Flavours of Pondicherry

Creole food in Pondicherry is not only Franco-Tamil but also has Portuguese, Dutch and, in some cases, a touch of Vietnamese and Bengali influence too
Flavours of Pondicherry

First, a confession. French food intimidates me terribly and the closest I&rsquove ever come to French cooking is Julie & Julia on DVD. That&rsquos why I adore Pondicherry for being what it is welcoming, laidback and anything but fearsome. I was particularly grateful for this quality when I went specifically looking for the legendarily gourmet cuisine. You can even spout wrong pronunciations and no one will mind.

In fact, the Aurobindo Ashram&rsquos benign presence has internationalised Pondicherry&rsquos ebbs and flows in all sorts of ways, including its native cuisines. Creole food in Pondicherry is not only Franco-Tamil but also has Portuguese, Dutch and, in some dishes, Vietnamese and Bengali influences. I am told that while French food demands everything to be cooked, served and savoured individually (the vegetables, meats, poultry, fish, sauces), Indian cuisines feature mix-cook-serve composite dishes in gravies. Creole food is more Indian than French in this aspect, but otherwise entirely unique in its flavours. With inexpensive origins and a tilt towards Indian spices and local ingredients &mdash such as coconut, kombu turmeric, eggs, freshly caught fish and vegetables like brinjals and broad beans &mdash it was originally very spicy. But that&rsquos not evident anymore, atleast not in the few fine-dining places that offer Creole dishes in Pondy and count many overseas visitors among their patrons.

Here, in no particular order, are Pondicherry&rsquos many treasures, scattered so very much that they might well go unnoticed, and so &lsquoexclusive&rsquo that what&rsquos found in one restaurant is often found nowhere else.

Topping my list of favourites in Pondicherry would be the Hotel de l&rsquoOrient on Rue Romain Rolland, which remains true to its Neemrana non-hotel ethic in its sublimely atmospheric Carte Blanche courtyard restaurant (breakfast 7-10.30am, lunch 12.30-3.30pm, dinner 7-10pm). I honestly couldn&rsquot decide which I liked more &mdash the soupe glac&eacutee aux concombres et amandes, a truly light and delicious cold soup made with cucumber and almonds or the equally refreshing figues s&eacutech&eacutees aromatis&eacutees à l&rsquoeau de rose (oranges, dates and dry figs in a salad dressed with rose water).

But if there&rsquos only one thing you do in Pondicherry, it is this stop by at the de l&rsquoOrient for the Calamar grillé au fines herbes (grilled squid with the chef&rsquos selected herbs). My companion certified it a Discovery. The ratatouille is the only vegetarian main course, but that&rsquos alright because it&rsquos really good. All main courses are served with either small cubes of fried potatoes, roasted baby potatoes, Auroville&rsquos red-and-white organic rice or fresh vegetables. There&rsquos Creole prawn, fish, chicken and squid-potato curries to choose from, or mixed vegetables, mushrooms, eggplants and okra (also Creole-style). End with the panacotta au safran et cr&egraveme Anglaise au miel (saffron panacotta and honey custard), which looks and tastes terrific.

The restaurant Salle A Manger (lunch noon-3.30pm, dinner 7-10.30pm) at Welcomheritage&rsquos Calve &mdash located in an immaculately restored heritage mansion on the elegant Vysial Street in Pondy&rsquos underestimated Tamil Quarter &mdash is both stately and feel-good. Done up with Athangudi tiles and blue oxide walls, it&rsquos that rare thing fine-dining with generous portions and reasonable prices. Besides French dishes, the menu also features other national and international foods (even, and I did blink hard at these, the likes of nasi goreng and patra ni machhi). But I cannot be persuaded to choose anything other than Creole food here. Nothing so disgustingly healthy looking should taste as good as the manathakkali saar (or, alternately, the mullaikeerai saar, both soups of seasonal greens). I only intended to taste a couple of spoonfuls and move on to the tasting menu, but ended up slurping up every last drop and wishing I could just order another soup and be done with the meal.

Still, I loved my tartare de tomates mozzarella (dried tomato and mozzarella cheese salad). Chef Mohan also recommends the warm spinach salad with shrimp in orange and caper sauce. The menu is elaborate and typically more given to non-vegetarian specialities (no vegetarian main course dishes here). But available on request are dishes like the arakari asadu (gently spiced mixed vegetables) and vendekkai ariyanayagam (okra in a rich gravy of coconut milk and spices) &mdash which do justice to the culinary traditions of the Sattakars (Anglo-Indians) of the Villipuram-Pondicherry belt.

It&rsquos impossible to do justice to the Salle&rsquos elaborate Creole menu in a meal or even two, but when a chef gets everything right, I trust his recommendations. For non-vegetarians, he suggests the peerkangai eraal puttu (bay fresh shrimps cooked with ridge gourd in coconut), the (seasonal) prawn nungu curry and the fish koda curry (fish and shrimps cooked with eggs and coconut cream). Dessert would either have to be the pancakes filled with fresh fruit and served with flamb&eacuteed orange liqueur or the delightfully simple super-soft baguette in chilled coconut milk, topped with dry fruits. The Salle deserves extra-special mention for its dedicated reprisal of Pondy&rsquos Creole specialities, rarely found outside the kitchens of native matriarchs. Chef Mohan remembers assisting his predecessor in deciphering and perfecting recipes from old recipe books in Tamil, dating to the 1920s &mdash for this, they have my considerable gratitude.

