Mauritius Culture: The Language, Food, History, and People

Mauritius Culture
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Just a stone’s throw from Madagascar’s jungle-fringed shores, the subtropical island of Mauritius is rich with breathtaking scenery. Complete with lagoons, waterfalls, beaches, and reefs, it’s also the safest country in Africa, home to a community of tolerant and welcoming locals. There are tons of reasons to visit Mauritius, but the colorful blend of cultures is a unique pull factor.

Mauritius has been owned by the Dutch, French, and British, but the first to visit the island were Arab and Malay Sailors. With a diverse mix of languages spoken across the country, its tumultuous history of occupation still lingers. But the dense, multicultural population makes Mauritius what it is today.  

Although catering to wealthy customers with luxury resorts lining its shores, there’s culture and heritage at every turn. From the fragrant cuisine, exceptional hospitality, and communalism to the rare creatures that call the island their home, this guide looks at everything that influences the Mauritian way of life. Let’s get into it. 

What language is spoken in Mauritius?

Mauritius Culture
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With such a rich mix of nationalities inhabiting the island, the question of language is probably the first to come to mind. Mauritius has five flexible ethnic categories: Indo-Mauritian, Franco-Mauritian, Creole-Mauritian, Afro-Mauritian, and Sino-Mauritian. There’s no official dialect in Mauritius, but most locals speak Creole or Kreol, an estimated 86.5 percent to be exact. 

Mauritian Creole is a mix of Asian and African, with a French influence. Residents with Indian origins rooted in Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri, Tamil, and Telugu make up the majority of the population at 68 percent. Although only around 27 percent of Mauritius’ inhabitants are of Creole descent, most people understand this adopted lingua franca.

There’s no agreed-upon written form of Creole, which makes it hard for the language to be accepted as the official native tongue. Different dialect is also used day-to-day depending on the social situation. The relationship with language says a lot about a society, and speech is closely tied to context in Mauritius. English is associated with education, administration, hospitality, and law, while French is linked to media broadcasts and newspapers.

French is also related to public manners in Mauritius, with people typically exchanging ‘Bounjours’  and ‘Bonne journees’ in passing. But many people speak the language of their heritage, too. In addition to Indian, African, and Franco-Mauritians, the population is three percent Chinese and two percent European. Some Indian Mauritians can speak Bhojpuri, and the broad popularity of Bollywood means many Mauritians, even outside the Indo-Mauritian community, can understand Hindi.  

What food is Mauritius famous for?

Mauritius Culture
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Traditional African food culture is hearty and varied and has strongly influenced many worldwide cuisines. From the humble maize products and root vegetables to the exotic spices and aromatic curries, Mauritian gastronomy adopts traditional African staples but with a rich blend of Indian, Chinese, and French delicacies. At the same time, the island’s national dishes wholly embrace the sea, with smoked fish being part of most Mauritian’s diets. 

Staple ingredients in Mauritian food culture include tomatoes, onions, eggplants, garlic, chilly, chayote and lady’s fingers, or okra. Seafood-heavy stews and curries form a major part of the cuisine, with crab curry, fried squid, and coriander chili fish considered national dishes. 

You’ll also find Vindaye ourite andVindaye poisson on most local menus. These curried stews are typically made from octopus (ourite), tuna steak, or kingfish and originated from India. Another national favorite is the Indian-influenced Dholl puri. These split-pea pancakes are griddled on a traditional tawa and stuffed with bean curry, or cari gros pois, and the locally famous rougaille, a spicy tomato sauce with thyme, garlic, and ginger. 

Although the country’s Indian roots have a stronghold over the cuisine, Chinese food is not uncommon, like momos ka baap, Mauritius’ answer to dumplings, Chinese fried noodles, and fish balls. Mauritian gastronomy also possesses elements of French “savoir vivre” with dishes like daube, civet de liévre, and coq au vin served with fine wines in the elegant resorts and five-star restaurants. 

The complex colonial history and unique cultural diversity come through in the food at eateries all over the country. Outdoor cooking, the sharing of food, and culinary techniques like pickling are all common practices. Still, the best way to get a real taste of Mauritius is to embrace the street food culture, with many mouth-watering local dishes, especially dholl puri and momos, readily available from local vendors.  

What are Mauritians known for?

Mauritius Culture
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Mauritius is home to a plural society where multiple ethnic groups are present, and the ancestral cultures of all the inhabitants have been preserved and accepted. The island’s reputation for harmony and stability seeps into the values of the local people, who are widely regarded as tolerant, kind, communal, and welcoming to all. It’s one of few social success stories in Africa’s turbulent inter-racial history, which is reflected in the general public attitudes.

Mauritians are also relatively conservative and humble, and only people who act inappropriately are looked down upon in society. The term ‘sauvaze’  meaning savage in old French, is used to refer to anyone acting out of turn, such as causing conflict, dressing immodestly, smoking and drinking on the street, or being loud and argumentative. This is not generally accepted behavior for Mauritians, and most adhere to the social expectations of being more reserved. 

