How Mauritius became a hotbed of Chinese food
Mauritius dines out on Hakka-style dishes including fried noodles and meatballs, thanks to Chinese traders who migrated there under French and British rule.
Ask people to name a Mauritian dish and they’ll likely draw a blank. This remote island in the Indian Ocean was first discovered by Arab sailors, in about 900AD, and by Europeans in the 16th century. Although the Portuguese passed by often, they never settled. It was the Dutch who finally claimed possession, later that century.
Then came the French and the British, whose agricultural and trade ambitions brought labourers, immigrants and traders from Africa, India and China.
Understanding this history makes the seemingly disjointed and diverse patchwork of foods (from flatbreads to fried noodles) sold in the streets of Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, a little easier to navigate. A number of snacks are identified as Chinese, and have long been part of the local French-Creole lexicon, including “mine frit” (fried noodles) and “boulettes” (Hakka-style meatballs).
According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, only 3 per cent of the population in Mauritius are ethnically Chinese. However, Chinese-style restaurants, food stalls and dishes are immensely popular.
“The people love Chinese food,” says Hong Kong-based chef and television host, Christian Yang. “In the market people line up for it.”
Yang’s father is third-generation Sino-Mauritian, their family originating from Meixian, in Guangdong, a predominantly Hakka area.
“Most of the Chinese in Mauritius are Hakka, and they weren’t usually well off, so the food reflects that,” says Yang.
A popular dish is bol renverse, an “upside-down bowl” consisting of a fried-egg stir-fry that, Yang says, is “usually chicken, broccoli and carrots with soy sauce, oyster sauce and Chinese rice wine, thickened with a bit of cornstarch”, and rice, layered into a bowl in that order, then flipped onto a plate. The bowl is then taken off to reveal a dome shape, with the egg on top. In English, the dish is given a more fanciful name – magic bowl – and although the etymology is unclear, it may have to do with the drama of the final flipping action. According to Yang, “Bol renverse was originally a way to [make an individual portion] of what would seemingly be a Chinese stir-fry”.
The name mine frit, meanwhile, is a combination of the Cantonese or Hakka pronunciation for noodle, mein, and the French word for “fried”. “There’s also the vegetarian mine touni [from the French tout nu], which means ‘naked noodles’,” he says.
Boulettes are served either steamed or in a soup. These meatballs tend to be Hakka in style, and are quite loosely packed together and bound using tapioca or sweet-potato flour, unlike the firmer, Chiu Chow-style ones more commonly found in Hong Kong. The alternative name, “niouk yen”, the Hakka term for meatballs, makes the origin plain.
Aside from meat, Mauritian boulettes usually have grated vegetables or fruit, such as chayote or green papaya, both of which are grown widely on the island, in the mix.