Expressing our Creole culture with food |03 November 2023
Food is inherently linked and an integral part of any culture. When we think about our identity as a Seychellois, the food we enjoy regularly is very much a part of that. This is similar for other groups around the world. Food is more than just nourishing the body for survival. It is a way to connect with others.
The ingredients we choose, the way we prepare, cook and ultimately dish and serve the food all comes down to food culture. Although here we are not going to define food culture, when we think about our Creole cuisine, the dishes prepared manifests cultural traditions.
When we prepare and cook a Creole dish we are in a way expressing something about us. Our deeper connections to the past but also the present, which represents the people around us, be it our partner, family, relatives, friends or colleagues.
And although food is only one piece of the puzzle which identifies us as a Seychellois, many of us don’t take enough pride in our Creole food.
Some people only enjoy traditional Creole foods during the Creole festival celebrated annually in October. Although this can be seen as a reminder for us not to forget where we came from, in many instances it shows the disconnection that many people have to our tradition, especially young people.
Even if cultural amalgamation is inevitable in today’s world due to immigration and globalisation, we should never let foods from other cultures surpass our own. As the Creole festival comes to an end let’s reflect on how we can consume more of the local dishes that we enjoyed in the take-away outlet, restaurants or lunches at the office or at a party. This will ensure that it does not become something reserved for an annual event but rather something we celebrate on the daily, in our homes and with our loved ones.
Our Creole dishes – intergenerational
Most of the Creole dishes we cook in our homes have been passed on over generations from our ancestors. Ironically there may be slight differences in how a dish is prepared in terms of ingredients used as well as cooking method. The end product may therefore be slightly different in appearance and taste. At the end of the day though, the final dish is the same.
Although there are variations among dishes, at the heart of it, the core ingredients are unchanged. For instance, to make a grilled fish, your core ingredient is whole fish. If you are making papaya chutney, you need green papaya as your core ingredient. In the end however any additional ingredients needed for the preparation of any of the local dishes would of course necessitate that you know the recipe, but at the least most of us are familiar with the core ingredients that make up the dish.
A good example of a dish that many people prepare differently is ‘bouyon bred’, a local broth prepared from local green leafy vegetables like moringa, Chinese cabbage, water spinach or amaranth leaves, among others. Some people fry their fish and then only use onion, garlic and ginger. Others may also include tomatoes and bilimbi. The type of fish used also varies from white fleshed like snapper to oily fish like trevally. Some may argue that white fleshed fish should only be used in ‘bouyon blan’. But again it typically comes down to how others in that family have prepared the dish and the transmission of the recipe over generations.
Many of us take for granted the generational sharing of recipes which typically takes place in our kitchen when our grandparents or our parents are preparing a dish and we are there learning all the steps and ingredients they use. How many of us actually write down a local recipe or follow a recipe from a cookbook for our local dishes? For most of us it comes almost naturally but of course inadvertently it is something that we learned even without us intending to.
Appreciating our local ingredients
Our Creole dishes wouldn’t be what they are without some key ingredients. These are food items that are locally available. When it comes down to nutrition, let’s be honest, many of our local dishes don’t fit the criteria of ‘healthy’ but this has a lot to do with our cooking method. Two common ingredients in our Creole cuisine that are nutritious are fish and local starches. These can make a complete meal when served together with a vegetable or fruit dish such as a broth (‘bouyon’), salad or chutney.
Fish is a staple protein in most Seychellois household and is boasted in the Nutrition arena for its vast nutritional benefits ranging from high quality proteins as well as various vitamins and minerals, in addition to healthy fats. However, the nutritional benefits of fish can be altered in a negative way by the way we cook it.
This is where nutrition and culture collide. One of the biggest challenges we face is getting people to eat less of something that our ancestors themselves consumed quite a bit of. Culturally, many of us grew up eating deep-fried fish and this is typically the base for many other fish dishes like ‘bouyon bred’, fish stew and fish curry. Deep-frying however destroys many of the nutrients in the fish and also adds additional fat, but not the healthy ones.
Another local food that our ancestors consumed quite often is salted fish. Of course back then they did not have refrigerators and freezers in all houses and salting the fish was a form of preservation. This therefore enabled them to consume the fish over many days.
What most people don’t realise is that our ancestors did not have access to hundreds of packaged products like we do nowadays in our shops and they were a lot more active than we are (sweat more!). Nowadays we are having extra salt from many other processed foods like packaged sauces and Aromat seasoning hence this is a good reason to consume salted fish sparingly. Be mindful that excess salt can increase your risk of high blood pressure.
To gain the maximum nutritional benefits from fish, you therefore need to revisit how you prepare and cook it. This means opting to flavour the fish naturally with herbs, spices, lime and other natural ingredients. It also means choosing fresh fish as often as possible, and using less salt and oil as the fish naturally has salt and oil anyway! It is high time that dishes like ‘letoufe’ and ‘bouyon blan’ that are shunned by many took centre stage as these represent a healthy way of cooking fresh fish.
Although many people associate local starches like breadfruit, plantain and sweet potatoes to ‘ladob’, like all other desserts, ladob should be enjoyed occasionally rather than daily. Our local starches have so much to offer in terms of nutrition. They contain complex carbohydrates which takes longer to digest and high in fibre, hence they can keep you fuller for longer; and they are rich in vitamins and minerals which have a range of functions in our body. They are also naturally low in sugar and fat.
In the end however it is the way we prepare and cook it which can change it from something with immense health benefits to something which can pose health risks over time. The simplest and best way to consume our local starches is to steam or bake it or as is the case for our breadfruit, roast it whole. In this case, less really is more!
From once consuming local starches almost daily, Seychellois nowadays enjoy more white rice. This is one cultural shift which has become hard to shift back. Nutritionally, our local starches boast many nutrients while white rice being refined contains mainly carbohydrate. Aside from the nutritional differences, the large portions of rice consumed almost daily is concerning. Although we know that rice is probably here to stay we urge you to eat local starches on a few days per week instead of white rice.
Food – a symbol of our identity
When all is said and done however, the mere sight, smell and taste of a dish connects us deeply with our cultural heritage, no matter which part of the globe we may be. Our Creole food therefore remains a symbol of our identity and connection to our homeland – Seychelles.
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Yours in health
The E4OH Team