Talk about any Tamil festival in Mauritius, from religious ceremonies to weddings passing through rites of passage or any auspicious event, the constant is always the mouth-watering ‘Sept Cari’ (literary meaning seven ‘currys’).
Basically a spread consisting of several vegetable preparations served on fresh plantain leaves along with hot rice, the sept cari as it is in Mauritius, goes beyond the actual meal itself, it the sum-up of a journey of culinary traditions right from Southern India to the festive tables of a vibrant islander Indian Diaspora. The dynamics that have led to the Sept Cari being an established part of Mauritian Tamil celebrations, is a beautiful interplay of strong traditions from South Indian immigrants and an adaptation and contextualization of these traditions to their new island homeland over some 150/200 years.
If we go back to India, from where Tamil immigrants originate, we undeniably come across the vibrant need to share emotions from social milestones, auspicious days and less auspicious days (death ceremonies) over food. An elaborate meal is therefore an ‘incontournable’ part of hounouring a guest. Traditionally speaking a guest is never entertained without food. In the Southern part of India, this elaborate meal takes the form of the famous ‘Saappadu’ (a Tamil word connoting a full meal). The ‘Ilai Sappadu’ is the general term for a meal served on plantain leaves while the more appropriate and descriptive traditional term is the ‘Arusuvai Sappadu’ or the meal with six tastes. The components of a South Indian Meal are usually the following:
- Saambaar (stew type preparation with vegetables and pulses),
- Rasam (pungent watery soup with spices, herbs and chili)
- Kuzhambhu (a gravy based vegetable preparation)
- Poriyal (lightly spiced stir fried vegetables)
- Kootu (vegetables cooked in lentils and tempered with mustard and curry leaves)
- Pachadi (usually a yogurt preparation, tempered with curry leaves. Can also be mangoes or veggies)
- Payasam (sweet milk and sugar preparation with cereals or fruits)
- Apalam (fried crackers)
- All served with rice and ghee
The meal and its components might vary from community to community, but the basic recurring minimum is as listed above. All these dishes are cooked using different spices to bring out several distinct flavours and tastes. The items might also vary contextually and according to the event during which the meal is served. For example, at a wedding ceremony a grander version might be served with the Sambar done with different spices or the Payasam more rich.
The essence is that a meal should always form part of hospitality.
The meal is always served on the top part of a plantain leaf, known as ‘Thalai Vazha Ilai’ in Tamil. The top part or ‘head’ always point to the left side of the person eating the meal. And, the meal is taken with fingers of the right hand.
It is worth to note that Indian food is based on a science of holistic wellbeing. In Indian traditions, the adage ‘what we become is a direct consequence of what we consume’ holds a special place. The South Indian meal is therefore an adaptation of Ayurvedic principles to food preparation and consumption. It is said that a meal should contain the six different tastes in a proper ratio so as to be healthy and digestible. The six tastes, known as the ‘Aru Suvai’ are the following:
Thus, in the traditional meal, all the six tastes are incorporated through the different spices and combination of ingredients used.
From the South Indian meal to ‘Sept Cari’
We by now understand that a proper meal is an inseparable part of Indian traditions and it is based on an ideology of firstly, treating guests with full honour by feeding them well and secondly feeding them proper and nutritious food. Though, this type of eating is not restricted to hosting, but to routine family meals as well (in a significantly reduced format).
When they first landed in Mauritius a couple of centuries ago, Tamil immigrants and Indian immigrants in general brought with them this same culinary tradition. The concept of an elaborate meal served on plantain leaves eaten during all occasions is followed preciously till today. Within the Mauritian Tamil community, the concept of an ‘Arusuvai’ meal is still in vogue. However, the meal in Mauritius has departed in several ways from its Indian source while the overall concept is more or less the same.
