x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Culinary journeys: the Seychelles, an iridescent spread

A gastronomic tour through the archipelago offers a satisfying feast for all the senses.

Beach - north west coast, Mahe. Seychelles. By Rosemary Behan.
Beach - north west coast, Mahe. Seychelles. By Rosemary Behan.

I don't remember exactly when it was - some time in the early 1990s - that the mythical, mesmerising "blue raspberry" made its debut on the spectrum of normative fruit flavours in novelty candy. It was love at first lick, and I came home one night giddy on electric-blue lollipops and with the evidence on my lips, which had turned a hypothermic shade of indigo. My mother took one look and forbade me to touch another blue candy on the premise that "it's a colour that doesn't occur in nature".

Until I visited Seychelles, I might have taken her at her word. The Caribbean's crisp turquoise comes close enough, and I've grown (mostly) out of the pleasure I once took in proving my mother wrong. But it is the subequatorial archipelago of the Seychelles, right in the middle of nowhere, which proves no blue is too blue to be true.

With the smallest population of any sovereign state in Africa, the Seychelles was the last group of islands in the entire world to be colonised by humans. The roads that snake perilously through the hilly main island of Mahé are flanked on either side with acacia, palm fronds and cinnamon, which grows invasively and constitutes half the local vegetation. The entire island can be seen by car in a couple of hours; for a more authentic experience, a bus ride around the island costs a paltry six Seychellois rupees (Dh1.75).

The residents are fond of saying that there's only one season here and most of them - and certainly those in the hospitality industry - speak French, English and Seychellois Creole. And in the Seychelles, ancestral roots include just about anywhere, as I wanted desperately to explain to a sunburned American engaged in an excruciating exchange with a fair-skinned Seychellois vendor at the market. "But where are you from, like, originally?" asked the tourist for the third time. "I told you," said the vendor. "I'm as authentic Seychellois as you can get."

Modern Seychelles cookery reflects this, with its Chinese, Indian, French and British influences. If I didn't hate the term "melting pot", I'd probably use it here. The culinary backbone here is cari (curry), chillies, local fruits and fruits de mer, French bread and herbs, with coriander, lemongrass, tamarind and ginger. The British brought tea to the Seychelles and its popularity has since eclipsed that of coffee, although both were cultivated here at one time. The coffee trade has been put to rest, while modest tea production continues. Only women are allowed to pick tea leaves, supposedly for the delicacy of their touch, although I suspect that anyone with the stamina to pick and haul 18kg of tea leaves every day is tougher than she gets credit for.

Chatini, Creole for "chutney", refers to an entire class of foods that have little to do with chutney as many of us know it: mango, carrots, cabbage, pumpkin, ripe papaya and the ubiquitous green papaya are grated or pureed, salted and drained then tossed with lemon juice and fried onions before being served alongside other dishes. The combination of citrus and brine lends a tart, savoury element reminiscent of a pickle or chutney, but chatinis are not preserves; they're fresh and they often constitute the bulk of a meal.

Chatinis are also made with either skinned shark meat or tuna that has been broken into pieces and stir-fried with onions, spices, and juices of lime and the mouth-puckering bilimbi fruit, tarter than a common crab apple.

I snagged some takeaway shark chatini in downtown Victoria, the Seychelles capital, and it was mashed into an unappealing paste. But the tuna chatini I tasted during dinner at Marie-Antoinette, one of the town's top restaurants, was another story entirely: thin, tender tuna steaks in a tangy and robust sauce with a compelling piquancy. Marie-Antoinette serves a solid, prix fixe Creole spread for around €15 (Dh73) a head: fried grouper and eggplant fritters, grilled red snapper (known locally as "bourgeois" or "bourzwa") and an assortment of chatinis, the best being one with paper thin mango, and another with translucent ribbons of green papaya, which, doused in chilli, I could have scarfed by the kilo.

I learned quickly to ask for a side of chilli with everything. It's usually kept away from tourists, and sometimes asking for it will gain a look of amused incredulity. The important thing to know is that everyone's version is different and everyone's version is hot.

On the high-speed ferry to Praslin, my dried fruit and salted cassava crisps grew saltier by the second in the briny air and sea spray. The Indian Ocean darkened to sapphire as we ferried over its secret depths. As we reached Praslin's viridian coves, flickers of lightning from an approaching storm lit up the edges of the sky.

I fell instantly in love with the island. Bonbon Plume is set on a recessed ridge overlooking pristine Anse Lazio, a beach whose legendary beauty has been cast in shadow since last August when a Great White shark killed two tourists there (prevention nets have since been installed). Besides, like any dedicated hedonist, I had come to the beach to eat, not swim, and the marinated raw fish starter - similar to ceviche but without the acidity, and smothered with jewel-like red, green and yellow chillies - was all I needed to break a sweat. A fiery coconut cari of firm-fleshed, velvety slipper lobster was so sublime I had to practise restraint to keep from licking the plate.

Dessert was the justly lauded caramelised coconut nougat, which was dark and rich and sweet as molasses, melted beneath its mantle of coconut sorbet. It was great, but I managed exactly one bite before I had to throw in the towel. Coconut desserts are everywhere in Seychelles, and after a week of coconut panna cotta, banana flambé with coconut ice cream, coconut tea bread and coconut custard tart, I had reached my limit. Instead, I capped off my meal with a cup of citronelle tea, which offered a medicinal bouquet of lemongrass and mosquito repellent. Fortunately, it tasted better than it smelled.

