Selina Periampillai: ‘People are so surprised by Mauritian food’22nd May 19 | Lifestyle
The self-taught cook chats to Lauren Taylor about her Mauritian heritage, slowing down in the kitchen, and eating bat curry.
Think of Mauritius, the Maldives and Seychelles, and chances are you imagine white sandy beaches, tropical heat and honeymooning couples. And you’d be right – but what about the food?
“People don’t really know much about that part of the world,” says Selina Periampillai – yet the incredible multiculturalism of this pocket of the Indian Ocean has created a unique cuisine made up of seemingly disparate culinary influences and styles that work in mysterious harmony.
Born and raised in Croydon, South London, Periampillai calls Mauritius her second home – her parents are from there and moved to the UK in the Seventies for work – but as a child, she spent long summers every year back on the island.
“I remember my nan cooking outside, she had a massive rock slab and used to crush spices on it with a cylinder tool – fresh spices, garlic, chilli – she would roll it and crush them every morning and cook with them that evening,” says the 37-year-old. “You can see from her arms and build today that’s what she was doing for all those years – it’s not that easy!”
So how did Mauritian cuisine come to be what it is today? “It was colonised by the Dutch, then the British came, and Chinese came over, all these people from all different cultures settled on the island,” says Periampillai. Throw Indian, French and African influences into the mix and it’s considered one of the great Creole cuisines of the world.
“We’ve ended up with biryani and curry from India and fiery hot, chilli chutneys. The Chinese set up as merchants near Port Louis [the capital] and they’re still selling dumplings on street corners, you’ll find dumpling soup and noodles in Mauritian restaurants too.”
It surprises first-timer diners, she says; it’s lighter and more fragrant than people anticipate. “People expect an Indian-style curry but we might use cinnamon to make it sweet or thyme leaves and parsley.”
In her first cookbook, The Island Kitchen, Periampillai takes you on journey, not only around the fascinatingly diverse Mauritian cuisine – think fish biryani, slow-cooked duck with cinnamon and cloves, and potato and pea samosas – but Madagascar, Maldives, Seychelles, and the lesser known Reunion, Comoros and Mayotte, and Rodrigues.
Reunion – where three-quarters of the population is said to be of mixed origin – is a seafood lover’s paradise. A speciality on the tiny volcanic Rodrigues island is a thick-crusted coconut and papaya pie, and a French horticulturalist and botanist once smuggled plants into the Seychelles that are still a huge part of the country’s cuisine today.
You might not want to eat bat curry (“A bit like chicken, quite bony but really nice”) or shark chutney (“Tangy with a squeeze of lime”) from the Seychelles, but Periampillai has drawn the line at including those recipes in the book anyway.
What’s most surprising though, is that the classic dishes of these islands, and Periampillai’s take on them (like the pineapple upside-down cake her supper club-goers rave about), are all pretty simple. It’s stews you chuck everything into and leave, curry that doesn’t take hours, and vibrant salads with sweet notes of coconut, lime or mango. “I’m all for really down-to-earth, nothing fancy, really good comfort food,” she says.
“All the family would get together for dinner and it would never be one of two dishes, the table would be full every night, bowls of curry, fresh chapatis, and lots of pickles and chutneys – the condiments of Mauritius,” Periampillai adds.
That’s the thing about this kind of food; it’s generous, comforting and, most importantly, laid-back. “It’s about enjoying the moment and taking that time out. They take it a bit slower, especially with cooking – no stress, enjoy yourself, enjoy the whole process and enjoy the food.”
And there’s a lot of outdoor cooking: “It’s a hot country, doors are wide open in kitchens, they have wood fires and get a big pot of curry or fricassee on there – it changes the flavour because you’ve got smokiness. Everyone barbecues on the beach, they’ll be a grill with fish caught that morning, with some lemon and herbs, straight on the grill – that’s the freshest thing you can eat.
“On the beach, they also sell pineapple covered in chilli salt as a refreshing snack,” Periampillai adds – a traditional dish she took inspiration from to create her tamarind pineapple chilli salt salad recipe.
Impressively, the mum-of-one hasn’t done any professional training. “Everything I’ve done with Mauritian food, I learned from my mum. She’d say, ‘This is what I used to watch my mum do in the kitchen’, so it’s been passed on like that.
“I remember Gateau Pataes – sweet potato dough, filled with fresh coconut and sugar and fried – the childhood treat. I remember watching her and waiting for that first one.”
Six years ago, it dawned on Periampillai that it was difficult to find Mauritian home-cooked food in London, and she started to host supper clubs – four years after quitting her nine-to-five desk job to follow her passion for food in “one of those life-changing, risky moments”. It’s paid off though – she was named runner-up of the prestigious Jane Grigson Trust prize in March.
Now, more than anything, she wants to “spread the word” about Mauritian cuisine and maybe even inspire people to visit that part of the world too – woven between the recipes in the book are passages about each place, taking you right to bustling fishing ports or the sweet fruit of roadside stalls. “But if you can’t make it to the Islands, it’s like bringing these islands to your own home, and being able to cook it on a daily basis or on the weekend.
“It can be a bit intimidating,” Periampillai concedes,”because it’s this part of the world [that you might not know] – how do you find these ingredients?
“But I was brought up in London. You can do it in your home.”
The Island Kitchen: Recipes From Mauritius And The Indian Ocean by Selina Periampillai is published by Bloomsbury, priced £26.00. Available now.
© Press Association 2019