Gastronomy in Reunion finds its inspiration mostly in Indian cuisine and around the top 5 spices used on the island that are onion, garlic, tomato, curcuma and ginger giving dishes an extra kick without pain! Add a pinch of Madagascar and a hint of Africa and you get a picture of the local dishes.
Here is a list of the best specialties and a guide to help you get the most of Réunion in your plate!
These fried triangular bites can be found with a wide variety of fillings: spicy tuna or cod, vegetable mix (achards), sausage, cheese, chicken or any other leftover. Found in many restaurants, locals often stop by snack-bars to enjoy them with a Dodo, the local beer. In most cities on the island, people gather at night fall by the snack-bar trucks with their plastic chairs and tables on a dedicated square. Very low-key, soak in the atmosphere and do as locals do: enjoy some of the best samosas with a cold Dodo!
Should you want to try to make samosas yourself, use spring roll sheets, slice them into rectangular shapes, put a good table spoon of filling on and fold the sheets around the filling in a 90° triangle. Close them with some glue (a mix of flour and water) and deep fry your samosas for a few minutes.
Let’s stay a bit longer at the snack-bar to taste this other best-seller: the bonbon piment (hot pepper candy). These donut-looking local dim-sums with their hole in the center are made of white beans from the Cape. Soaked in water for 24 hours and then pealed, they must be mashed very well so that they become like a paste. With a few spices added (curcuma, salt, cumin seeds, fresh coriander, chives, peppers, and Cary leafs), the deep fried bonbon (candy) is ready to take shape: the hole in the center ensures an even cooking.
Achards [vegetable mix]
Achards de légumes is a spicy vegetable mix that you will find a lot on the island. You even find the ingredients already chopped on most markets! It is surprisingly easy to cook it:
- The dressing: mix finely chopped garlic, ginger, a pinch of salt and black pepper, cumin seeds and mustard seeds. Then add some curcuma powder.
- The cooking: bring some sunflower oil on the fire to a high temperature. Add red onions and stir for a while. Add the spices and keep stirring. Add the veggies: white cabbage, carrots, green beans, and peppers. Stir for about 3 minutes. Then add vinegar and stop the fire.
Fresh cabbage palm [a delicacy]
This is a very fine gourmet ingredient highly appreciated in Reunionese gastronomy as a salad or cooked. It takes five years to grow the red or white palm trees before they are taken down for their hearts, the center of the trunk. A fresh palm cabbage salad with curcuma vinegar is a very delicate dish you must try. It can also be found cooked in a cari but we recommend you to taste it fresh to identify the taste.
Rice & grains [inc. the lentils of Cilaos]
This is the traditional side. You are expected to pour the grains on the rice, and to add a little rougail condiment on the side before mixing it all.
Amongst grains, beans of all sizes and colors (black, red, white) are common, and the Cilaos lentils are a feast. The volcanic soil of Reunion and more specifically the Cilaos region gives the specific taste to these small lentils reputed to be the best in the world.
What is probably the most traditional dish in Réunion is the chicken cari (cari poulet). There are many other types, like the fish cari (cari poisson) or the delicious octopus cari (cari zourite). The cari is served with rice and grains on the side, as well as brèdes (the local name for leafy green vegetables like the omnipresent chouchou or chayote) and rougail (the condiment version – see below).
Cooking a cari always starts with bringing sunflower oil at a very high temperature in a cast iron casserole. For a chicken cari with fresh cabbage palm, then the chicken is added (with the feet please for the taste) with the curcuma. When it has a nice color, the onions are added. Later the tomatoes cut in pieces are added to deglaze and last, the fresh cabbage palm.
Rougail [the dish]
It is confusingly close to cari (see below)! The dish that you will be served unavoidably – probably several times if you go hiking in the Cirques and stay in gîtes – and for your greatest pleasure is the rougail saucisse. As with cari, there are as many rougails as main ingredients.
Rougail [the condiment]
A little bit more confusion? Rougail designates two different things: either a dish or a spicy condiment based on vegetables and hot peppers!
Even more confusing, the condiment version of the rougail accompanies a cari.
The condiment comes in a small dish and is passed around the table. Take a little and add it to your cari to add a kick.
So after all, what is the difference between a cari and a rougail?
This is not an easy question and after thorough investigations and tastings these two very similar dishes differ from each other:
- Ingredients: a cari is base on raw meat that is then cooked. On the contrary prepared meat is used for the rougail either salted and dried (like cod in rougail morue) or smoked (boucané is often smoked pork) or arranged (sausage in rougail saucisse).
- Cooking process: In a rougail, the main ingredient is boiled in an open casserole to get rid of the salt and to start cooking the meat. Water is never added. In a cari, the meat is cooked in a covered dish.
- Spiciness: A cari is not spicy and hot pepper is never used in the cooking process. It is the rougail condiment added on the side that gives it an extra kick.
- Curcuma: used only in caris.
Only in season, bichiques are small fish swimming up from the sea to the rivers. They are transparent in the sea and get darker as they get in contact with fresh water. Bichiques are fished only by authorized fishermen when they turn grey. Reaching prices as high as 80€/kg, this is the caviar of the island.
Gâteau patate [potato cake]
It sounds less tempting than it tastes! This local’s favorite is prepared with sweet potatoes. They are graded and used as a base for the dough. This is an absolute perfect snack on the strenuous hikes in the mountains of Réunion that will give you the energy boost you need!
The vanilla growing on the island is reputed to be world’s best (and is cultivated and processed very differently compared to the one from Madagascar). To know all about it: check this article out! Vanilla is used in desserts of course, but also in rum (a lot!) and dishes like chicken with vanilla sauce and lentils (from Cilaos of course!)…
Rhum arrangés (infused rums)
If vines arrived to Reunion Island by boat with the first colons in 1665, and if wine is still made today in the Cirque de Cilaos, it is not the best one around. In terms of superlative, we will stick to the fact that they are the highest vineyards of France with grapes being cultivated at an altitude between 600 and 1,300 meters. Instead, rums punch’s and infused rums are the local’s favorite. Everyone here infuses traditional rum with fruits, spices or even flowers (like the endemic Fa’am wild orchid).
For non-alcoholic drinks, fruit juices are delicious as well as herbal teas from the garden with fresh mint, cinnamon, saffron, rosemary, spices…
Marcella & Claire
- To taste some of the best food in Réunion, head to:
- For a cooking class, join Jacky at Far Far Kréol.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.