By Dr Neerunjun Gopee
The year was 1968, in the month of May. I had come back home on unplanned holiday – a very rare occurrence in those days, money being very scarce. I had already spent nearly three years eating hostel food, and as happens till today, the first concern of parents and relatives is to feed the returnee student with homemade goodies.
It is in this spirit that my chachi asked me to tell her what I would best like to eat – anything – and she would prepare that for me. Imagine her astonishment when I replied bouillon brède and bringelle-pomme de terre touffé! I had thought, she exclaimed, that you would ask me to make ene bon carri cerf!
Almost half a century later, the situation repeats: the son of a niece who flew down last week from Europe (after only one year of absence) made a similar request for bouillon brède and pomme de terre. Perhaps by the time he leaves, the bringelle or equivalent will also come to occupy a place in his choices.
It is everybody’s experience that when we were growing up, we abhorred certain vegetables, starting with brinjal and extending to patole, pipengaille, engive, calebasse, margoze and lalo essentially. We tolerated a few of the others, biting our lips and swallowing them. There’s nothing like a passage in a student hostel to sober one down to the realities of living, and to the delight of many a parent the dramatic change in food preference that takes place without the need for any more coaxing is a boon – because at this stage of their ‘emancipation’ they cannot be forced! So is it assumed about these budding adults, an untested hypothesis nevertheless.
These were some of my thoughts as I took a stroll in downtown Port Louis a couple of times this week, at lunchtime, soaking in the atmosphere and adding to my knowledge of our folklore. Here was this old lady exposing her bundles of spinach, and pieces of jackfruit peeled and packed in small plastic bags. She stood by the side of the line of fruit vendors, and on display by the latter were a variety of local stuff: plenty of mandarines, passion fruit, attes including a new red type whose succulence and sweetness were vaunted to me (have not tried it yet though), solo papayas, avocados, pamplemousses and of course bananas. These were sold side by side with imported fruits such as grapefruit, orange, apple, grapes, plums.
As I walked further down in the direction of the market, someone was selling the common bright red fraises at Rs10 a bag, the standard price. This sent me further into memory lane, when we used to pick them off the shrubs that grew wild, and would eat them then and there to our fill. No need to wash or anything of the sort, just pluck mouthfuls and gobble up was what we used to delight in! Nowadays you take them home, wash and then add some white sugar before you eat them, thanks to modernity that does not allow us time to go picking ourselves. Except for the annual rush to Plaines Champagne for goyaves de Chine de France! Oh yes, I did see a vendor with his glass case resting on the rack of his bicycle serving a line of customers, yellow goyaves de Chine it was, of course dispensed with the uniquely Mauritian disel-piman. My mouth waters… age no bar!
Here is a guy sitting in front of a small rectangle of cloth on which are laid ripe fruits cytheres and caramboles. Thought: is it unripe or semi-ripe carambole that we use to make pickle with? I must check that up, and I do. Both can be used depending on individual taste. I decide in favour of semi-ripe but next day as I reach the spot there are no caramboles. I’ll have to go back again, must not miss an opportunity to make carambole pickle. For fruit cythere there is no other than the unripe, green one to make either pickle or kucha, but it is less of a priority compared to carambole because at all haldis there is always the kucha.
At this wiry, dynamic lady’s street stall, you can take your pick of small arouille, sacs of bravate vert, small tomatoes, pickled chillies, manioc, garlic and ginger. She weighs the ware with such alacrity on the small scale that lies in the shallow ditch by the side of the pavement, and in a jiffy the stuff is in a plastic bag and into your hand as she dips her fingers into the small cloth purse tied to her waist and gives you back your change. She does not sit for a minute, moving from left to right, selecting, weighing, wrapping or putting into bags, handling the money. Her companion is more relaxed: she is younger, sits on a low stool, and sells greens. Where are they from?, I wonder. At what time did they get up to prepare themselves and leave the family, carrying their paraphernalia and goods? What time will they return home, prepare the evening meal, feed the family, take their well-deserved rest – do they ever get enough? – before getting up early next day to start all over again… Brave women, bless them. I suddenly remember that my container of ginger-garlic paste is empty…
At the bazaar, the stalls are a feast to the eyes, and the place is a hive abuzz with loud activity. One feels, everyday, as if the whole of Port Louis is there! With 65000 people streaming into the capital daily, the perception may not be erroneous. Now I see pomegrenates, ranging from Rs 20 to Rs 50 apiece. The seeds are blood red and inviting. I walk past, looking at lemons of different sizes, and come to the rows of stalls of vegetables. A literal explosion hits my eyes, gosh so many greens, of all types, from watercress to bokchoy: you name it. Loads of cauliflower, broccoli, capsicums (green, yellow, red), the ‘abhorred’ ones mentioned above, carrots, beetroot, cucumbers – and the list could go on.
My point is that there are so many vegetables and fruits in this country, at all seasons, that if people were to consume more of them, we would not have to deplore the high rates of those dreaded conditions and diseases that everyone knows about: diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, hypertension, cancer, etc.
And there are so many indigenous ways of preparing them tastefully too – all the more reason why we should make a real effort to have more of them rather than the processed foods which we tend to favour. A great responsibility lies on parents to initiate their children from early on into good habits of eating. There is no excuse in our island not too eat properly given the abundance of fresh vegetables and fruits.
Never too late to begin – and continue.
* Published in print edition on 6 July 2012