Crepes to curries: The changing tastes of Pondicherry
In February, Twinkle Gupta, a baker based in Puducherry, hosted a food walk as part of the Union Territory (UT)’s annual heritage festival. Highlights included egg dosa at Rolex, served with not sambar and chutney, but the gravy of meat and fish dishes; mutton samosas and nalli soup at Bai Soup Samosa; biryani, idiyappam and paya at Bilal and ice cream at Dhanalaxmi. “At Dhanalaxmi you get only one flavour each day and you never know till the shop opens at 6pm what the flavour of the day is going to be. One day, for example, it was a biscuit-flavoured ice cream, tasting of Parle G biscuits,” says Gupta. “We avoided bigger restaurants and concentrated mostly on old, popular roadside eateries, serving food that has a distinctive flavour,” she adds.
What the walk did not include, was a sample of what is commonly known as Pondicherry Cuisine, “simply because it is rarely served in restaurants,” says Gupta.
An erstwhile French colony, the cuisine of Puducherry – like much of its architecture – bears the imprint of its colonial past.The Portuguese were the first Europeans to come to trade here in the early part of the 16th century. The Dutch and Danes followed in the 17th century. The British too held Pondicherry for some years in between. But for more than a century before becoming a part of India in 1954, Pondicherry was a French colony, and this has been the most enduring influence on its built heritage, its language and food.
“Even today, the dosas I make at home are more like crepes, with cheese and meat in them instead of masala,” says Bitasta Samantaray, one of the organisers of the Pondicherry Heritage Festival. (The festival is organised by two citizen initiatives – People For Pondicherry’s Heritage and Pondycan – and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.)
There was also a South-East Asian, especially Vietnamese, influence on the food here. “What was then known as Indo-China was also a French colony. And many from Pondicherry who got government jobs were posted there. Some of them came back with Vietnamese wives,” says Gupta. And thus chaiyos – a kind of Vietnamese spring roll, made from rice flour – appeared in restaurants in Pondicherry.
What is known as Pondicherry cuisine is the result of a mingling of flavours. “These were dishes cooked mainly in Catholic Franco-Indian homes - locals who had converted to Christianity, had travelled abroad and were more open to the French influence,” says Lourdes Thirouvanziam-Louis, of Tamil and Vietnamese heritage, who has compiled many of these recipes in her book, Pondicherry Kitchen. “Pondicherry cuisine is a variant of Tamil food, refined by French influence. The use of spice is much less, because of the French influence. So you get the flavour, but not the heat of the spice,” she explains.
One of the signature spices used in this cuisine is vadavam, says Anita De Canaga, whose mother Pushpa hosts guests at home for pre-booked meals. “It is believed vadavam originated in Pondicherry and was picked up by the French. The key ingredients are shallots, mustard seeds, cumin, garlic, turmeric, asafoetida, white dal and sesame oil,” Anita says.
Other common ingredients in this cuisine, says Louis, are coconut milk and badam. Dishes include prawn mustard curry (kadughu eral curry), aubergine caviar and mutton sambar. And a vindaloo very different from the Goan equivalent - a result of Pondicherry’s Portuguese past. Prawn Malay Curry is a dish with a South-East Asian influence.While some restaurants like the one at Le Dupleix hotel have a few Pondicherry fusion dishes on their menu, anyone who has enjoyed a home meal will know,the taste is vastly different.
Unfortunately, many of these dishes are now disappearing even from home kitchens. “One reason is that the younger generation doesn’t have time to cook,” says Anita.
The other, adds Louis, is that many families who chose to retain French citizenship when Pondicherry became a part of India in 1954 (Pondicherry became a Union Territory in 1962), have migrated abroad. “My book is very popular among this diaspora,” says Louis, whose daughter is also settled in France.
The food served at restaurants has also changed. “Till the early ’80s, there were Vietnamese restaurants in Pondicherry. Authentic French food was also easily available,” says Anita. Today, Paris Restaurant is one of only a few still selling chaiyos, along with a mix of European and Indian dishes.
Given the number of French tourists and nationals still working here, there are still some French dishes available at a few restaurants – crepes, tartines (bread with sweet or savoury toppings) and more at Café Des Arts, a selection of French dishes and desserts at The Promenade and Villa Shanti, a few Creole and French ones at the restaurant of the hotel Dune De L’Orient.
Baker Street is packed with French visitors picking up baguettes and other kinds of breads, or sitting down to enjoy a croissant and coffee. “But there’s nowhere that I can get a good ratatouille,” says Anita.
Walking down the streets of Puducherry today, what’s more visible are signs for burgers and wood-fired pizzas, common to all Indian towns, as a Western alternative to traditional Indian fare. “When I was here in the’ 90s there were few restaurants serving Continental food. The number is more today, but the food served at these restaurants is a fusion of French and Italian food and burgers,” says Frederic Landi, director, French institute of Pondicherry, whose first stint to the UT was in 1988.