Carri, Rhum Arrangé, and other Réunion culinary traditions: A Primer

Before I get into the actual restaurant reviews, one more post is in order to give some background on Réunion’s culinary traditions.

First, the food. Reunion is really a culinary delight. The mix of cultural influences from France, Madagascar, India, China, Portugal, Indonesia, and other locals makes for a particularly vibrant mix of ethnicities, often all blended together in the same meal. Add in the fact that the island has a shockingly wide range of agricultural products of their own (guava, papaya, banana, sugar cane, pineapple, chouchou (chayotte), and mangos in particularly all grow like, and sometime as, weeds, and there’s a strong spice industry as well) makes for some particularly great, and sometime unique, ingredients to work with. There’s also enough French influence (the island is actually part of France, not a colony) that if you are on an actual road, you are also guaranteed to be never more than a 20 minute drive from a decent boulangerie or patisserie, even when in the middle of the island in the mountains.

When it comes down to it, however, the foundation of nearly every single menu and meal is the “carri” (curry, also spelled “cari” or “cary”). A variant of the Indian-style curry, it’s generally meat simmered in a sauce of tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, thyme, turmeric, and saffron, and can be found with just about every type of protein, ranging from chicken (carri poulet), to duck (carri canard), swordfish (carri espadon), shrimp (carri camarons), and even octopus (carri zourite). The carri is, without variation, served up with a mountain of rice, and some sort of simmered bean (lentils and lima beans being the most common). The carri itself is always very heavily spiced… but unlike Indian or Chinese curries, the carri itself is almost never actually hot in flavor: they don’t use hot peppers in the carri itself. Much of this is a byproduct of the French not particularly liking hot food. But don’t think that there isn’t heat… Each carri is also served up with either “piment” (a hot-pepper salsa made with the tiny hot peppers grown locally), or a “rougail”, a spicy chutney that usually mixes tomato, garlic, ginger, and chile peppers, often with other local ingredients like lemon, lime (including kaffir limes), thyme, mango, and the like. And while a few of the rougails were more tart than hot, a few of them were about as fiery as you can imagine, so only a tiny little dab of rougail was enough to flavor your entire plate. More than a few times, my American Southwest-calibrated palate with many years of Indian and Thai experience surprised the locals with my love of some of their hottest rougails…. but just as many times I found myself having to search out a “carafe d’eau” to put out the fires.

Variants of the carri also exist. Confusingly, a “rougail” can also be the main dish itself, since a carri made with either smoked pork (boucane) or sausages (sausisses) is also known as a “rougail” (e.g. “rougail sausisses”). And there’s a civet, with is a stew-like variant of a carri with more vegetables.

Breakfast is pretty much French-standard: bread (both baguettes and proper croissants being common), butter (one of the few French imports that was comment was Breton butter, oddly enough), and jams made from one or more of the island fruits (mango, guava, and pineapple being the most common, often with vanilla or other spices mixed in).

So you’ll see that most of my meals consisted of some sort of carri, a big pile of rice, and some lentils and rougail on the side. But wow, the variety… I had chicken, shrimp, pork, swordfish, sausage, chouhou, and cod carris, just to name a few. And at least two dozen different rougails.

And then there’s the beer. First of all, while much of the world has been undergoing the Craft Beer Revolution[tm], it’s definitely not happening in Réunion. When it comes down to it, there are basically four different beer brewers doing business in Réunion: Brasserie Bourbon (Saint-Denis), Fischer (Alsace, mainland France), Picaro (Saint-Pierre), and Phoenix (“The Beer that Made Mauritius Famous”). So you don’t go to Réunion for beer tourism.

You can also occasionally track down a few other niche beers, like Guinness or various Belgian beers (Leffe wasn’t uncommon). And I never actually tracked down a Picaro when I was thirsty for a beer, but I did try the others. Of these, I actually enjoyed Bourbon, aka, “La Dodo” (note that their logo is a white dodo). This wasn’t a fancy craft beer, but being basically your standard Budweiser-style lager. But it, and some of their secondary varieties (like their darker “Heritage” beer), were pretty good.

But what “La Dodo” has is a fanatical following on the Island, to the extent I’ve seen with few other beers (Jamaica’s Red Stripe is the only one I’ve seen even close). The brand is truly iconic, in that most any restaurant, cafe, or “snack bar” will have the the distinctive dodo logo advertised in red, green and yellow in murals (often taking up an entire exterior wall of the joint), outside cafés, table umbrellas, shop windows, signposts, coasters, and the like, all proclaiming “La Dodo Lé La!” (“The Dodo is here!”).

Then there’s the rhum. As I mentioned earlier, sugar cane is the single largest agricultural product on the island. And quite frankly, not a lot of it actually becomes, well, table sugar. Instead, a substantial fraction is involved in the production of rum. While back in older times there were over 30 distilleries on the island, between scaling back, modernization, and other factors, there are only three distilleries on the island now, but they are pretty substantial in size: Savanna, Rivière-du-Mât, and Isautier. They also run a cooperative that produces the largest single brand of rum on the island, a brand called Charrette.

But while there’s quite the interest in the rum itself, with many different varieties (in Réunion, they make a distinction between “Rhum Traditionnel” fermented and distilled from molasses and “Rhum Agricole” fermented and distilled directly from cane juice), the majority of the rum, particular the Rhum Charrette, isn’t directly consumed, but is instead used to make what’s basically the drink of Réunion: the “Rhum arrangé”.

From a social standpoint, it’s expected that pretty much every place of hospitality on the island (hotels, bars, restaurants, snack bars, mountain guest huts and, in one spot, even a taxicab stand) offer up some sort of rhum arrangé: rum infused with sugar and macerated with mixture of local herbs, fruits, and spices, often with some sort of special “house mix”. Then it’s generally served up to you in small portions, such as little 2 centiliter cups, although a few places really go wild with the rhum (one of the resorts we stayed at did these giant 6 cl pours).

I was really impressed with a lot of mixtures. Some of them are pretty predictable, like “Fruits de passions”… but a lot of them were more inventive than that. Pineapple. Guava. Vanilla beans (another island industry). Tea. Orchid Leaves (“fahan”), which have a particularly unique flavor. “Quatorze epices” (14 spices). Star anise. Tamarind. Cinnamon. Hot peppers (always, always, accompanied by severe warnings, the French not being particularly accustomed to chile pepper heat).

It really is quite the tradition, and quite expected, for there to be at least one bottle of rhum arrangé brought forth at the end of the evening (indeed, pretty much universal at every place we stayed except for the guest house run by a Muslim family… and that includes the mountain gîtes far from the nearest trailhead).

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