Through the tall palms and plots of turmeric and chives and ginger, ayapana and curry leaves and thyme, geranium and mint and orchids… a tall man in a black and white apron ran towards us, a young girl and boy following after him as the sun started to slip behind the garden. The same smile and eyes across all three faces: father, daughter, son.
We were down a side road of a side road, in the village of Mahébourg, Sanjeev’s home on the south-east coast of Mauritius. Running up to us, Chef Sanjeev was out of his 20 Degres Sud uniform, out of the hotel kitchen and restaurant, and in his own garden, his own home and kitchen, with a whole different team around him.
But food remained the constant that had brought us together – a search for the kind of food that local Mauritians eat. Food, ingredients and cooking styles that shaped the man we call Chef.
We followed Sanjeev and his two children up the winding garden path to the front door of a typically Mauritian house, where several generations of the Purahoo family have lived and continue to live today.
The kitchen spilled out from inside, to the portico with its additional tables and stoves for food preparation, and further still to the patio, under shade cloth, where a fire was burning in anticipation of the pots and pans that would soon arrive.
Inside cooking already was Sanjeev’s wife, Stephanie, and mother, Renouka, stirring and sprinkling and serving us on greeting. A hug and a canapé, a kiss and a mojito (fresh cane juice, lime, mint and rum). Around the fire outside was Sanjeev’s father, Bob and brother Rishi. Chairs were pulled out, jack fruit was presented and fawned over, kids ran through the empty spaces between our legs and wine glasses took their place in our hands.
This was how it began. Our seven curry dinner. In a flurry, a fury, a rush and a rhythm. Too steady a stream of commotion and excitement to stop anytime soon.
Things happen in a person’s home that you don’t get to see or feel outside their walls.
In Chef’s home, we saw him as the family man (the father, husband, son and brother), the gardener, the wine lover, rum sharer, and storyteller. We heard the tales of his childhood and glimpsed the similarities of his legacy stretched across the generations, in the faces and words and actions of our hosts.
Things happen in a family kitchen that don’t happen in a restaurant kitchen. There is less pressure, more presence, still a fast pace, but a more natural togetherness, and a more forgiving space for teaching. With our hands deep in the dough, Sanjeev’s sister taught us the art of making farata (flatbread) and ti puri (flaky pancakes or crêpe).
As night fell, we gathered around the dining room table. Banana leaves swooped into place before us, followed by seven different kinds of curries, various pastes and chutneys: aubergine curry, gros pois (peas); giraumon (pumpkin), fish stew with pomme d amour (tomato), venison curry, chouchou, pumpkin fricassee, and charcoal aubergine chutney and chilli, followed by a dessert of Rass malai.
The farata and ti puri replaced knives and forks and we spooned smaller and then bigger and bigger portions onto our leaves. Conversation quietened to only the audible exclamations of our delight in true Mauritian food.
When I’m asked about the best meals from my travels, my mind goes right back to this evening.
Like the people beside us around the table, the flavours from that night in Mahébourg were unashamed to stand out. Nothing and no one held back. Not until after the last shot of rum and the goodbyes and thank you’s and the dance of hesitant feet not wanting to exit the doorway.
I can still taste the meal, I can still hear the laughs, I can still feel the family’s embrace around us.
Thank you to Chef Sanjeev and his family and 20 Degres Sud for the unforgettable experience!