French cooking is considered to be some of the best in the world. With its cooking techniques, appreciation for fresh ingredients and flavors, pride in presentation, and rich and colorful history, French cuisine has come to rule the world. Technically part of France, yet sitting in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Réunion Island, with its unique geographical position and its connection with France, is a gastronomic melting pot of different cultures and tastes. The island’s cuisine takes its unique flavors from centuries of mixed French, Malagasy, Chinese and Indian influences, while making good use of local fruits, vegetables, and seafood.
For travelers who love to eat their way through a place, this tiny territory has no shortage of interesting dishes to explore. Here are a few highlights worth seeking out.
Cari is considered one of the plats de resistance in Réunion, and no two caris are the same. This dish can be loosely described as vegetables, meat, fish, or even on occasion, jackfruit, served in a curry sauce made from curcuma (turmeric), garlic, thyme, onions, ginger, local saffron, and a spicy chili pepper sauce called piment. The main influence for this staple dish is Indian Tamil, and you could consider this a tropical take on a classic curry. Cari is typically served with rice and either beans or lentils. This is a substantial dish, so save it for when you have a serious appetite.
For the more adventurous, two of the local specialties are carri tangue (hedgehog) and carri bichique (a tiny, young fish, the round mouth Cabot fry, a prized luxury ingredient that can sell for $50 per pound).
The best cari I had on Réunion was a delicious prawn version that was just what I needed after a tiring morning spent hiking in the island’s interior, in the rain.
This is a delicious, spicy chili sauce that can be separated into two categories; le rougail pilon (a chili sauce you’ll find on the side of most dishes) and le rougail marmite (which is a main dish).
One of the most popular versions of le rougail marmite is le rougail saucisses (sausage) which combines tomatoes, garlic, onions, and curcuma with, you guessed it, sausages. Other variations might include cod, herring, eggs, small thin shrimps called chevaquines, and even the flower stalks of onions which are added at the end of cooking. For the super adventurous, let me point you towards a local specialty, wasp larvae rougail.
Achard is a salad-like mixture of pickled fruits or vegetables and is part of a typical creole lunch or dinner. It’s usually made from a combination of cabbage, carrots, and green beans, and then mixed with ginger, garlic, oil, vinegar, salt, and sometimes chili.
Brèdes refers to a wide variety of leafy greens growing on Réunion that are believed to have their origins in Madagascar or East Africa. Interestingly, the name comes from the Indian word brette, meaning “good to eat,” a fitting word for this nutrient-rich food. Prepared brèdes are most similar to American collard greens. This dish is so simple, delicious, and full of nutrients, it’s hard not to love.
Samoussas in Réunion are deep-fried little triangles, served hot and fresh from sidewalk vendors. They are a cheap and filling snack. The fillings can be highly distinctive to Réunion and whilst some may contain the traditional ground beef and onion, more unique flavor combinations can include the rather unique shark or pineapple samoussa, or the slightly less daring cheese or crab samoussa. With such variety, I wanted to try them all, luckily they’re cheap!
These are a Chinese influenced, steamed snack. They are popular as an appetizer or bar snack. Like Chinese dumplings, they are made with a thin, pasta-like dumpling wrapper and filled with beef, pork, or chicken. Typically, bouchons are served with a side of hot sauce or soy sauce for dipping. They are seriously yummy!
7. Le Americain
Le Americain, or “American Sandwiches,” are found in the beachfront town of Saint-Pierre, where little kiosks sell gooey baked meat-and-cheese sandwiches. For just a few euros, beachgoers can fill up on their choice of ham, chicken, hot dog, tuna and corn, or salmon Americains, topped with fries.
8. The Chouchou
Also known as the chayote or christophine, the chouchou is a fleshy fruit that looks a bit like a big misshapen pear and can be eaten raw or cooked and has a taste not dissimilar to zucchini. Every part of the chouchou is edible. Its pulp is used in stew, gratin, soup, salads, stuffed tomatoes, cakes, and jams. The shoots are prepared like asparagus. The tuber can even be cooked like fries. Honestly, not my favorite, but give it a try!
