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Posts tagged ‘Indian Ocean’

Bouchées, Litchis, and Carmina Burana

I spent December 2002 in Réunion, a small Indian Ocean island near Mauritius. I had won a scholarship from the French government, one of several offered every year to South African students, to improve my language skills and knowledge of French ‘civilisation’ in this outpost of lHexagone. Réunion, which is part of the Eurozone and is the outermost region of the EU, is an overseas department of France, meaning that it’s as integral of a part of the country as, for example, Loire and Haute-Savoie. But with an active volcano.

2002 was one of the rare years when Christmas, Hanukkah, and Eid al-Fitr were celebrated within a few days of one another. With its large Christian and Muslim populations, Réunion was particularly festive that December. On Christmas Eve, I was taken to a performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in a cathedral built from blackened volcanic rock in Saint-Louis, a town in the southwest of the island. Given the cantata’s less-than-pious subject matter, it seemed at first an odd choice of seasonal choral music, but by the end of the performance, it was the obvious – the best – music to celebrate Christmas in Réunion.

The cathedral in Saint-Louis

The cathedral in Saint-Louis

Although the tenor and soprano had flown in from France, the members of the choir and orchestra were locals, most of them amateur performers whose families were seated in the audience. Small children ran to kiss parents and siblings in the string and woodwind sections; and the altos waved to grandparents seated in the back row, beside the plastic statue of the Madonna with the halo made of pink flashing fairy lights.

The conductor’s role was less to assist in the interpretation of the music, then to marshal his varied and enthusiastic performers into a coherent orchestra, with each section reaching the end of the cantata at more-or-less the same time. But he was also aware of the context in which Carmina Burana was being performed. About halfway through the third section, the muezzin in a nearby mosque began the sunset call to prayers. As his appeal to the faithful drifted in through the cathedral’s open windows – it was a hot, muggy evening – the conductor raised his hands to orchestra and choir, and the performers fell silent. We waited, quietly, for the call to end. The conductor picked up his baton, and the performance continued. Anarchically, joyously.

In Le Tampon (yes, really), the town where I stayed.

In Le Tampon (yes, really), the town where I stayed.

Officially claimed by France in 1642, Réunion – first called Île Bourbon after the French royal house, and then Réunion after 1793 (to commemorate the reunion of revolutionaries from Marseille and the National Guard in Paris), and then Île Bonaparte between 1801 and 1810, and then Bourbon again until 1848 (this included the short period of British rule, 1810-1815), when it reverted to Réunion after the fall of the Bourbon monarchy during that year’s revolution – was settled by free and enslaved peoples from three continents.

The first settlers arrived from Europe in 1665, assisted by the French East India Company. The vast majority of those from Africa and Asia were brought to the island as slaves, between 1690 and 1848, when slavery was abolished. Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian, and east African slaves worked on Réunion’s sugar plantations, usually in appallingly cruel conditions, an aspect of Réunion’s history which figures strongly in the island’s thriving bandes desinées culture. It still exports sugarcane and some alarmingly powerful rum.

Piton de la Fournaise

Piton de la Fournaise

Réunion’s cuisine reflects the variety of the islanders’ origins particularly well, but is nevertheless also shaped by the produce and climate of the island. Its landscape is as varied as its people. At its centre is an active volcano, the Piton de la Fournaise – which was erupting when I arrived – and three calderas, or cirques (collapsed, extinct volcanoes). Reached on winding, narrow roads, the towns in the Cirque de Salazie and the Cirque de Cilaos are at high altitudes, with tall forests, where I found wild strawberries. In contrast, the west of the island is all palm trees, azure sea, and white sand. There are black, volcanic beaches near Saint-Denis, Réunion’s capital at the north of the island, and to the east are the tropical plants grown for the essential oils used in the perfume industry.

Cirque de Cilaos. If you look carefully, you'll spot the wild strawberries.

Cirque de Cilaos. If you look carefully, you’ll spot the wild strawberries.

I returned home with bunches of vanilla pods in my luggage. I have also never since eaten quite as many litchis as I did in Réunion. They were enormous and perfumed and sweet – and sold by the branch by groups old ladies laden with plastic shopping bags of fruit. I made the – apparently dire – mistake of smiling at these women when I passed them in the town where I stayed. Only much later did I realise that this signalled my interest in buying their produce, and on four or five occasions, I was pursued – relentlessly – by an increasingly angry and rude collection of old women, all determined to sell me bags and bags of litchis.

