Reunion Island Christmas Feast
La Reunion is a volcanic island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, known for its impressive cultural diversity. The island has a fascinating history has resulted in a melting pot of traditions and culinary stles, with people of African, European, and Asian origin all contributing to the vibrant local culture. French is the island’s official language, but Creole, a language derived mainly from French with words from Malagasy, Hindi, Portuguese, Gujarti, and Tamil, is widely spoken.
As a department of France, the inhabitants of La Reunion enjoy full French citizenship, and French culture has influenced all sub-cultures on the island. The island’s administrative capital is St Denis, located at the northernmost point of the island and the most densely populated metropolitan area.
St Denis is a popular tourist destination, offering a slice of France just a 4-hour flight from Johannesburg. The main intersection of St Denis, Rue du Maréchal-Leclerc, intersects with Rue de Paris, the island’s shopping district. The area is home to typical French bakeries, museums, and historical buildings, as well as a mosque, the Shri Kali Kovil Tamil Temple, and a Chinese Pagoda, reflecting the multi-cultural nature of the region.
The festive season is an important time of year for all Reunionese groups, with Christmas Eve being the most significant day of celebration. Families gather together, and traditional snacks like pistachios, olives, spring rolls, samosas, and achards (a Reunion-stle salad) are served throughout the evening.
Starters are served relatively late in the evening, with gratins being popular. A gratin is a traditional French dish with an ingredient topped with a browned crust, often using breadcrumbs, cheese, egg, or butter. In Reunionese cuisine, gratins are often made with a base of pumpkin or “chouchou,” a squash-like vegetable versatile in application. “Chouchou” is also an affectionate French nickname, usually given to someone unique to you.
Mains are typically served with a base of rice or beans topped with shrimp or chicken, with vanilla duck cari being a festive favourite. Cari is a stewed meat dish featuring a generous helping of spices from India and Africa, often accompanied by steamed dumplings. Home-made cocktails like mango punch and rum are served as the evening progresses.
Sugarcane fields form an integral part of Reunion’s landscape, and the sugarcane industry is a primary source of export income after tourism. French overseas departments such as La Reunion, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana are the primary locations of rum distilleries. Rum is made in one of two ways: by distilling sugar cane juice for agricultural rum and by distilling fermented molasses to produce industrial rum. Storage in oak barrels results in gold rum or white rum if stored in stainless steel containers.
Several distilleries remain operational on Reunion Island, with Rhum Charrette being the most well-known brand. Rum is consumed in several ways: mixed into the punch, Daiquiris, Pina Coladas, and the like, or made into “Rhum Arrangé,” a local concoction involving the mixture of fruits, plants, spices, and herbs, which is left to soak in rum until ready for consumption.
Music is an essential element of every gathering, and the traditional genre of Sega is played at the beginning of festive celebrations to get everyone in the party mood. After the main course, the music often veers towards Maloya, traditional music danced to and said to communicate with ancestors. At midnight, celebrations, kisses, and well wishes ensue, with locals often setting off fireworks to mark the occasion.