Excited by the idea of Réunion cooking? Then sign up for a cookery class with Far Far Kréol. You’ll spend the morning visiting and shopping for ingredients in one of the local markets, and in the afternoon take part in a creole cookery workshop.
All this eating can be thirsty work, so let me give you a few tips for things to drink while visiting this island in the sun.
9. Tropical Wines
The tropics are not the first place you’d think to seek out a good wine, but Réunion has developed a thriving little wine industry, with vines first brought to the island in 1771 by French Colonials. Chenin, gros manseng, malbec, pinot noir, syrah grape varieties all thrive in the climate, producing reds, rosés, and whites that can hold their own against French wines from the mainland.
In private homes, you may come across vin qui rend fou (“wine that sends you mad”)! This is wine made from the Isabelle variety of grape, a variety banned in mainland France from 1935 — 2003, but that has always been grown in Reunion.
10. Island Beer
Wherever you are on the island, you’ll find cafes and restaurants painted in the colors of the locally brewed Bourbon beer. Its symbol is a dodo, a large turkey-like bird that once inhabited the islands of the Indian Ocean and is now extinct. To capture a little of the island soul, nothing beats enjoying a local beer with some samoussas. There is even a lychee flavored dodo beer known as the Metiss.
11. Reunionese Rum
The local rum is known as Rhum Charrette due to its label, which features a cart (charrette) loaded with sugar cane, being pulled by an ox. It is sold in glass bottles and also in plastic flasks known as piles plates (literally, “flat batteries”).
Rum on Réunion dates back to the 17th century when it was a byproduct of the sugar industry. Over the decades, it’s become the aperitif of choice and a delicious way to indulge in Réunion’s culture and history. Reunionese rum can of course be enjoyed neat (be warned Rhum Charrette is 49 percent alcohol), in punch or a cocktail, but the island’s local specialty is rhum arrangé, infused rum, for which there are as many recipes as there are inhabitants!
12. Rhum Arrangé
Rhum Arrangé is white rum infused and spiced with aromatics. What are the exact ingredients? There is no “rule of rum” when it comes to a recipe, and that’s part of its charm. Rhum Arrangé can be infused with macerated fruits, spices (e.g., cinnamon or vanilla), herbs, faham (a variety of wild orchid), etc., in an endless multitude of combinations. Families on the island pass down their signature concoction through the generations, and if you’re offered a glass of Rhum Arrangé from a local, you’ll rarely taste the same mixture twice.
Everyone has their favorite, but if you’re a true rum connoisseur, you should try them all for yourself and see! I’ve tried citrus, vanilla, coffee, orchid, and ginger infusions, but after much sampling, I decided my favorite was lychee and I’d highly recommend it!
Besides local restaurants and shops, the best place to get an education in rum is at one of Réunion’s three distilleries. If you’re short on time, head to the Isatier Distillery. It’s the island’s oldest family distillery (founded in 1845) and home to the only rum museum on the island.
The best thing about Réunion Island’s rum? Not only do restaurants and distilleries peddle their own concoctions, but you can also get creative and make your own! Here’s how to prepare the island’s signature drink for yourself:
How To Make Your Own Rhum Arrangé
- Buy a bottle of white rum, preferably Réunion Island rum.
- Collect an assortment of ingredients to “spice” your drink. You could use vanilla pods, cinnamon sticks, coffee, pineapple, ginger, or even chilli. Get creative!
- Add sugar cubes, and don’t be shy about it. The sugar will help spread the taste of the other ingredients, so this is not the time to be conservative.
- Once your masterpiece is complete, seal the bottle and wait. 3 to 6 months. Yes, you read that right. Creating your signature blend of Rhum Arrangé requires time and patience, but it will be worth it, I promise.
- Open the bottle, strain, and pour the rum over ice cubes. Sit back and enjoy.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our epicurean look at Réunion Island, and I hope I’ve inspired you to visit one day.
A favorite pastime for travelers is sampling local food and wine at the destination: