Moules au combava
A tropical way with mussels, typical of the spirited, heavily creolised Réunion cooking, from acclaimed food writer Eleanor Ford.
The volcanic island is a French department in the Indian Ocean with a strong cultural and culinary influence from both France and India. French settlers on the uninhabited island first brought slaves from Africa to work their sugar plantations, then, after slavery was abolished, turned to Indian labourers from Tamil Nadu and the Malabar coast. These workers were given no choice but to “assimilate”, relinquishing their names, religions and languages, and have stayed in a country that is a true union of people from everywhere. With them came a potpourri of world cuisines. Moules are a local favourite and can be served in French style with a creamy sauce or, as here, where the Eastern influence is clearer. Both ways use the fragrant, bittersweet and intensely perfumed zest of the wrinkled combava fruit (also known as makrut lime), which is well worth seeking out.
Recipe serves 4-8
2kg (4lb 8oz) mussels
2 tablespoons neutral oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
6 sprigs thyme
5 tomatoes, chopped
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
Finely grated zest of a makrut lime (1⁄2 teaspoon)
or 6 shredded lime leaves
For the spice paste
3cm (11⁄4 inches) ginger, peeled
4 garlic cloves
1 green chilli, seeds in or out, sliced
1⁄2 teaspoon fine sea salt
Debeard the mussels and scrub the shells clean with a brush under cold running water, at no stage immersing them in water. Give each a sharp tap and discard any that don’t close. You can store in the fridge for up to 24 hours, in a colander over a bowl and covered with a clean, damp tea towel.
Grind together the ingredients for the spice paste using a pestle and mortar.
Heat the oil in a sauté pan over a medium heat. Fry the onion until soft and translucent then add the spice paste and thyme. Stir until it becomes fragrant and the harsh rawness has mellowed, then add the tomato and turmeric. Cook for about 20 minutes to break the tomato down and reduce to a thick sauce. Stir in the zest and remove from the heat. Taste for seasoning but remember the mussels will bring their own salinity.
Put the mussels into a large cooking pot and clamp on a lid. Cook over a high heat, shaking occasionally. After a couple of minutes all the shells should be open. Discard any that aren’t.
Strain off the mussel juices into a jug and use just a few spoonfuls to thin the spiced tomato sauce. Add the sauce to the pot and heat through quickly, mixing to coat the mussels.
Eat with French fries or baguette, or preferably both.