Picture a Tamilian breaking a baguette for dessert, or a Frenchman replacing his beloved butter with desi ghee. It just doesn’t sound right, does it? That’s probably because Franco-Pondicherry food has been one of the most closely guarded secrets of South Indian cuisine.
“The Franco-Pondicherry style of cooking is a great example of India’s Creole cuisines, but it has until now been confined to select Pondicherian homes,” reveals Chef Padmaja Divakaran, sous chef, Dakshin Coastal. “Some of these families revealed their treasured recipes to a team of researchers and chefs at the ITC Hotels, which also scoured old recipe books scrawled in French,” reveals Divakaran.
The seafood specialty restaurant at Andheri’s ITC Maratha, which has only just introduced Franco-Pondicherry food on the menu, is among a mere handful of restaurants across the country to dish up the unique South Indian cuisine. “It is certainly Mumbai’s only restaurant to serve the rare cuisine,” adds Viplav Ankur, restaurant manager, Dakshin Coastal.
The cuisine, a blend of South Indian (primarily Tamilian) and French styles, could be considered a legacy of the French colonisation of Pondicherry, which lasted till the mid 1950s. It is believed that when the French first began to settle in the region, they were intrigued by the various spices used by the locals but were unable to stomach them.
A team of French chefs worked with local experts, and the result was the unique Franco-Pondicherry, or Pondicherian cuisine. “While the French introduced breads such as baguettes, the locals introduced them to coconut milk, ghee, and a whole lot of spices,” adds Divakaran. The Pondicherrians developed a spice mix of their own called Vadouvan. “The technique of making it is slightly different -- you must cook the onions and masalas, dry this mix and then grind it. We make our own mix at the moment,” she reveals.
Salads, or Saladu as the Pondicherrians call them, are a popular appetiser. “Note the white dressing on the Beetroot Saladu. It looks like mayonnaise, doesn’t it?” remarks Ankur, as we take a bite. Looks can be deceiving though; one bite and you get the delicious sweetness of coconut milk. The French influence is seen most in the Roast Fish with its minimal flavours. “Also, a combination of salad and fish is not something you’d see in a typical South Indian home,” smiles Divakaran.
While South Indians tend to use tamarind to add a touch of sourness, the French replaced it with the sharper-flavoured vinegar. “They also introduced a variety of wines. Even today, you’ll find Pondicherrians making their own wine at home,” reveals Ankur. The Urlai Kola Urundai (deep-fried potato balls), which looks like the quintessential aloo vada, is made with little to no spice. On the other hand, the Kassa Kassa Kola Urundai (lamb meatballs), spiced with poppy seeds, tastes more Indian than it looks.
But Divakaran is most intrigued by the effect of cultural amalgamation on the Pondicherrian desserts. “Besides the more obvious baguette served with cinnamon-flavoured coconut milk, there’s the Pondicherry Cake, which is made of semolina and ghee. Can you imagine the French doing away with butter? The chefs probably realised that semolina just wouldn’t work with butter, which adds too much moisture to the cake,” explains the sous chef.