Front page news this week on Reunion: “The Threat of Cheap Rice!” The regional significance of rice can not be underestimated. In Madagascar, as much as 85% of the population is employed in the agricultural and fishing industries, meaning that the price of rice is one of the strongest indicators of the health of the local economy. And indeed, rice is the PB&J of Malagasy cuisine, from which Reunionese Creole food is strongly inspired. Although Madagascar produces enough rice to feed the entire island and still export abroad, Malagasy rice is generally considered higher quality and gets a better price on the international market, meaning that one of the biggest rice producing regions in the world actually exports most of its harvest and has to import lower quality rice from Asia (typically India or Cambodia) needed to feed its population. With strong historical, cultural, and economic ties between Reunion and Madagascar, the “Threat of Cheap Rice” is a big deal here.
So, on the topic of rice, what is Reunionese Creole food like? The “baguette” is of course the ubiquitous bread of French breakfasts, covered with a jam or nutella spread, and is likewise a staple of Reunionese mornings. Possible substitutes might be “pain au chocolat” or breakfast cereals like we have in the states.
Come lunchtime, the whole island shuts down for two hours to allow school children, shopkeepers, and whoever else to go home and eat as a family. Literally nothing is open for business between noon and two in the afternoon, except of course, the snack bars and bakeries, which must make a killing. A quick lunch might be a sandwich constructed from a baguette, with “crudités” (a bunch of veggies and maybe a hard boiled egg) or the infamous “américain”, which comes in many varieties, but always features French fries in the sandwich itself with cheese melted on top. Snack bars on Reunion are known for their mini-dumplings, known as “bouchons”, and deep-fried samoussas, filled with cheese, ham, crab, or tuna. The bouchon américain sandwich is sinfully delicious, but your life expectancy decreases correspondingly for each one you eat.
Since most kids eat lunch at home during their two hour break in the middle of the day, school lunch isn’t very popular. Here’s the “cafeteria” at one of my middle schools. Note the characteristic Creole student.
A heartier Creole lunch will look the same as a Creole dinner, which is one of only two basic dishes: a “carri” (like a curry) or a “rougaille” (spicy sauce from a pepper, garlic, ginger, onion, and tomato base) served over rice with chicken or vegetables, and with “graines” (beans) on the side. Portions are generous, maybe even gluttonous. “Piment” (spicy pepper salsa) is added to literally everything. I had a mango salad yesterday with piment, and honestly, all I could taste was the piment. It’s overpowering, but you just gotta do it. Bouchon américain sandwich with piment is the crème de la crème of cheap Creole lunches.
Here’s a simple recipe from my Creole Phrasebook for a “rougaille saucisse” (sausage rougaille) if you want to give it a try.
Take five fresh pork sausages and drop them in a deep saucepan filled with water, and leave it covered on the stovetop. Once the water reaches a boil, remove the lid and occasionally poke the sausages to let the grease and fat escape from the meat. Keep an eye on the sausages while preparing your spices: if you have a mortar, reduce some spicy green peppers of your choice (picture the ones in the little jars at Steak and Shake), some peeled ginger, two cloves of garlic, and some salt, or just mash it all up on a cutting board (that’s what I did). Leave some space on the cutting board to slice two onions lengthwise and to finely dice three ripe tomatoes. You should notice that there’s not much water left with your sausage, which is a good sign. Once the sausages begin to brown, take them out of the saucepan and slice them into round segments, which you will drop right back into the saucepan with a spoonful of oil. Now add your spices, well mixed, and a branch of fresh thyme, keeping the sausages moving so as to avoid burning them. Next add the onions with another half spoonful of oil, if necessary. Last come the tomatoes and a little bit of water if needed to ensure that your sauce doesn’t dry up. Recover the saucepan and let it cook on medium heat. As soon as the tomatoes appear done, the meal is ready to be served over white rice or couscous with beans or lentils on the side.
Anon fer! (Bon appétit in Créole). Sorry if my translation is not very kitchen-friendly.
Here’s how mine turned out.
Being on the ocean, we have become friends with some local fishmongers who sell all sorts of things from the sea. So far we have prepared swordfish and shark at home.
One final image I’ve been waiting to add for awhile. PIRATE!!! (Note the name of his boat: Jesus sauve = Jesus saves, so maybe not a pirate).