Mauritian Marathi Food Culture

**Chhandasi Bahulkar is a very active and knowledgeable member of Angat Pangat. She is known for her insightful contributions. **

Five years ago, I landed on this beautiful turquoise island of Mauritius without any preconceived notions. I fell in love with this tranquil place instantly. The stretch from airport to our house reminded me of Goa and Konkan and I casually said to my husband, “Wow! This is mini India!” We reached home; our friend and our landlady were waiting at the gate to welcome us. I knew that our landlady was Mauritian. I was expecting a modern lady wearing a dress or a skirt. But I was pleasantly surprised to see a lady clad in neatly draped five-yard saree. (Later on I came to know that she had dressed that way specially to make me feel comfortable and at- home. Generally, Mauritian women wear sarees for special occasions).

That day, our landlady cooked lunch for us, thinking that we must be tired by the journey (this indeed felt like being in India). I was eager to know what she had prepared – perhaps pasta or may be some fish curry (assuming that Mauritius is an island). But looking at “Amti-Bhaat,” I was surprised yet again. I thought, even for these people “Amti-Bhaat” is a comfort food after a tiring journey. What a coincidence! Later on I realized that it was not just a coincidence but a tradition and a part of food culture that has been passed down from generations to generations.

The food habits of Mauritian people have been inherited from previous generations and are an integral and inseparable part of Mauritian cultural heritage. Before speaking about Marathi food culture in Mauritius, let us have a peek into their history. Indentured labourers who were brought to Mauritius from different parts of India, brought along with them their culinary traditions, cuisines and practices depending on their regions. More than forty thousand Marathi labourers were brought from the port of Bombay to Mauritius between 1845 -1910. They came from different regions of Maharashtra, mainly Konkan coast, Ratnagiri, Rajapur, Mumbai, Pune, Satara, Kolhapur etc.

In Mauritius, the term “Marathi” refers to Marathi speaking Indo-Mauritians of Hindu faith. They were and continue to be referred as Bombay people since their port of embarkation was Bombay. Today, it’s their sixth generation that lives in Mauritius. When this migrant population arrived here, they had to adapt to new environments and had to use the natural products/ingredients that were found here. The basic recipes were of Marathi cuisine but were adapted and transformed to suit the new surroundings. With passing time, it was even influenced by other cultures. Food was Mauritianised. With the period of time, our staple food became their feast items. For example, the “Amti Bhaat” that my landlady gave me on our day of arrival is not their everyday food but a feast item that is made on special occasions.

Even the concept of fasting (upwas) went through radical changes. Unlike the plethora of fasting food items that we have, Mauritian Marathis do not have any special fasting food preparations. The rule is very simple – no alcohol, no non-vegetarian and preferably no salty and spicy food. They mainly eat sweets for fasting. (How very easy and convenient, isn’t it?)

Now let us have a look at some of the Mauritian Marathi food dishes that are
common to our Marathi food and yet, are quite distinct:

  • Amti: It is prepared in Mauritius in Marathi households and is still called “Amti”
    and not daal. It is very different in taste compared to its Marathi counterpart. Salt,
    chili powder (tikhat), corriander–almost everything is in a much lesser quantity. It is
    mainly prepared using Bengal gram (chana daal). Unlike us, Mauritian Marathis do not make amti everyday. It is made on special occasions and mostly in Marathi marriages and Puja.
  • Bhakri: Yes, you heard it right! Marathi people here do make bhakri as well. But their bhakri is poles apart than ours. Originally, it was made using corn flour and cooked directly on embers. With time it changed its form, ingredients, everything! Today’s Bhakri resembles our Ghadi chi Poli.
  • Pithle: Some pairings go hand-in-hand and we cannot imagine one without
    another. Needless to say, if there is bhakri, there has to be pithle. Here only the
    older generations refer to it as pithle. The younger generation calls it ‘Bessan’.
    Mauritian bessan and Maharashtrian pithle are drastically different from one
    another. Bessan’s consistency is not as same as pithle. They make bessan in
    square blocks and it’s very thick. Now you can imagine my predicament when
    one Mauritian aunty invited me to eat pithle-bhakri at her place and even I went
    excitedly keeping in mind our pithle-bhakri and not knowing anything about
    Mauritian pithle-bhakri.
  • Alu Wadi: In Mauritius it is called ‘Vadiya’. One can even find Mauritian ladies
    selling this at local vegetable market and they call it vegetarian fish and are
    either shallow fried or used in vegetable curries (rassa bhaji) just like koftas.
  • Puranpoli: It is a rare delicacy here and is called ‘Poli’. The preparation does
    not include jaggery (sugarcane is the main produce of Mauritius but they do not
    use or even know jaggery). Its stuffing is made using Bengal gram (chana dal)
    and sugar. It is not as sweet as ours and is not necessarily accompanied by
    ghee. It is mostly served in Marathi households during Puja.
  • Komdi Vade:  Kombi Wade are called ‘Vare’ here. It is a typical Marathi dish
    and is found only in traditional Marathi households. The main ingredient of Vare
    is maize flour. Vare are accompanied by Mauritian style Chicken Curry.
  • Modak: The main Prasad for Ganpati Bappa here is not Modak but Kanawla
    (Karanji). Some people do prepare Modak during Ganesh Festival. The method
    of preparation is very different. Water is just mixed with rice flour (without
    making ukad), the stuffing (saran) is made using either desiccated or fresh
    coconut and sugar and it is then shaped in form of modak and is steamed on
    citronelle leaves.
  • Karanji: Kranji is popularly known as ‘Kanawla’ here. It is the main dish
    associated with Marathi cuisine in Mauritius and is the principal dish of
    Mauritian Marathis. It is a must for all the important events and festivals, then
    be it marriage, Puja, Ganpati festival or Diwali. During Ganpati festival more
    than modak it is kanawla that gets the honour. Visit a Mauritian Marathi who
    brings Ganpati at home during Ganpati festival and you are sure to get kanawla
    as Prasad. Just like modak, even the stuffing for kanawla is made using
    coconut and sugar.

These are a few of the main food items that are prepared by Marathi Mauritians. They have preserved it for generations and generations. These people are proud of their heritage and Indian origins. They are striving hard to preserve their culture, language, cuisine, their Marathi identity and their efforts are indeed commendable.

Their food varieties have names similar to ours and even the looks are similar but still these dishes are strikingly different than ours. We may not easily identify with those tastes. Nevertheless we must appreciate their efforts and feelings. I personally find this very unique and interesting. 5-6 generations back, these humble people were brought to Mauritius. The later generations may not have even visited their ancestral homes or India, even. But still the ‘Indianess’ and our ‘Marathi Bana’ is very much there in their lifestyle, mannerisms and even cuisine. Like I said at the start, this is indeed “Mini India.”

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