken is delicious !
This little delicacy is the “pain au chocolat” of Reunion Island. Looking like a brioche, it is a sweet bun, popular in the Mascarenhas Archipelago. It is very compacted and nourishing, the perfect breakfast before a hike in the center of the island. It is supposed that the macatia was the bread of slaves. Therefore, it has a strong cultural impact and is one of the symbols of the Reunion’s identity. Most of the time, the macatia is plain, but it can be filled with chocolate chips or jam.
A gem of gastronomy! The creole pâté is a sort of pie made of flour, sugar, butter, eggs and turmeric. Most of the time, it is consumed sweet, filled with Cattley bay jam, on New Year’s Eve. The turmeric gives the pâté créole a salty taste. Even if you’re not crazy about the sweet and savory, you can easily dig into it! But be careful: one of the main ingredients of the pâté créole is lard. Therefore, it is very fatty.
The Cattley Bay and the Lychee
The Cattley bay is an imported plant from the Island. Coming from South America, the Cattley bay is much appreciated on Reunion Island. So much that its picking became an institution. Every year in April, families and friends gather together for a picnic, and go pick some of these bays for dessert. Even some orchards open their gates to families for picking. If you are a good picker, you can easily bring 2 kilos of Cattley bays back home. You may eat 500 grams, but then, what can you do with the rest? Of course, you can still eat them, but there are also great ways to transform them into desserts. Most of the time, they are consumed as juices or ice creams.
The lychee is nothing less than the national fruit (of Reunion Island)! Covered by a red pod, the lychee fruit is very juicy and tasty. When the pod is brown, it’s a sign that the fruit is not mature enough to be consumed. When it is pink or even red, it’s time to break the pod and eat it. Just be careful with the pit: if you’re unlucky, you can get a lychee with more pit than fruit. Try to eat the fruit slowly and don’t aggressively bite it.
This is the sweet potato cake from Reunion Island, Mauritius and also from the West Indies. In general, this cake is eaten as a dessert but is also very powerful as an appetite suppressant. It is composed of sweet potatoes, butter, eggs, vanilla and sometimes, rum. It has a very sweet taste and can be eaten on any occasion.
This is the sweet cousin of the “bonbon piment” and this time, its name fits, as it is probably the sweetest delicacy in Reunion’s gastronomy. The “bonbon miel” is the Reunion’s donut, filled with honey and fried. As I tried it once in my life, the « bonbon miel” is close to the Jalebi, a sweet pastry from India. Once fried, the “bonbon miel” is nothing more than fried honey. When you take your first bite, you can feel the honey melting in your mouth.
In France, you have a cake that 99.99% of the children love: the pound cake (called “quatre-quarts” in French). It’s buttery, it’s sweet and meltingly soft…A delight! The cake Ti’Son is very similar to the pound cake. But instead of using wheat flour, the cake is made with corn flour, called” Ti’Son. This cake is ideal as a snack, but also for breakfast. And if you want to, you can customize this cake with papaya, which will break the sugary taste of the cake with some sour. Worth the try.
Dodo lé la
The Dodo, as we call it on the island, is the local beer. And it is strictly forbidden to leave the island without trying it. The brand of this beer shows a Dodo, a bird of the 17th century, which disappeared one century after it was discovered.
The rhum arrangé (infused rum) is sacred on Reunion Island. It was invented by sailors who filled bottles of rum with spices and fruits to conserve the alcohol.
It is drunk as a digestive as it is only composed of rum and macerated fruits (unlike the punch, no sugar is added). To get a proper rhum arrangé, its maturation must last at least one month (six months is ideal). The most classic recipes for rhum arrangé are made with spices, ginger, vanilla, lychee or cinnamon. The fruits must be mature before maceration. And if you want, you can cover them with sugar. It will accentuate the fruits’ flavors.
« COT » is the nickname for “Chan-Ou-Teung”, the lemonade of the island. The most famous taste of COT is lemon, but there are various other tastes, including turmeric, lychee, cattley bay or even tamarind.
Reunion Island Food as a Cultural Connection
You must be thinking “We had an article on Turkish food two weeks ago, now we have another one with the gastronomy of an island we have never heard of”. I know it looks weird but I heard that even in France, very few people knew of Reunion Island’s existence (there are even some (stupid) scientists who pretend it doesn’t exist). But I wanted to make you discover a part of the culture of the island where I grew up for 15 years.
Living in France, the times are hard and since the 5 years I have been here for my studies, I saw the scary uprising of obscurantism. And in a country with such a pride as France, a split happened between the population and the government. It is almost unbelievable that, in one of its departments, a certain peace between populations is still very strong. Of course, there can be some hard moments like everywhere, but the atmosphere remains.
But where something seems temporary in society, it remains timeless in the culinary tradition. I’ll never say it enough, but food, when you travel, is a cultural aspect of the country you can’t neglect. It’s a proof of the essence of the island, holding traditions and sometimes, retelling the story of the island, and what makes this little piece of earth so unique in this wide world.