Litchis for sale outside a supermarket

Litchis for sale outside a supermarket

Usually, I took refuge in the enormous local supermarket while they circled outside. The Hypercrack (yes, really) sold amazing croissants and bread, and I ate millefeuille at one party, and an excellent croque monsieur at a café in Saint-Gilles les Baines. But I also ate a range of different curries, and versions of Peking duck with pancakes. I ate pad thai at a music festival, and bought samosas stuffed, unusually, with pork mince from a street vendor in Saint-Pierre.

Saint-Pierre

Saint-Pierre

As someone coming from newly-democratic South Africa, I was struck by how easily the island’s very heterogeneous population appeared to get along. The performance of Carmina Burana in Saint-Louis seemed only to confirm this willing tolerance of other traditions and religions. But Réunion does have profound social problems: there were riots in 1991, and it has a widening gap between the island’s wealthy and very poor – Réunion’s unemployment rate sits at around 40 per cent.

Cirque de Salazie

Cirque de Salazie

Instead of glibly understanding Réunion’s varied cuisine – drawn from Europe and around the Indian Ocean, and influenced by the island’s climate and ecology – as an example of happy multiculturalism, it seems to me that its dishes show the ways in which people from different cultural, religious, or ethnic backgrounds negotiate ways of living with one another.

Hellbourg, Cirque de Salazie

Hellbourg, Cirque de Salazie

One of the best examples of this process in Réunion is the bouchon. There are other bouchées in French cuisine, both sweet and savoury, but their similarity lies in their cork-like shape (‘bouchon’ means ‘cork’). The bouchées of Réunion are golf ball-sized, stubby dumplings of minced meat – usually pork or chicken – wrapped in rice paper and then steamed until cooked through.

I first ate a bouchon at a party which had been thrown for our group of South African students. One of our lecturers had spent the preceding week waxing lyrical about the feast of bouchées which awaited us, so I was curious to try them. I confess that I thought they tasted like meat-flavoured glue. While it’s entirely possible that our hostess was a substandard bouchon-maker and that I had the misfortune to try the island’s worst examples of the delicacy, the only way I managed to eat them was by dousing them liberally with soy sauce.

Saint-Denis

Saint-Denis

The reason why I think that I was unlucky in my bouchon-sampling experience was that they’re based on the dumplings served as part of dim sum. Indeed, bouchées were developed by Cantonese immigrants to Réunion, and are now made and eaten by most of the island’s population. I think the best example of their hybridisation is the pain bouchon – a popular lunchtime choice sold at Chinese take-away restaurants. These are sandwiches made of baguettes split in half, stuffed with bouchées, and garnished with soy and chilli sauce, mayonnaise, ketchup, or melted cheese.

Cirque de Cilaos

Cirque de Cilaos

During much of the debate over the current mania for ‘authentic’ cuisine, I think often of the bouchon. It’s based on dim sum – one of the most recent additions to the foodie hall of authenticity fame – but modified by a varied group of immigrants to a small island in the Indian Ocean. Sandwiched in a baguette and slathered in mayonnaise, it’s no longer particularly ‘Chinese’, nor terribly ‘French’, but particular to Réunion. It’s this messiness – literally – that demonstrates the futility, and snobbery, around the quest for ‘authentic’ cuisine.

More of Piton de la Fornaise

More of Piton de la Fornaise

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

African Rice

I’ve recently finished lecturing an undergraduate course on African history up until 1914. It’s one of my favourite areas to teach, partly because students – even South African ones – tend to have very little knowledge about the continent’s past.

In fact, it’s often quite difficult to persuade them that there is a pre-colonial African history to study and teach. Now, most people would be horrified by the racism which underpinned Hugh Trevor-Roper’s 1963 assertion that

Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of Europe in Africa. The rest is largely darkness.

But there’s still a relatively widespread belief that not only were African societies not subject to change over time – that their ways of life remained static over the course of several centuries – but that only anthropologists have the requisite skills to study Africans and their past.

This is all nonsense, of course. Since the early 1960s, an extraordinarily rich and varied body of work on African history has been produced by scholars working all over the world. More recently, and particularly as global history has emerged as a popular field, historians have begun to examine the links between the continent and other parts of the world.

Far from being isolated until the arrival of Portuguese traders in the fifteenth century, Africans have long had contact with foreigners. For instance, the trade in gold and salt across the Sahara from around the second and third centuries onwards, connected African kingdoms in the Sahel with the Islamic world.

Too often accounts of, particularly European, contact with Africa describe this trade as benefitting only one side of the exchange: that a plundering of Africa’s natural resources in exchange for beads, alcohol, or muskets deliberately bamboozled Africans into giving up incredibly precious ivory or gold for objects of considerably lesser value.

This was not entirely the case. One of the best ways to understand the complex history of exchange between Africans and traders and other visitors from Europe and Asia is – naturally, dear readers – through food.

