Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Mauritius

I have been working on my ongoing, personal culinary challenge, Around the World in 80 Dishes.  However, as I worked on a couple of particular challenges, a surprise challenge seemed to emerge out of nowhere.  It was a dot in amongst an ocean of ingredients.  A package of duck breasts.  My eyes fixated on that package, and, I began to wonder what I could make with it.  As soon as I got to a computer, I began to review various recipes that used duck breasts.  It was then that I came across for a recipe of Mauritius Duck Curry.  That recipe gave rise to a challenge.  I would make a main course from the country of Mauritius. 

Much like those duck breasts, the Republic of Mauritius is a dot or dots in the larger Indian Ocean. The country consists of a set of islands, including Mauritius, Agaléga, Rodrigues, and Saint Brandon.  Mauritius was first charted by Arab sailors, although it was Portuguese explorers, perhaps Diogo Fernandes Pereira, who established the first base on the island of Mauritius.  At that time, the Portuguese encountered the local inhabitants ... the dodo bird. The Portuguese later abandoned the islands, only to have the Dutch who landed and later settled the island.  (The Dutch gave the country its name, Mauritius.) The Dutch settlements did not survive, but they left sugar cane, domestic animals and deer.

After the Dutch abandoned the island, it was the French who settled in and established a long-lasting settlement and renamed the islands the "Isle de France." The French established Port Louis, the capital, and used it as a naval base to raid British shipping.  Ultimately, the French lost the islands to the British in 1810 as a result of the British victory in the Napoleonic war.  The British allowed the residents to keep their land, their French language and their laws.  This probably gave rise to the Mauritian Creole (Kreol Morisien), a French-based language spoken by the populace, even though English is the official language.

It is at this point the focus shifts to the culture and cuisine.  Mauritius has a very diverse population.  At first, there were the Africans, Creoles and Europeans.  During the 19th century, Indians began to emigrate to Mauritius from the subcontinent, bringing their culinary traditions with them.  Toward the end of that century, the Chinese began to migrate to Mauritius.

Each of these populations have left their mark on the Mauritian cuisine. A variety of dishes may grace the tables of Mauritians, whether at home, on the street or in a restaurant.  These dishes include Indian curries, European braised dishes, and Chinese stir frys. Such a range of culinary influences creates a dilemma for my personal culinary challenge.  The question becomes what which influence should serve as my starting point.  For this challenge, the choice of a duck curry made this decision rather easy.  I would be exploring the Indian influence on Mauritian cuisine. 

FIRST COURSE

Indians migrated to Mauritius from both North and South India, which means that there is a wide range of influences just within the Indian cuisine in Mauritius.  As followers of my blog know, I try to make more than just the main course.  I usually try to make a first course, side dish and/or a beverage.  On this occasion, I decided to make a first course of Chana Masala. 

Chana -- or chole -- are more commonly known as chickpeas.  This masala is a very popular dish in the Punjab region of India, as well as in Guajarat and Rajahstan.  I found the recipe on the Mijo Recipes website.   The one substitution that I made was to use canned chickpeas, rather than dried chickpeas.  This cut down on the preparation time, although it also meant that I would not have the reserved liquid that is called for in Step 3.  I had some vegetable stock in the refrigerator, so I used that in place of the reserved liquid.  This substitution worked out very well. 


CHANA MASALA
Recipe adapted from Mijo Recipes
Serves 4-6

Ingredients:
2-3 cups of chana/chole/chickpeas (if using dried, soaked overnight or at least 5 hours)
2 2/3 tablespoons of butter
1 medium onion, chopped finely
1 tablespoon garlic-ginger paste (or 4 cloves garlic and 2 cm ginger, grated)
1-2 red chiles, sliced
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon garam masala powder
2 medium tomatoes, chopped to a paste (or made into a paste with a blender)
1 tablespoon of cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup of low sodium vegetable stock or broth (if using canned chickpeas)

Directions:
1.  Prepare the chole.  Soak the chole in water overnight or for at least 5 hours. Wash and boil them until well cooked. Take one chole and if you can mash it with your fingers, then it’s done. Drain the chole and reserve the liquid.

2.  Begin to prepare the masala.  Heat a non-stick pot over medium heat.  When warm, add the butter and allow it to melt.  Add the cumin seeds and let them fry for a few minutes.  Add the chopped onions and fry until most of the water evaporates.  Add ginger-garlic, fry until fragrant. Lower your heat, add turmeric powder, coriander powder, garam masala powder, salt and 1 tbsp water. Mix until you get a nice paste and cook until fragrant. The low heat and adding some water prevents the spices from burning.

3.  Continue to prepare the masala.  Put heat to medium. Add red chillies, chopped tomatoes and cook until the mixture reduces to about half in quantity. The mixture will become a bit thicker.  Add the chole/chickpeas, and add half-cup of the reserved liquid.  Cook for a further 10 minutes covered.

4.  Finish the dish.  Mash up some of the chickpeas and add water until the mixture reaches your desired consistency.  Add chopped coriander leaves.  Mix and serve.

This dish is very good.  I liked this recipe because it allows the cook to adjust the consistency of the masala to his or her own liking. Personally, I prefer the masala on the dry side.  This meant that I did not add any water at the end of the cooking.