The Mauritian spread consists of the following:
- ‘Dal Brinzel’ – Local version of Saambaar with aubergine. (note, compared to the Indian Saambar, the Mauritius version is exclusively done with aubergines. The spices used also differ from the Indian version)
- ‘Pomme De Terre Masala’ – Potatoes cooked in a blend of powdered spices generally called ‘Masala’ in Mauritius (it is actually a curry powder that goes into most Mauritian Indian dishes, it is even used as Saambaar powder)
- ‘Haricots Masala’ – (Green beans cooked the same way as the potatoes)
- ‘Cari Banane’ – (raw banana, grated and sautéed with a blend of spices comprised of mustard and turmeric. A version of the Indian Poriyal)
- ‘Ziromon Toufer’ – (Pumpkin cooked with mild spices)
- ‘Cari Zak’ – (Raw jackfruit cooked in the ‘Masala’ spice blend)
- ‘Pachadi’ – (cucumber mixed with yogurt and tempered with curry leaves and mustard seeds)
- ‘Sacrer Manga’ – (mango cooked with sugar and tempered with spices. The terms comes from Tamil ‘Chakkarai’ meaning sugar and Manga from ‘Maampazham’ Tamil name for Mango)
- ‘Rasson’ – (The term Rasson actually comes from Tamil ‘Rasam’. It is a watery soup prepared with tamarind and several spices. Usually eaten with rice, in Mauritius it is also served as a drink with the meal)
- ‘Payasson’ – (Payasson is the local term for ‘Payasam’, a sweet milk based dish sometimes cooked with cereals, pulses or fruits. In Mauritius only the ‘Sago(Tapioca) Payasam’ is prevalent and consequently the dish is often called ‘Sagoo’)
- ‘Applon’ – (‘Apalam’, a fried cracker often accompanying Indian meals)
- ‘Vadai’ – (A fried sweet dumpling made from lentils and banana. Vadai is generally a savoury in India, while in Mauritius a sweet version is served with meals along with Payasam and Appalam)
- ‘Panakon’ – (a drink prepared with water, sugar, lime juice, cardamom and dried ginger powder. Term comes from Indian ‘Paanakam’)
For some reason or the other, the choice of vegetables used in the meal have remained fixed. It might have been due to abundant availability of certain vegetables over others or a generalised preference for these particular vegetables. Whatever be the reasons, those preparations are now so closely linked to the traditional meal that replacing them would amount to culinary heresy 🙂 The Mauritian palate has now been accustomed to a traditional meal as it is listed above.
The ‘Sept Cari’ is always served on cleaned plantain leaves and laid in an orderly format. It is believed that the heat from the hot rice and curries trigger the release of certain vitamins from the plantain leaves that are absorbed in the food. Also eating with fingers is what tradition wants.
Now comes the big question where is ‘Sept’ or 7 related to all this?
Well, it most probably springs from the idea of ‘Arusuvai’ or ‘Six tastes’ blended in seven vegetable preparations. Saambar, Rasam, ‘Chakkarai Maanga’ and the sweets have been omitted from this counting. There might be other reasons as well, the cultural evolution of Indian immigrants in Mauritius is very complex and there have been phases where practices have started to be accustomed to local contexts and situations. In this process, names have been changed and ideas have been glued to ancestral customs as a means to intellectualise and give credence to a widening gap between the once home country (India) and the ‘new’ country. Nonetheless, traditions have been preserved and all of them have been added to the rainbow-like beautifully diverse ‘Mauritian’ cultural set up.
Where to find the ‘Sept Cari’ today in Mauritius?
- ‘Kaavadi’ festivities – the ‘Sept Cari’ is usually served as an auspicious meal after the ‘Kaavadi’ fasting, prayers and celebrations.
- On all ‘Puratasi Saturdays’ in Vaishnava homes. Puratasi is a pious Tamil month starting mid september till mid october.
- On wedding dinners or lunches. Especially on Wedding eves.
- Practically, in nearly all Tamil homes during major celebrations and events!
Note: Descendants of North Indian immigrants in Mauritius also have a meal that is called the ‘Sept Cari’ with totally different preparations. Telugu families share their version of the meal with the Tamils, with maybe slight differences in methods of preparation.
Copyright: Devaraj Moothoosamy. No parts of this article (including pictures) can be copied, reproduced without prior authorisation from the author.