We are headed to Reunion for a traditional Creole dish from this French territory: chayote au gratin also known as gratin de chouchou locally.
The island of Reunion (Rényon in Creole) is an island southeast of the African continent. It is close to Madagascar and Mauritius which is the territory closest to Reunion, less than 120 miles away. Tourism is the primary economic activity of this volcanic island with a population of less than one million, known as the intense island.
The exact date of the discovery of Reunion is not known, but it seems that it took place in the early sixteenth century. It was first discovered by the Phoenicians and then by Indian and Arabic explorers, it then became a stop for the Portuguese explorers near the beginning of the sixteenth century.
Other explorers, Dutch and British, visited the island, but it was the French who took possession of the territory in 1642. It was then called Mascarin or Mascareigne Island, named after Pedro Mascarenhas, Portuguese explorer who landed there in 1512 (or 1513), but the French renamed it Bourbon Island, after the royal family.
The island was then used as a prison for criminals from Fort Dauphin, a coastal city in southeastern Madagascar now known as Tolanaro.
The name of the island was eventually changed to Reunion in 1793, and Bonaparte Island before returning to the name of Bourbon Island and finally definitively Reunion Island in 1848. An island that almost had as many names as P. Diddy, formerly known as Puff Daddy, before being known as Sean John Combs…
Besides the cultivation of clove, nutmeg, breadfruit, avocado, date palms, mangoes, mangosteens, lychees and tropical almonds, Reunion is of course known for its cultivation of sugar cane and the famous bourbon vanilla, grown on the Island since the nineteenth century and one of the few to still be produced manually.
Reunion cuisine incorporates a number of recipes with rice, different grains and cereals, leafy vegetables, caris, rougailles and various side dishes and condiments such as achards, salads and chili peppers. Other dishes also emerged more recently, such as civets (stews), daubes (casseroles), gratins, cakes and desserts, which were not traditionally offered at the end of the meal on the island.
The dish that I chose today does not contain any sugar or vanilla, but rather a very common vegetable of Reunion that I cooked for the first time recently during our stopover in Costa Rica: chayote. Chayote, also known as chouchou, is very popular on the intense island.
This vegetable, as well as other local ingredients like pumpkin, green papaya, taro stems, taro leaves, pinpin (screwpine) or even macaroni, are often used in gratin preparations.
The conventional preparation of these gratins is to first cook the vegetables with garlic, thyme, salt and pepper. This preparation is called a daube (stew) and can be eaten as is (especially if you’re on a diet). The, this stew is mixed with grated Dutch cheese and/or béchamel sauce. The Dutch cheese that is used is hard Edam. This cheese has been popular in Reunion for at least fifty years, as it didn’t need to be stored in a refrigerator. It is also known as the “coco de mort” (skull), or “fromage tête rouge” (red head cheese).
This is a recipe adapted from Chef Christian Antou’s that I decided to prepare today. Christian was born in Reunion in 1960 and passed away 2 years ago. He had dedicated his life to the preservation of Reunion’s cultural heritage, and in particular its cuisine.
It is our friend Laurence who was my guinea pig this time and it seems that this chayote au gratin had the expected success. Who would have thought that this vegetable composed mostly of water and very low in calories could be so delicious… especially when it is covered with oozing “1000 calories per serving” bechamel cheese sauce. Yes, diet starts tomorrow indeed!
- 2 lb chayote (about 5 chayotes)
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 3 cloves garlic , minced
- ½ teaspoon fresh chopped thyme leaves
- 2 cups milk
- 6 oz. Gruyere (or Edam)
- ½ cup flour
- ¼ cup butter
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 4 tablespoons breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 420 F.
Peel the chayotes. Cut into 1-inch cubes.
Place chayotes into a saucepan. Add oil, garlic, salt, pepper, and thyme.
Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly until the chayotes have mostly evaporated, about 15 minutes.
This preparation is called a daube (stew) and can be used as an accompaniment to meat and fish.
Pour stew into a buttered gratin dish.
Bring the milk to a boil in a saucepan.
In another saucepan, melt butter over low heat.
Once the butter is melted, add the flour and stir to incorporate both ingredients.
Pour the milk gradually into the roux, while stirring vigorously with a whisk to avoid lumps.
Continue stirring constantly, until reaching the desired consistency.
Add salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Add half of the cheese and stir to melt.
Cover the chayotes with the cheese bechamel sauce.
Sprinkle half the remaining grated cheese and bread crumbs.
Broil in the oven for twenty minutes.