Still, the population is mainly warm and accepting, which often manifests in their tendency toward playfulness, exceptional hospitality, and artistic expression. One of these outlets is the séga, a traditional Mauritian folk dance involving the movement of arms and hips to a rhythmic Afro-Indian beat. Once a confession of heartbreak during the colonial era, now a demonstration of joy and celebration. The séga is a testament to the country’s social and historical development. 

Religion in Mauritius

Temple
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Out of Mauritius’s population of 1.4 million people, a surprisingly high number for the 2,000 square kilometer island, around 48 percent are Hindu, 26 percent Roman Catholic, 17 percent Muslim, and six percent non-catholic Christian including Seventh-day Adventists, Anglicans, evangelical Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witness. The remaining three percent are either Buddhist, animist, Jewish, or atheist. Religion is a part of most Mauritian’s lives.  

Percentage-wise, Mauritius is the only country in Africa where Hinduism is the most practiced religion and ranks third in the world after Nepal and India for being home to the most Hindus. Hinduism came to Mauritius through the Indians employed as laborers after slavery was abolished. India never invaded Mauritius despite the significant Indo-Mauritian population. Instead the British indentured the ancestors of the now 70 percent Indian-origin population in the 19th century to work on plantations and build the ports.   

The legal framework in Mauritius supports the religious and ethnic diversity. Racial discrimination is strictly prohibited, and the law welcomes freedom of thought, worship, teaching, practice, and even conversion. It’s also illegal for courtrooms to require oaths contrary to an individual’s religious beliefs, and there is no compulsory religious education or ceremony attendance in schools. Schools instated by religious groups are permitted, but these institutions are also open to the general public. 

Mauritian History 

Salt fields
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Discovered by Arabs, Malays, and then Europeans, Mauritius was put on the map in the early 16th century. When the second Dutch expedition to Indonesia set sail in the 1500s, the eight ship onslaught ran into bad weather. Three ships ended up in Madagascar, with the remaining five finding their way to Mauritius. Used as a rest stop for Dutch voyagers for almost a century, colonization in Mauritius began in 1638 but the island was effectively abandoned in 1710 when settlers struggled with cyclones, drought, pest infestations, and illness. 

Mauritius became a French colony in 1715 when Guillaume Dufresne d’Arsel took possession of the port island en route to India. He named it the “Isle de France,” but it wasn’t until six years later that French occupation began. The arrival of the French governor, Mahé de La Bourdonnai, saw the development of pepper, cinnamon, and clove plantations, and Port Louis became a shipbuilding center and naval base for the French. 

Indians from Pondicherry arrived in 1729 as laborers, and the island remained under the administration of the French East Indian Company until 1767. During French rule, slaves were bought over from Mozambique and Zanzibar, and by the early 19th century, there were 60,000 enslaved people in Mauritius. 

The British captured Mauritius in 1810, but French remained the most prominent language spoken. Mauritian Creoles traced back to plantation owners and the enslaved made up most of the population. When slavery was abolished, the British bought over Indian, Chinese, Malay, and Malagasy laborers to develop the country. Although conflict arose between the Indian community and Franco-Mauritians in the 1920s over sugarcane plantation ownership, the rich mix of cultures that have inhabited the island for centuries has led to the diverse and harmonious place Mauritius is today.  

Mauritius gained independence within the Commonwealth on March 12, 1968. Within the first years of liberation, Mauritius diversified its industries beyond sugar production and became the wealthiest African country. Mauritius now has a mixed developing economy based on export, financial services, and tourism, on top of agriculture. 

What do Mauritians eat for breakfast? 

Rice is hugely important in Mauritius culture and a staple in every diet. Like many tropical nations, rice is a typical addition at breakfast time. A savory breakfast meal for many Mauritians is smoked fish and rice, carrying good nutritional benefits and being largely satiating.

But Mauritians also opt for sweet starts to their day. As a tropical island, exotic fruits are easily obtained and often eaten with maize porridge. It’s also not uncommon for spicy Indian curries to be consumed first thing, as well French-continental spreads in more affluent households and hotels. 

Is Mauritius safe to live in?

Both for locals and ex-pats, Mauritius proves a very safe place to live. What little crime occurs on the island is of a petty and non-violent nature, and it is the safest country in Africa. Mauritius even ranks higher on the Global Peace Index than many European nations. The central tourist areas and Downtown Port Louis naturally demonstrate the highest crime rates, but ex-pats live in harmony with locals and are unlikely to be subjected to crime. 

Is Mauritius a poor country?

Mauritius has one of the most developed economies and the highest employment rates in Africa. It is also the wealthiest country in the continent, with the annual GDP per capita exceeding $30,000, over twice as much as the African average.

It was declared a high-income country in 2020, and this is mainly due to the developed and affluent tourism, peaceful society, and harmonious cultures established over years of ethnic diversity. The high safety and low taxes, including zero capital gains and inheritance tax, also appeal to retirees. Severe poverty is rare in Mauritius, but the most rural areas are home to the minority of deprived households. 

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Esmé is an English literature graduate and freelance writer. Originally from London, Esmé is lucky enough to call Bali home. Her travels have taken her from the far corners of the East to the islands of the Caribbean. When she's not writing, you'll find her lying on a beach somewhere, lost in a crime novel.