Since the second and third centuries AD, the east coast of Africa was part of an international trading network which extended around the Indian Ocean. As Africans came into contact with Arab traders, goods, languages, ideas, and people arrived and left this long coastline over the course of nearly a millennium. During this period, African crops – including millet, sorghum, okra, and watermelon – were taken to the Middle East, India, and beyond. In return, coconut palms, sugarcane, and bananas were introduced to the continent.

Coffee from Ethiopia probably reached Yemen – via the port of Mocha – during the sixth century. Here, Yemenis roasted, rather than fermented, coffee beans, and the drink spread slowly around the Middle East, Turkey, and North Africa. When Europeans discovered that it could be made more palatable with the addition of milk and sugar, it became popular in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Coffee plantations established in Dutch and French colonies in southeast Asia and the Caribbean during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped to fuel the growth of these European economies.

Sometime between the eighth and twelfth centuries, Oryza sativa, or Asian rice, was introduced to east Africa from India. Muslim traders were probably responsible for the earliest cultivation of rice in Kenya, and migrants from Malaysia and Indonesia brought rice to Madagascar.

All this occurred long before 1492, the year of Christopher Columbus’s crossing of the Atlantic to the Americas, and the beginning of the Columbian exchange. Although there was a significant circulation of crops around the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean worlds, the Columbian Exchange holds a particular significance in histories of food and medicine: it describes the introduction of livestock, European and Asian crops – predominantly wheat – and diseases like syphilis and smallpox to the Americas, and the gradual cultivation of New World staples – maize, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, beans – in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Judith A. Carney writes:

Within decades of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, the New World domesticate, maize, was being planted in West Africa. Other Amerindian staples soon followed, such as manioc, sweet potatoes, capsicum peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, cashew nuts, pineapple, pumpkins, squash, and tobacco. The early establishment of maize as a food staple in West and Central Africa illuminates the radical transformation of African agricultural systems wrought by the Columbian exchange.

By the time that the transatlantic slave trade reached its height during the eighteenth century, maize cultivation was widespread throughout west Africa, and was a staple for slaves shipped across to the Americas.

Slaves took with them not only their own languages, cultural practises, and social structures – but also their knowledge of agricultural production. African rice, Oryza glaberrima, had been grown in west Africa since long before the arrival of Asian rice on the east coast of the continent. Carney explains:

Muslim scholars reaching the western Sudan from North Africa in the eleventh century found an already well developed system of rice cultivation in the inland delta of the Niger Delta and a robust regional trade in surpluses. The domestication of glaberrima rice in West Africa was thus established centuries before Asian sativa arrived in East Africa.

It was slaves taken from these regions who used their expertise in rice production in the Americas, and particularly successfully in South Carolina. The cultivation of rice had begun there in the 1690s, and by the eighteenth century, was the source of significant revenue for the colony. There is compelling evidence to suggest that African slaves used the same irrigation and planting systems that they had in west Africa, in South Carolina. Far from being only the labour which worked the plantations in the Americas, they were also responsible for establishing a successful system of rice cultivation.

Labourers on a rice plantation, South Carolina, 1895 (http://www.niu.edu/~rfeurer/labor/chronological.html)

African slaves also pioneered the cultivation of a range of other crops, including black-eyed peas, okra, yams, and watermelons. Perhaps the best example of the circulation of crops around the Atlantic world was the peanut: introduced to west Africa from South America by the 1560s, it was taken to North America by African slaves during the eighteenth century.

What all of this demonstrates is not only that Africa and Africans have participated in global trading networks for centuries, but that they shaped food production in the Americas.

One of the many narratives peddled by foreign coverage of Africa is that the continent’s salvation – whatever we may mean by that – lies in outside intervention: in Nicholas Kristof’s ‘bridge characters’ (foreign aid workers, volunteers), or in elaborate packages created by the IMF or other international organisations.

This narrative is predicated on the wholly incorrect belief that Africans have, historically, been acted upon – have had change thrust upon them – rather than being actors themselves. As an understanding of the transfer of agricultural knowledge and produce across the Atlantic from the seventeenth century onwards demonstrates, this could not have been further from the truth.

Sources

Judith A. Carney, ‘African Rice in the Columbian Exchange,’ Journal of African History, vol. 42, no. 3 (2001), pp. 377-396.

Judith A. Carney, ‘From Hands to Tutors: African Expertise in the South Carolina Rice Economy,’ Agricultural History, vol. 67, no. 3 (Summer 1993), pp. 1-30.

Judith A. Carney, ‘The Role of African Rice and Slaves in the History of Rice Cultivation in the Americas,’ Human Ecology, vol. 26, no. 4 (Dec. 1998), pp. 525-545.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.