Can Mauritian food “bring sunshine” on to the world stage?

By Sean Carey

A few days before last week’s final of the BBC’s amateur cooking competition, Masterchef, I was standing outside Hammersmith underground station in London, talking to a Mauritian Muslim friend. He was convinced that one of the competitors, Shelina Permalloo, born in Southampton of Mauritian Hindu Telugu parentage would win. He reckoned he had spotted how much the two judges, Australian-born restaurateur John Torode and his Cockney co-presenter, greengrocer Gregg Wallace, appreciated her Mauritian-inspired food as well as her personality.

Up until this point, I thought 29-year-old Shelina, a resident of Tooting in south London, had a very good chance of being crowned champion as she had made it through to the final three of more than 20 contestants. But my Mauritian friend convinced me that not only would it be good for Shelina, but it would also be good for the TV series as the former charity worker brought a point of differentiation to the food on display through her creative use of spices. As he pointed out, Wallace kept repeating that Shelina ”brings sunshine to a plate.” Quite an endorsement.

And so it came to pass. Shelina Permalloo was duly crowned UK Masterchef 2012 champion. As the programme was ending, she very gracefully gave a great deal of credit to her widowed mother, claiming that she was really just her mother’s sous chef.” Shelina added:

“I only ate Mauritian food growing up as it gave our family that affinity of being close to the island. Mauritian food is very frugal which is great in these economic climates but at the same time full of flavour, heady with aromatics, nutritional and damn tasty.”

What is Mauritian food? Social and cultural anthropologists who have studied Mauritian society know that at least some segments of the cuisine found on the island are good examples of creolisation, the “intermingling and mixing of two or several formerly discrete traditions or cultures.”

Mauritian food has absorbed influences from the several ethnic groups which make up the Indian Ocean island’s population of 1.3 million – northern Indian (Bihar and Uttar Pradesh), southern Indian (Tamil and Telugu), Gujarati Muslim, Chinese (Cantonese and Hakka speakers originating from the Guangdong region), African Creoles, and Brittany French among others.

Yet, in some respects, food in Mauritius transcends ethnicity.

Fitting into this category are snacks that are typically available at bus stations and beaches including vegetable samosas, dholl puris and gateaux piment. Gateaux piment are deep-fried, marble-sized balls of crushed yellow lentil, spring onions and green chilli. They have a wonderful crunchy texture, and they are eaten by almost everyone.

Fish, meat and vegetable curries and delicately spiced stews will be cooked in more or less the same way by people from different ethnic groups in Mauritius. These are the types of food commonly reproduced in the kitchens of the 47,000 or so Mauritian- born residents of the U.K. for their families and friends, as well as in the handful of cafes and restaurants in areas of London like Finsbury Park, Norbury, Turnpike Lane, and Wood Green where Mauritians have settled They are the dishes which have inspired Shelina Permalloo.

Cuisine can be, to use Norwegian social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s phrase, a “common denominator”, in a shared public field, part of the process by which social and cultural identities swing between “homogenisation and ethnic differentiation” in Mauritius, one of the world’s most flexible polyethnic societies. Not all social scientists, however, would agree how ethnicity, in complex ways, works positively in Mauritius. For example, writing in 2008 on the 40th anniversary of the country’s independence, Mauritian sociologist Sheila Bunwaree argued:

“Mauritius’s independence was not built on any form of cultural resistance to imperialism… And this is perhaps a contributory factor to the compartmentalization of the different communities. Mauritius has a beautiful rhetoric of ‘unity in diversity’ and the ‘rainbow nation’ but Mauritius has a long way to go in order to become a strong nation. Whilst it is true that Mauritius has developed a number of policies for the accommodation of diversity, it has not been successful in developing a sense of Mauritian-ness.”

In the UK and other countries where people from Mauritius have settled, they will first and foremost identify themselves as “Mauritian” to outsiders, dropping an identification with their specific ethnic group of origin within Mauritius. This change in self-definition of Mauritians in countries of Europe, North America and Australasia is slowly influencing the way cultural identities, including political identities, are perceived and defined in Mauritius itself.

Shelina Permalloo, the second woman to win Masterchef, undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of her. She has already stated that she has no ambition to go back to wearing a suit, the symbol of corporate London, and cannot wait to put on a chef’s whites in some form of professional capacity.

Like her predecessor Thomasina Miers, who won in 2005 and has gone on to establish the successful five-strong Mexican-themed restaurant chain Wahaca, Shelina is likely to become a media star. But will she be able to follow in Miers’s footsteps and establish a restaurant chain based upon a previously little-known cuisine?

Gregg Wallace, now a partner in two London restaurants, reckons that she needs the backing of some rich Mauritius business people in order to succeed. The island, which is one of the great economic success stories of sub-Saharan Africa, has a fair share of those.

Perhaps they should take the hint: Mauritius’s reputation – its Mauritian-ness – will be enhanced if the country’s cuisine can make it on to the world stage.

Dr Sean Carey is visiting lecturer in the Business School, University of Roehampton

* Published in print edition on 22 March 2012

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