Limited produce grows in the Seychelles, but what is there grows in quantity and variety. The market in Victoria is open every day except Sunday and, though it's not a big market, it consolidates some good local fish, produce and products under one roof: marmalade made from small, bitter oranges known as bigarades, bottles of fresh coconut oil from the coco de mer palm, bundles of cinnamon sticks stacked on one another, looking valuable and important, like replicas of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Nearby a dozen residents were waiting in line to buy eggs from the back of a flatbed truck.

The vegetable selection was lame. But despite warnings from guidebooks that the fruit selection would be similarly disappointing to an adventurous eater, I had my mind thoroughly blown. Avocado, passion fruit and papaya were everywhere, as were bananas - and not the standard yellow Cavendish, but diminutive bananas, and big red bananas, and St Jacques plantains, which are used in savoury dishes. Multiple varieties of mango are cultivated and sold (though none of the ones I tried were as exciting as the ones we import here in the UAE). There are different fruits from the custard apple family, including soursop and the creamy, red-skinned coeur de boeuf (also known as bull's or ox's heart). There's the yellow sapote, also known as canistel or egg fruit, with its saffron flesh uncannily reminiscent of a sweetened hard-boiled egg yolk. Fragrant star fruit (carambola) bore no resemblance to the watery, fibrous impostors I'd met before.

Finally, I discovered the most beautiful smooth-skinned, cone-shaped, rose-coloured fruits at an unattended stand showcasing frangipani and hibiscus flower bouquets. "I don't know the name," said a taxi driver, when I showed him the photo, "but they are very tasty and the children love them." I posted the photo of them in an online fruit identification board; still, nothing. After resigning myself to letting the fruit go awash in mystery, I found my answer using an encyclopedic database of southeast Asian fruit. The jamalac is also known as a wax apple, love apple, water apple, mountain apple, cloud apple, rose apple, java apple and Jamaican apple. I'll give you one guess as to which fruit it's said to taste like.

The market was also my first encounter with freshly harvested nutmeg, with the neon-pink, sci-fi looking, lace-like mace still cradling its husk. My negotiation skills failed to impress the stone-cold vendor, and I paid what I felt was too much, but nabbing a dozen plump, local vanilla beans for 100 rupees (Dh30) helped soothe the pain.

When I arrived at Le Jardin du Rois spice garden for a long-awaited lunch, they had just harvested nutmeg from on the property for the kitchen's use and it was laid out on trays in the dining room. The restaurant uses ingredients grown on the premises for their epic "Sunday menu", which despite the name is available for lunch daily. Traditionally, "Sunday menu" means small plates of everything the chef has cooked that day. The food was simple, homely and good.

Aside from the breadfruit daube, that is. Local folklore says that eating breadfruit in the Seychelles will guarantee your return. But I can't bring myself to love its sweet-ish starchiness, which sustained the older generations before rice was easily available, and it's now used in a number of preparations similarly to how one would use a potato. I tolerated it a number of ways: boiled, mashed, fried into disc-shaped crisps and matchstick-shaped chips, before finding an incarnation I genuinely enjoyed: barbecued with lots of butter. (The Praslin Museum gives breadfruit-grilling lessons, but I passed.)

The daube, made from breadfruit, yams, cassava, and bananas or plantains, can be served as a side dish, but it tasted like dessert. And so, mouth sweetened, I declined the offer of a scoop of homemade ice-cream. I'm glad the proprietress insisted I try it anyway: it was ice cream made with the garden's cinnamon, mint and lemongrass, and each flavour was more pronounced and profound than the one before it. It was the cinnamon that knocked me out of my seat; even now, I cannot think of it without my eyes crossing.

With six days on the islands, there were many local delicacies I didn't have a chance to try: king fish fried in garlic butter, battered and fried parrot fish with a spicy tomato sauce, smoked sailfish, little local clams called tektek or pipis, the gamy dark meat of the Seychelles fruit bat, sea snails served in their shells with herbs and garlic, and rabbit fish, nicknamed "the fish that makes women drunk" because it secretes a hormone that's harmless to the eater but will make him or her feel tipsy. On Wednesdays, the night market at Beau Vallon beach is an opportunity to sample local fare without the commitment of a sit-down meal. It also helps to bridge the predictable gulf between locals and tourists, which can impede anyone hoping to merge into the local lifestyle on their island holiday. As with the UAE, one gets the impression that what one sees as an outsider in the Seychelles is only a sliver of the story, and definitely not the story lived by its residents.

Yet there are two Creole dishes I'll dream about until I return: the explosively flavoured, surreally silky octopus cari, and salade de palmiste (hearts of palm). I'd always lovingly described them as a vegan-friendly version of canned marrowbones, but fresh hearts of palm were a revelation. Crisp, cooling and vegetal, they were served with some crab meat in a "millionaire's salad", named so because a whole palm tree has to be cut down to harvest the heart (one heart will yield a huge number of salads). It needs to be said: there's something deliciously sardonic about a culinary lexicon that includes "bourgeois" as a national fish and "millionaire's salad" as a national dish.

Pantone Inc declared turquoise 15-5519 Colour of the Year for 2010, making it the third time in 10 years that a shade of turquoise has been handed the gilded tiara. "Turquoise transports us to an exciting tropical paradise while offering a sense of protection and healing in stressful times", the company says. I'll come back to Seychelles, a day late and a dollar short on the big blue bandwagon, but I'll come in February for Carnival, the festive season immediately before Lent, to see how the Seychellois do Mardi Gras.

If you go

The flight

Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Mahé cost from Dh2,760, including taxes.

The stay

A night in an ocean-view villa at Maia Luxury Resort & Spa (www.maia.com.sc; 00 248 4390 000), including breakfast and butler services, costs from 1,670 rupees (Dh8,234) per night, including taxes

The info

Visit the Seychelles Tourism Board website at www.seychelles.travel.