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PREMI BONOMALLY: a force of nature

In articles on June 7, 2012 at 12:19 pm

This is another Fork magazine article. I met Premi at her daughter’s house in Bristol – her daughter and I used to work together. The few hours I spent with Premi were great fun and we laughed a lot. For such an amazing woman, she was oddly camera shy and the pictures I got of her don’t really capture her.

Maybe you’ve heard of Mauritius from someone who spent their honeymoon there or from vague memories of the dodo at school. You might even be able to find the island somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean about 500 miles up and right of Madagascar. Personally, I don’t go much beyond a picture postcard white-sand beach, complete with palm tree.

I meet Premi Bonomally who tells me more about the food culture of this island that has passed from the Portuguese to the Dutch, the French and then the British on its road to independence. “I left 40 years ago,” Premi tells me, “all there was for an Indian girl in Mauritius in those days was marriage. My mother took me out of school at 12 to learn to sew from a wealthy Muslim neighbour, but I worked for her secretly as a maid to pay for school instead – until I was 15!” Premi wears the brightest yellow, “This morning, a fisherman at the market said to me ‘I can see that colour is your personality … my wife only wears grey!’” Her laughter is infectious.

During our afternoon together, I learn as much about Premi as I do about Mauritian food – and she never fails to surprise. She was the first Mauritian woman in the RAF, a champion of sega, the Mauritian national dance and qualified in complimentary therapies from Ayurvedic massage to Aromatherapy.

So interesting is her story that I have to remind myself constantly to keep my focus. Don’t forget about the food!

“Mum’s the best cook in the world,” her daughter Melissa declares, baby on hip, “her dahl is fantastic – way better than that watery Indian stuff.” Anyone who knows Indian food will find plenty that’s familiar – samosas stuffed with peas, potato and spices (Premi pronounces it samoosa), chutneys (chatini), roti, pickles.

Quite quickly, though, this familiar ground gives way to Creole cooking, a territory reflecting the island’s unique heritage, blending Indian, Chinese, European and African elements. Food and language follow similar patterns. “I’m Indian and Mauritian. I grew up speaking Bhojpuri, the Chinese speak Cantonese or Hakka, the elite speak French or English, but everyone speaks Creole,” Premi explains, “Indians celebrate with biryani that can take a day or more to prepare, the Chinese make fried rice, but everyone eats rougaille.”

She points to a splendid mound of fish smothered in ruddy sauce that takes pride of place in the centre of the table, “it’s African originally, like sega. You sizzle the onions, garlic, ginger and fresh thyme in oil, then add the tomatoes. Whenever you use tomatoes,” she tells me, “you must add some Demerara sugar to balance the acidity. We make rougaille with deep-fried lamb, beef or fish.” She seasons it with lots of hot green bird’s eye chillies, chopped green spring onion leaves, parsley and coriander. “At home we use snook but this is haddock. When you fillet a fish,” Premi says, “you throw away all the goodness in the spine and the bones. I get my fish straight from the market in Plymouth,” she leans in conspiratorially, “last week, I got loads of cod heads – for free! Now the freezer is packed full of them, and I’m going to use them to make samoosas.”

“This is achard legume,” Premi tells me as we try the tasty salad of shredded cabbage, beans and carrots with spices and mustard, “it’s another poor man’s food. It’s only the very rich and the very poor who eat traditional food in Mauritius now – the tourists and the labourers. It’s like Europe now – everyone wants KFC.”

When Premi first arrived in the UK, Mauritius and Europe were worlds apart. She learnt British manners and customs from the ladies in the geriatric ward where she trained as a nurse. “In those days,” she says, “it was rich and poor side by side on the wards. We played scrabble, I did their hair and nails and gave them face massages. ‘Don’t laugh at me,’ I’d say to them, ‘teach me’. They taught me how use a knife and a fork, to speak well and to make a spotted dick.”

Most of the basic ingredients in Mauritian cooking – onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes and fresh herbs – are widely available in the UK. “You can’t get the same fish here though,” she says, “but you can use cod or mackerel instead of grey mullet as long as you cook it with the bones. There are some things you can only get in London or Paris, like brèd mouroum, but that’s OK too,” her face becomes serious, “cooking is like anything – like nursing or therapies… or sega. The basic ingredients aren’t enough – you have to have passion or it just won’t work.”

I leave with the impression of an island – and a cuisine – where the elements often remain distinct, separate according to their origins, but where there always seems to be a place, somewhere in the middle, that’s uniquely Mauritian.

This interview is an extract from issue 19 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

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