Food in Mauritius has roots across many different cultures. You’ll find French influences, Chinese dim sum and Creole flavours. Most notably, Mauritius cuisine borrows plenty of dishes from Indian food.
What makes Mauritian biryani unique is that it’s flavoured differently to other places you might find the dish of the same name. Madame Mansoorah says the fresh spices used in Mauritius are lighter than the ones used in Iran or India.
We were lucky enough to tag along throughout the biryani making process, from Madame Mansoorah’s trip to the market to the making of the delicious meal over an open fire.
Our first stop is the market. Wicker basket in hand, Madame Mansoorah gathers potatoes (a staple in Mauritius biryani), plump tomatoes that will be served on the side and handfuls of shallots from different vendors. Only the best will do.
In the spice shop, Madame Mansoorah fills a big scoop with fragrant flavours. A cinnamon stick. Star anise. Cardamom. A handful of cloves. A scatter of fennel seeds.
Like all of the best home-cooked food, ingredients for homemade Mauritian biryani are measured with the eyes. By feel. Madame Mansoorah’s mum taught her how to measure by whispering “enough child” when she’d put too much spice or chilli in.
Mauritius might be 0.06% the size of India, but there’s still plenty of variety in the way biryani is made here. It all comes down to the taste of the cook.
“If you go to 10 different places in Mauritius to get biryani, there will be 10 different styles, tastes and perfumes. That is why it’s famous and people love it.”
The spices used in Mauritius biryanis are usually the same. What changes and creates so much variation is the dosage of each spice. “Spices have to be very little so that it does not dominate the taste of the saffron and the caramelised onion,” advises Madame Mansoorah.
Ingredients gathered, Madame Mansoorah and her team get to work. One starts turning the spices into a paste by crushing them between a slab and rolling pin, both made of stone and releasing all their scent and flavour.
Carefully, the ingredients are added to a deg. A deg is a classic shallow pot used for making biryani. Everything is added in layers: saffron-scented chicken, potatoes, yoghurt, crispy shallots and fluffy white rice.
Madame Mansoorah’s biryani expertise doesn’t only come from her mother. Her dad was a maitre d’hotel (a front-of-house manager) in Port Louis and as a kid, Madame Mansoorah would wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning to watch the chefs at work. Biryani chefs were hired especially from India. An Indian chef who specialises in different oriental food is also known as a bandari.
“The bandari needs a team to help organise his cooking. One prepares spices, the other one the potatoes, then the marinade for the chicken, the wood fire, everyone has its part in the cooking. It’s the bandari who manages everything, and leads the preparation and the cooking.”
The bandari has another important role: looking after the fire. “It’s all about the firepower to cook the biryani. Fire is very important. Patience and love.”
When the wait is over, the biryani is served.
Madame Mansoorah’s parting words for everyone:
“Run, get ready. Come to Mauritius and sit on our old rocks to eat our biryani, with all the little side dishes, cooked with love and passion.”