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The kaffir lime or an allegory of travel

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To follow the tracks of this little rough-skinned lime is to navigate the oceans, and to follow the exotic route of sailors and spices… It is to enter into the song of a world of mixed cultures.

Once was a time when the world must have been still. Almost immobile. People stayed at home all their lives. There must have been a great silence. The winds served no purpose. It was certainly when men became hunter-gatherers that they began to move the boundaries, lengthen the flight of their arrows, enlarge their territories, extend their borders, their limits. In other words, eat or be eaten.

Things moved fast, then they slowed down, then nothing happened. Then suddenly things started moving again. In the 16th century, a new race of explorers combined trade, piracy and religion with a little spark of madness. Commissioned and financed by princes and kings, they undertook to redraw the world, to discover the Americas and the Indies in a glorious confusion.

 

The Beachcomber hothouse on Fortier Island grows a few kaffir lime trees and shrubs.

 

At the time spices enjoyed unbounded admiration. They possessed all virtues, and even embodied wealth, in the case of pepper, known as black gold. Fruit and vegetables enjoyed the same window of opportunity. Thus began an incredible commerce in this unpredictable chemistry. Sea voyages brought a kind of reincarnation: cod from the cold north seas took on a second lease of life in the Mediterranean when salted. And what of chocolate, tomatoes, potatoes or coffee? They came to Europe from South America and came to be known and loved by everyone, even now.

 

 

Mauritius, more than a refuge

The same can be said for the kaffir lime. It had lingered languorously on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, to the east of Bali, in the Sunda Islands chain, in the Moluccan Sea. Sailors were quick to appreciate this dense little lime, with its dark green gnarled peel, solid and energising. It was Pierre Poivre who, in the late 18th century, brought it over the Indian Ocea­n to Mauritius.

 

 

There it found more than a refuge, it discovered a vocation. For in addition to the juice of this lime, the dried leaves and the zest are used in myriad ways. Its aromas are intense. It therefore found its place in many Mauritian dishes. It’s no secret that all dishes need a touch of acidity. It takes pretentious dishes down a notch and adds a bit of life and good cheer. With kaffir limes, the maracas play more brightly, the sky is brighter too. It’s like the invisible element, the ringmaster forming the vital link between artist and spectator. It uses the light touch. The cutting edge. No frills, no la-di-dah, just the sparkling subject, honest, hardworking and plain speaking. The acidity gives structure, just like a conductor’s baton, the dancing teacher’s helpful hints. And thus it was that the kaffir lime entered into the song of a world of mixed cultures, of wanderers. A far cry from an insipid, timid, sedentary way of life.

And thus, in Mauritius, the kaffir lime is now part of the family. A large, welcoming family. Food speaks Chinese, Indian, Creole, and European and African languages. Spicy, slow-cooked sauces – watch them dance! Here’s the vindaloo with its mustard, vinegar, onions and spice. The rougail with its tomatoes, onion, garlic, ginger, spice and of course dried kaffir lime leaves; chutneys, curries, casseroles, sea food, octopus (ourite in Mauritian Creole). We can smell it already: a zest, a dash of lime there just to tempt us.

 

Kaffir lime in all its forms! A few zests to brighten the vanilla palm hearts, the slow-cooked scallops in kaffir lime juice, and
the smoked marlin with red cabbage foam. Dishes made by Chef Mooroogun Coopen from Canonnier Beachcomber.

 

This colourful dance, where all the fruits and vegetables under the sun jostle for attention, shows how completely we belong to this world and what we have chosen to remember of it. Mauritian cuisine now has its place in these well-thought-out gastronomies, shimmering, made of choices and of reversed situations: now, in English, kaffir lime is often referred to as the Mauritius papeda. The wheel has come full circle and we can easily imagine yet another turn, just like those California rolls – the Californian interpretation of Japanese sushi –, which are enjoying huge success now in Japan! This is how food becomes universal and binds people together.

 

By François Simon
Photographs & illustration Virginie Tennant