This may sound like the unlikeliest of marriages. Yet, the highly refined, subtle French cuisine and strong, spicy Indian food did marry centuries ago and have remained so happily ever after in the kitchens of the erstwhile French territory, Pondicherry.
But over the years, recipes have been lost and many laborious preparatory processes discarded, but the ‘original Pondicherrians’ — some 200 families who can trace their roots back up to late 17th century — still cherish, preserve and guard their extraordinary culinary heritage. Lourdes Tirouvanziam-Louis, the Pondicherrian who wrote the first and only cook book on this unique cuisine The Pondicherry Kitchen, is one of them. She took us through her journey of unearthing zealously guarded old recipes, some of them scribbled illegibly on 97-year-old manuscripts.
Pondicherry became the chief French settlement in India after the French East India Company set up a trading centre here in 1674. The French, being famously serious about their food, employed local Tamilians in their kitchens, and set about teaching them the French way of cooking.
French cuisine emphasises the use of fresh ingredients and this left the French in Pondicherry with no choice but to source locally and improvise. The locals were taught to painstakingly prepare spices and condiments, mix them perfectly, and use it in precise measures so that it would enhance the flavour of the basic ingredient and not overpower it.
“What is distinctive about the Indo-French cuisine is that though they use the same Indian spices like cardamom and chillies used in Tamil cooking, the portions are minimal. It is important to retain the taste of the basic ingredient, be it meat or vegetables. For instance, we do not use coconut paste, instead we use coconut milk. Tamarind is used sparingly, while lemon juice is used a lot,” says Lourdes. Pondicherry cuisine also has traces of its earlier conquerors, the Mughals and Portuguese. It has borrowed bits from Malaysian food as well. So they have dishes like pilav, biryani, kurma and Malaya patchaiy curry (Malaysian chicken curry).
Dig out secrets
After retiring from her teaching job at the French college in Pondicherry in 2006, Lourdes set out to work on The Pondicherry Kitchen by visiting old families and speaking to 90-year-olds. “There were many dishes which even I had never heard of. Many of them were written on manuscripts which were just crude scrolls; they had strange short forms. Some were written in the ’20s, some even older. I wasn’t allowed to photocopy them or borrow them. The toughest part was to convert ancient measures like ‘rath’, ‘ser’ and so on into matric measures,” she says. Her book, written in French, came out five years later in 2010, with 2,500 copies. “Our English-speaking friends asked me for an English translation, and that’s how I wrote The Pondicherry Kitchen,” she says.
Kadugu erral (MUSTARD SEED PRAWN CURRY)
Two big onions, finely sliced
18 garlic cloves
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seedsl500 gm prawns
½ tbsp red chilli powderl1 tsp turmeric powder
10 curry leaves
Salt to taste
1 tbsp ghee
Juice of one
Crush 1 onion, garlic, mustard seeds and cumin seeds together. Mix the prawns with this paste. Add the red chilli powder, turmeric powder, curry leaves and salt. Set aside. In a pan, heat the ghee, add 1 onion and fry till it is golden brown. Add the prawn mixture and cook covered, on low heat, till the prawns are done.Switch off the flame and add the lemon juice, if using. Stir. Serve hot with rice.