MAIN COURSE

When I selected the challenge to make a main course from Mauritius, I did not expect that it would come with a lesson about food security.  However, I should have expected it.  Mauritius is a series of islands, which means that there is not a lot of land to grow crops or raise livestock.  The country imports about 75% of its food, while only producing 25% locally.  Food also accounts for approximately one-third of the expenses incurred by a Mauritian family.   Taken together, these facts reveal the basic problem in the context of food security: the vulnerability to increases in food prices.  For the people of Mauritius, they not only face higher increases in the cost of basic food, but also increased costs attendant to the importation of that food. These increases in food and transportation costs translate into an even larger portion of an average family's expenses being used to purchase the food they need to survive.

Given this real threat of food insecurity, the Mauritian government has undertaken various initiatives to obtain food "independence," which means self-sufficiency in the production of dairy, vegetables, and meat.  This provides a good transition to those duck breasts.  One of the government's initiatives is to increase the production and consumption of ducks.  Private companies brought stocks of Pekin and Muscovy ducks to Mauritius.  However, with some assistance, the Mauritian government established a "Duck Unit," which included the construction of a hatchery in Reduit and a farm in Albion.  The government's objectives include the development of high yielding meat strains through breeding, to increase the number of hatchlings and to further research duck nutrition.

As the Mauritian government promotes the production and consumption of ducks, chefs and cooks have risen to the challenge by using their creativity to develop dishes that feature Mauritian ducks.  One such chef is Jocelyn Riviere, who was born in Mauritius but who heads kitchens in Australian restaurants.  Chef Riviere created a recipe for Mauritian Duck Curry, which serves as the main dish for my challenge.

This is a very interesting recipe and I wished I could have followed it to the letter. Unfortunately, I had to make a couple of changes due to the availability of ingredients.  First, the original recipe calls for the use of a whole duck, but I wanted to cook with duck breasts and, in any event, the store where I bought the duck did not have whole ducks available.  So, I used duck breasts.  Second, the recipe calls for the use of stalks of young curry leaves.  Once again, the store did not have any curry leaves and I did not have the time to stop at the stores where I knew that ingredient would be available.  So, I made the dish without the curry leaves, but I left them in the recipe.  Finally, the recipe calls for the use of bird eye chilies.  These chiles are also known as "piri-piri."  I did not have any whole bird eye chiles, but I did have ground piri-piri.  So, I substituted ground chiles for whole ones.  This substitution greatly increased the heat of the dish, but, it is consistent with the fact that Mauritians love spicy foods.  (After all, the influences of African, Indian and Chinese cuisines provides the perfect conditions for spicy dishes.)  With all of those changes, I proceeded to the challenge:


MAURITIAN DUCK CURRY
Recipe adapted from SBS Food
Serves 2-4

Ingredients:
1 whole duck cut into sauté pieces or four duck breasts
Vegetable oil
3 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled
6-8 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1-2 birds eye chilies (or 1/4 teaspoon of ground piri-piri pepper)
4 tablespoons of curry powder, mixed with water to make a wet paste
2 medium onions, finely chopped
10 stalks of fresh young curry leaves
Half a bunch of washed coriander, coarsely chopped
4 medium sized ripe tomatoes, pulp removed and diced coarsely

Directions:
1.  Make the garlic/ginger/chile paste.  In a mortar and pestle crush ginger, garlic and chilli with a pinch of salt to form a paste. 

2.  Prepare the duck.  Remove all the excess fat and skin that hangs from the sides or ends of the duck, leaving only the skin that sits on top of the meat. Cut the duck into 2 drumsticks, 2 thighs, and 4-breast quarter and the rest into same size pieces. Place in a bowl, season well with salt and fresh ground white pepper and toss. If you are using duck breasts, just season them liberally with salt and ground pepper.  

3.  Brown the duck.  Heat a large heavy sauté pan on medium to high heat. When it is hot, put in as many duck pieces as will fit easily, skin side down. Quickly brown the duck on both sides. Set the browned pieces aside. Continue to brown all the duck pieces in the same way. (Do not burn the bottom of the pan) Reduce to medium heat. 

4.  Saute the onions.  To the same hot pan, which should have enough duck fat for frying, add the onion and sauté until light brown. Add the garlic, chile and ginger paste. Sauté and cook for about 2 minutes, then add the curry leaves and curry powder mix, stirring and cooking over medium-low heat for another 2 minutes until the paste bubbles and cooks out. 

5.  Make the curry.  Add one-half cup of water, the cooked duck pieces and any juices from the bowl.  Mix well and add another cup of water to bring the liquid level to half way up the ingredients. Check seasoning.   Bring to the boil then cover and simmer on a low heat for 45 minutes to 1 hour until meat is tender (almost falling of the bone). Stir gently every 20 minutes or so during the cooking period, turning the duck pieces over now and then. 

6.  Finish the curry.  Remove lid and add chopped tomato. Allow the tomato to break down into the sauce, gently turning up the heat to reduce. Check the seasoning and, just before serving, add the chopped cilantro. 

*          *          *

When asked to give advice to home cooks, Chef Riviere recommended that they be "well organized and season everything before cooking (especially with freshly ground pepper)."  "More importantly," he added, "remember that it takes a few tries to get it perfect."  Those words are sage advice.  I have to say that my first attempt at Chana Masala and Mauritian Duck Curry was a good start.  The masala was very good and I was able to taste the various spices in the dish.  The duck curry was a little reminiscent of the Kerala Duck Curry that I made a few weeks ago.  If I had to chose between the two types of curry -- Mauritian or Keralan, I think I would choose the Mauritian Duck Curry.  I also plan on following Chef Riviere's advice by making the duck curry again.  I will update this post with any changes based upon my future efforts.  

Now, it is time to return to my previously scheduled challenges, and, until that time ...


ENJOY!


For more about Mauritius, check out Wikipedia

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