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Tirouvanziam-Louis
Tirouvanziam-Louis

The French connection

The several influences that went into making the eclectic cuisine of Puducherry

In Puducherry, it’s not just French cuisine that blends with a Tamilian style of cooking; there are also influences of the Portuguese, Malaysian and Mughals, among others. Lourdes Tirouvanziam-Louis, in her new book The Pondicherry Kitchen, writes that Indian cuisine, as a whole, finds its basic unity in the use of spices and seasonings based on a variety of flavours, and the food in Puducherry is similar in that respect. In this interview, she tells us what makes food from the region so unique. Edited excerpts:

How would you define “Pondicherrian" cuisine?

It’s a fusion cuisine influenced by all the invaders who passed through Pudukay (Pudukay was a Roman port in the third century BC)—the old name of Pondicherry.

In your research, you talk about digging age-old recipes. Can you describe how, from where, in what form and how many recipes were found?

I found a treasure trove in manuscripts in old Pondicherry and Karaikal families, most of whom can claim to have ancestors who settled in Pondicherry in the 1770s when they converted to Christianity. Most of these recipes were culled from families and date back to the 1930s; they were handwritten in an obscure form of Tamil.

For example, the abbreviations were U dal for urad dal, C for cumin or ciragam and aniseed was sombu instead of perriasiragam. These are ancient Tamil terms that are no more used. The recipes were handwritten in notebooks, loose sheets tied together. In some, the name of the person who gave the recipe was mentioned. There are hundreds of recipes: I’ve culled the ones I didn’t know and recipes my family didn’t cook.

You mention talking to a lot of people...

I meant women who are in their 80s. Most of them had known my father. They were happy to lend me their grandmothers’ manuscripts. But I had to consult them in their house, I could not borrow them. Some cursed me and said I wanted to make money “robbing their recipes and writing a book" and some just showed me the door. I took all this in my stride.

How do you find common ground between Tamil and French cuisines?

Tamil food in Pondicherry is mild. If you go to the homes of people whose Hindu ancestors converted to Catholicism, you’ll find a different spicy cuisine. They don’t eat beef, pork and some river fish. In Pondicherry cuisine, few spices are used, cloves and cardamom are never ground. The French food had been adapted—the basic ingredients have been retained and French dishes modified with added spices to suit the local palate. Rich ingredients such as ghee, coconut milk, almond milk, poppy-seed paste and cashew-nut paste are used to tone down spices.

You also speak of a Vietnamese influence in this book. Can you give an example?

The Malaya Patchayi Curry (in the book) has fish sauce in the original recipe but my aunts had removed it as they felt the smell was too overpowering. Lemon grass is Vietnamese and no Tamil curry has this ingredient. The Karuvadu Takaali chutney had fish sauce in the original recipe that has been replaced by dry fish.

Œufs Mimosa (French recipe)

Serves 6

Ingredients

8 eggs

Lettuce leaves

2 tomatoes, cut in fine slices

Seasoning

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

1 tbsp fruit vinegar

Juice of 1 lemon

Method

Hard-boil, shell and cut the eggs into halves. Place the eggs in a tray decorated with lettuce leaves and tomato slices. Press the yolk of two eggs through a tea strainer so the fine particles fall on the eggs and vegetables for decoration. Mix all the ingredients of the seasoning. Sprinkle over the dish just before serving.

Œufs Mimosa (Pondicherry recipe)

Ingredients

8 eggs

3 cloves of garlic, crushed to a paste

8 big prawns boiled and ground to a fine paste

Juice of ½ lemon

1 tsp coriander leaves, finely chopped

1 tsp pepper

1 tbsp olive oil

Lettuce leaves

2 tomatoes, cut in fine slices

Salt to taste

Seasoning

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

1 tbsp juice of lemon as no vinegar is used in Pondicherry cooking

Method

Hard-boil, cool, shell and cut the eggs into halves. Remove the yolk. Set aside two yolks for decoration and mix the remaining yolks with the salt, pepper, oil, garlic paste and prawn paste, half of the lemon juice, and coriander leaves. Stuff the white of the eggs with the mixture. Place the eggs on a plate with lettuce leaves and tomato slices. Press the yolk of 2 eggs through a tea strainer so the fine particles fall on the eggs and vegetables for decoration. Mix all the ingredients of the seasoning. Sprinkle over the dish just before serving.

The Pondicherry Kitchen by Lourdes Tirouvanziam-Louis, Westland Books, 192 pages, 395.

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