Food the Leveller…

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Mo ti pique mo la langue!’, proudly told me this lanky 9-year old, who resembled his father Rukesh. As he was introduced to me by the latter at the entrance to their house in Valetta on Tuesday last I noticed that his hands, feet and part of the face were still coloured fuchsia. He had taken part in the Cavadee procession, and preparations had been under way until the early hours of the morning on that day. Nevertheless, he looked quite fresh all the same. These days it seems to me that youths never tire!

I had been invited by Rukesh who works as a driver, and it was with Yogesh – a colleague of his – and the latter’s family that we drove to our dinner appointment with sept carris on Tuesday evening. It was an encore, because already during the day I had feasted on similar fare for lunch at my brother’s place, complete with aplon and sagoo which I can never have enough of – but what to do, have to stop at some stage!

I had felt honoured to be invited. I always make it a point to be present when I receive such invitations, because they are done without any selfish motives and are always accompanied with much respect, esteem and genuine affection. All distinctions of social level melt away as one mixes with the host’s family and friends gathered to share a hot meal in an atmosphere of joyous accomplishment, but peppered with running anecdotes in light vein about the happenings that took place before, during and after the walk till the kovil in the arduous heat of the sun. Another doctor friend was also present, and as the guests kept coming and others left the table to sit down for a while and chit-chat, I came across several new acquaintances belonging to this modest neighbourhood.

Here was a retired school teacher; there was a furniture maker, who lived opposite Rukesh’s house; over there was so-and-so … and so on. Everybody appreciated the tasty meal of plain rice, daal with brinjal, dry masala potatoes, spicy banana, giraumon, curried French beans, rasson and topped up with mango kucha, pickled chilly mix and pickled carambole, ending again with aplon and sagoo this time slightly more liquid but as tasty as the morning’s.

Amidst all this, tending to his guests and serving them, Rukesh found a few minutes to show me around his garden, where he grew a variety of vegetables of daily usage. He also had a fairly extensive bed of flowers, marigold amongst others, and he promised to give me some saplings. I recalled my days as a child walking about, and also working fairly regularly, in our garden which was the pride and doing of my dada. We grew practically all the vegetables we needed, but there were also fruit trees – cherry, different types of guava, peach, bibasse amongst others – as well as medicinal plants.

In those times almost everybody who had garden space would invariably grow patte-poule, la verveine, apana, feuille chandelle, camomille plants which each had its specific use – and were the first resort for common ailments, and only afterwards would a doctor be consulted. A medical home visit then was Rs 5 – but was still outside the reach of quite a few people.

The HSC results had been out on Monday, and I was introduced to a number of kids who had gone to collect theirs. The talk was about how many A’s so-and-so had obtained; one young lady decided she would repeat to improve her grades; another one was planning to pursue finance studies; this young lad sitting next to me was in Form IV at the RCC, his proud father told me, and mo pe suivre li bien he added – and so on it went, as I learnt about these young things whose lives were being transformed by education, another great leveller.

Doing the HSC was taken for granted. It was not like before, when going on to pursue HSC was considered to be an elite thing, and mostly it was the town people who took the exam. How things have changed! And of course that’s definitely for the better: free education has been a true success story of Mauritius, as well as free health, two fundamental pillars of the development of a nation.

It was sheer pleasure to listen to these youngsters discussing their results and future plans with a manifest confidence. With the support of parents and family they were looking ahead with optimism. They were well-behaved, serious, focused and clear-headed. I felt happy to meet and talk with them in their setting, a humble background that kept them rooted to their culture and tradition, and yet totally comfortable with the trappings of modernity (the ubiquitous mobile phone!).

The languages I heard and exchanged conversation in were Bhojpuri, Creole, French. As I have had occasion to remark in the past, plus Mauricien que ça tu meurs! And I am always amused at all these ‘intellectual’ discussions about le mauricianisme whose definition continues to elude those who are trying to capture that will-o’-the-wisp and which those who are living it in their daily lives could not care less about!

Ah! Mauritius, and our veneer of intellectual profundity!

Thank goodness for such occasions as Cavadee and haldi – safran – where food becomes a true leveller. There is not a single Mauritian whom I know who doesn’t look forward to relishing ti puris during a haldi, eating it with the variety of preparations of vegetables not unlike those that are served during Cavadee, although the recipes are slightly different – but as yummy, and finger-lickin’ good! That’s what the KFC advert says about its core product, chicken, and it is true that all Mauritians also now enjoy a varied range of different cuisines.

Unfortunately the later additions to the local scene have been mainly in the form of fast foods that medicine has found are no good for health. The only thing one can commend is that at least there is no barrier now as regards both availability and access to food. This is one democratization that is not at all good from a health perspective, but habits and trends are very difficult to change – and they are flattening the world, albeit negatively in this case.

However, at the other end of the spectrum, there is also a certain snobbery associated with food. I thought of this when I happened to switch on to a programme on Indian TV a few days ago. There was the rotund chef – I have never figured out why they wear that puffed-up hat that makes them look like circus clowns! – demonstrating what appeared to me to be the too elaborate preparation of a salad. The lady presentator was all agog about the ‘international’ aspect of this gastronomic exotica, the bland and amorphous lump of mozzarella included, that would be laid out for palates wishing to be phoren-tickled, at a price of course – but at home, in Gurgaon’s Westin Hotel.

Many a time during our walks in the woods with like-minded friends, very down to earth, we have joked about the pricey special menus that are vaunted about by restaurants and hotels at the approach of the end of the year festive season or other special occasions, St Valentine for example. As one goes up the social scale, the richer – both in price and in calories – one’s food tends to become, with bizarre sounding names of recipes from afar, as the proportion of non-vegetarian items and fatty stuff in the plate rises.

Manze bon zaffaire, especially around the New Year period, has come to mean a lot of meat and stuff of that sort. And it is very common to hear afterwards ayo ine plein are tout sa la, bien bisin ene bon bouillon! And action follows words: a few days into January I was behind an acquaintance at the supermarket, and as he turned and saw me, he gave me a conspiratorial wink as he pointed to the two packets of brede chouchou he was carrying. It was mid-morning, and he was clearly in need of ridding himself of a hangover!

Once I was in India, and my Indian hostess proposed that we go and have pizza at the new Domino outlet that had opened in a posh locality of New Delhi. You’re crazy! I shot at her, I did not come to India to eat pizza damn it! Nor club sandwich or whatever was equivalent to making a social statement. I would gladly settle down to a steaming thali at Sagar’s or a chhole-batura at Embassy’s, the best ever that one can have in the Indian capital. I have read that the recipe for the chhole is a family secret that dates back to the opening of the restaurant in Connaught Place before the second world war, and it has stood the test of time to remain a favourite of those who like me never fail to make sure that I keep my appointment there whenever I am in Delhi.

Bottomline is that every culture has simple, time tested recipes from the home kitchen with Mother’s or Grandma’s touch that its people enjoy and that at the same time bring them together in a spirit of sharing and remembering. We are lucky in Mauritius that the cuisines of so many cultures have blended to result in a Mauritian mix which appeals to all irrespectively. From baguette to bouillon, to biryani, gratin, curry, bok choy and canard laqué – the list is endless of goodies that are both healthy and tasty. We could ask for no better!

* Published in print edition on 10 February 2012

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