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Inside Port Louis’s Central Market, pink dragon fruits rest next to purple custard apples, in front of boxes of ginger, red onions and ground spices.
It’s a globe-spanning display of produce that migrated here along the paths of the sailing ships that brought settlers, slaves and servants to Mauritius.
“It’s a melting pot, curry from India, noodles from China,” says Linzy Bacbotte, a Mauritian singer and advocate of Creole culture. “It’s very colorful, all the spices. And if you want a snack, the dried fish. It’s yum.”
She also likes a drink called alouda, sort of a milkshake with tapioca balls and sweetened with flavored syrups.
But Mauritius is one of those places where a bounty of snacks are never far away.
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Melting pot of flavors
Food is everywhere, whether it’s dhal puri vendors selling bites of curry rolled into a roti, steaming pots of biryani, or Chinese guavas plucked from shrubs along the roadside.
On the weekends, neighborhood food markets spring up across the island, at beaches and in neighborhoods where stalls sell chutneys, sugar cane juice or dim sum.
Originally, there was no Mauritian food, aside from whatever the dodos ate. Mauritius was uninhabited when the Portuguese found it during their early voyages through the Indian Ocean.
They’d been told about it by Arab sailors, who called it Dina Arobi, or Abandoned Island on a 1502 map. The Portuguese didn’t stick around either. The Dutch gave it a go but gave up everything except the island’s name – which they named after their Prince Maurice van Nassau in 1598.
Successive French and British colonial governments turned the island into a plantation colony, bringing slaves from a wide swath of Africa and indentured servants from South Asia. Voluntary migrants followed, including a sizable Chinese community.
While some foods remained distinct, the cuisines also mixed together like their languages into a distinct Creole.
In the past, local restaurants tended to separate out the cuisines of the island, into European, Indian or Chinese menus. But a recent burst of interest in exploring Creole traditions has brought distinctly Mauritian food into the country’s haute-cuisine as well.
High-end restaurants at tony resorts routinely include local curries on their menus, and heritage sites like the Eureka House plantation home have restaurants devoted to showing off the cuisine.
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Made with love
Of course, the best food is always made in home kitchens, an important gathering place in a country where – despite its reputation as a holiday hotspot – evenings see neighborhood streets clear out as families get together to eat.
For visitors without an invitation, there’s Chez Tino (Royal Road, Trou d’Eau Douce, Mauritius; +230 480 2769). Marie Anne Lacour cooks the way her mother taught her, using fresh ingredients from the sea and generations of know-how.
“Mauritian cuisine is made with love, with knowledge,” she said. “We put everything into our food.”
She started out with a modest shop called a taba-j, the little streetside tuck shops that dot the roads, where she started making quick lunches and snacks. Eventually that grew into a bar, and then the restaurant in the village of Trou d’Eau Douce.
“I didn’t go to cooking school, I learned everything cooking with my mother. But I don’t make everything exactly the same way, I add some of my own touches.”
It’s easy to drive right past Chez Tino, because it looks like the other houses on the street. The entrance is through a carport and up a set of stairs, so it feels like entering a family home.
For a while she lived with her family under the restaurant, where she served guests on the terraces overlooking the private island Ile aux Cerfs.
Now the entire building houses the business, which has grown to include six speedboats and a catamaran that her sons hire out for trips that include barbecue on the beach. She still works with her children, who either have jobs in the kitchen or taking passengers on boat trips.
Her specialty is seafood, especially langoustines. She prepares a seafood platter that could feed a family, with shellfish, calamari and whatever fish the boats brought in that day. Her octopus curry is flavorful and tender. She’s so well established that fishermen bring her their catch first
“My mom worked, but she always made fish at our house,” she says, whether that meant fried, grilled or curried. In a country with little land for grazing, chicken also plays a big role in local food.
For Lacour, the secret to great Mauritian food is preparing well in advance. She combines her spices far ahead of time so that meats can marinate long enough to soak up the flavors.
“That’s the main difference between Indian curry and Mauritian cuisine. Indian curry is very spicy. In Mauritius, it’s more about the flavors.”
But mostly, she says: “It’s about love.”
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Griffin Shea is a writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he also runs Bridge Books – an independent bookstore in an old, columnated bank building