We first need to add the context: Mauritius of yesteryear where only a privileged few owned a TV set which only broadcasted films at specific times each day. No cooking tv shows. Not many people owned an oven, at a time when most still used wood fire or kerosene lamps, with very little openness to the outside world. Only a few bakeries around the island which sold “French cakes”, a sheer delight for Mauritians, mainly for the older age group who keeps fond memories of this period. The “French cakes” which, at the end of the day, were far from being of French origin, as they were mostly from here!
People used to queue up in front of these bakery shops, especially on Sundays, after Sunday mass. One could buy all kinds of cakes there, some of which were definitely from Mauritius, such as the ”Napolitain” (small shortbread with Goyaves de Chine (guava) jam), the “Kare rouz “ (red square) or “Gato Francis”, a fluffy cake soaked in red syrup covered with grated coconut, the banana or caramelized custard tartlets, the “puits d’amour”(literally, well of love), a pastry cream tartlet, covered with grated coconut, decorated with a candied cherry or the bright-yellowish raisins flan. The Madrier, which had the particularity of being a cake made from remolded pastry leftovers, and which with a new icing, became a brand new and popular pastry. One would choose his favorite cake which was savored while standing right in the bakery shop itself. The gentlemen would definitely choose to stand outside the bakery shop and watch the charming young ladies pass by in their best Sunday attire.
Lots of people used to line up waiting for Nirmala, the Tantine (auntie) poutous who, seated on a small wooden bench on the sidewalk, cooked her famous “poutous” on the spot. This small cake made of rice flour and grated coconut, was steamed and made without any fat. The “poutou” was better enjoyed when it was so hot that it burned our fingers. Some would rather go for a “pudinn mais” (maize pudding), made from sweet polenta and raisins, sprinkled with grated coconut: a must-have as far as Mauritian goodies are concerned. There was also this vendor who used to wander through the streets, stopping in front of each and every house, with a blue trunk containing small multicolored “gato coco” (coconut cakes), “moutai, ladoo, ounde” (small cakes of Indian origin). Kids would pester their parents when they heard in the distance, “Missié la malle bleue” (the man with the blue trunk) chanting the list of snacks on sale. Some would opt for the local “boutik sinoi” (Chinese shop) to enjoy delicious “piaw” (small sugar donuts), “gato zinzli” (sesame seed fritters), “gato arouille” (taro fritters), or any other treats cooked by Madam Ah-Ming, the shopkeeper’s wife, in her own kitchen.
It’s a fact that our diversity is also found in what we eat! All those savories buried in our childhood memories sometimes bring back fleeting images of a not-too-distant past for some of us. A time when international fast-food brands were not yet trendy, when our “pistas sale” (salted peanuts) were more appreciated than the imported crunchy chips and snacks of all kinds that are so very popular nowadays.
Napolitains, ladoos, poutous, piaws…. so many Mauritian treats that were popular in bygone days and that we still relish in today. Let’s hope that the future generations will do their utmost to perpetuate our culinary heritage. May our Madeleines de Proust live on for a long time!