The Dune Eco-Beach Resort&rsquos Fun Restaurant (at Pudhukuppam in Keelputhupet off the East Coast Road lunch noon-3.30pm, dinner 7-10pm) is somewhat steep for the casual dining it offers. But it might just be worth the cost to sit there, listening to the roar of the ocean beyond a shoreline dense with casuarinas. I started with chef Arasu Raman&rsquos pungent arrugula lettuce and tomato salad flavoured with balsamic vinegar and a filling, but not heavy, thyme-flavoured dumpling soup, which is a Creole speciality of red beans and vegetables &mdash the dumplings cook as the soup simmers. The two were pretty much a meal in themselves. Ask too (it&rsquos not on the menu) for the okra gumbo soup, thickened with pur&eacuteed lady&rsquos fingers and served with bell peppers or chicken. Then try the gratin proven&ccedilal, a light, no-fat, rosemary-flavoured dish of eggplant and zucchini, which can be turned robust with the optionally added cheese and white sauce.

Not a favourite among Indians, Pondy enjoys its b&eacutebé octopus a l&rsquoArmoricaine here, a dish that takes its name from a French settlement on the northern C&ocirctes d&rsquoArmor coastline of Brittany facing America. Cooked with a fire at its base and flamb&eacuteed with cognac on the top, the baby octopus is flavoured with tomatoes, herbs and white wine. Root vegetables (potatoes, onions, turnips, carrots and parsnip, organically sourced from Dune&rsquos own farms in Pondy and Kodaikanal) play an important role in the pot au feu and the fish Creole is prepared either with freshly caught snapper or seer. Finish with the delegate au chocolate, a warm confectionery made with unrefined flour and organic chocolate brought from Auroville, or the deliciously light cr&ecircpe a la Dune that comes with an impossible choice of fillings (lemon, chocolate, honey or just sugar and butter). For their astonishing simplicity, try the warm banana tostonnes shallow-fried bananas caramelised by their own sweetness. Some of the Dune&rsquos Creole dishes are not seen on its menu, but willingly organised even at short notice &mdash which makes the restaurant&rsquos repertoire much larger than immediately apparent &mdash and there is a delightful homemade quality about all the dishes. 

Someone told me Le Club (on Rue Dumas open 7-11pm) used to be good 10 years ago, but this turned out to be a matter of opinion. It is admittedly overpriced given its garden café atmosphere, but Le Club does get its French food comfortingly right, and the service is prompt, if homespun. The potage aux champignons is a thick soup with cream and mushrooms, and the seafood soup is a rich almost-stew of crab and prawns. Again, my charming companion for the evening (this article benefits considerably from her local expertise), said the steak au poivre (steak in pepper sauce) gets its pepper sauce just right. The ratatouille hints warmly at cheese and tomatoes but retains the flavour of its vegetables. But the clearest sign of the chef&rsquos conscientiousness is the rice every grain stands alone, infused with delicate flavour. Finish the evening with a mousse au chocolat that hides notes of rum and the fondant au chocolat (melting chocolate cake).

The open-air, rooftop Lighthouse Restaurant inside The Promenade (on Goubert Avenue open 7-11pm) has windy, beachfront ambience working for it, but the Hidesign Group&rsquos sister property, Le Dupleix on Rue de la Caserne wins with both its old-world charm and inspired, if limited, French and Creole menu. In its restaurant Courtyard Garden (lunch noon-2.45pm, dinner 7-10.30pm), I was advised to try the rolled corn cr&ecircpes and vindaya curry (choose from mutton, beef, chicken or potato). The sangia is their coconutty pudding made with eggs and jaggery.

Besides these, there are a bunch of places that have a smattering of French food popping up in mixed menus. They are great for moderately priced meals and very Pondicherry, by which I mean cheerful and uncomplicated. For an almost exhausting menu (so devoted to French that the common parantha, for example, becomes the galette Indienne cuite au buerre) and the widest range of conveniently translated dishes, head for Satsanga on Labourdanais Street. A cheerful single-storey garden restaurant, littered with odd curios and mismatched cushions, Satsanga&rsquos &lsquostraight from France&rsquo section has smoked salmon and Boursin cheese . Its menu covers more ground than anyplace else &mdash there are over two score options along the lines of calamar au vin blanc (squid in white wine sauce) and rougets au basilic en papillote (which the restaurant described as &lsquored fish with basil cooked with envelope&rsquo). But my friendly source said the green pepper sauce that comes with the perfectly done filet au poivre vert is truly superlative. She also recommends the creamy mushroom prawn cr&ecircpes, with the flavours of mushrooms and prawns well balanced. All servings come with &lsquogarniture&rsquo &mdash French fries, mashed potato, rice or vegetables.

Rendezvous, even though everybody knows about it, lives on lost fame. The menu has reduced drastically, the prices have gone up steeply and they don&rsquot always get the food right. But when they do, Vincent and Jessica Mathias&rsquos tidy rooftop restaurant (Tuesdays closed lunch noon-4pm, dinner 7-10.30pm), overlooking the atmospheric French Quarter from a century-old building, serves a good bouillabaisse (French onion soup served with cheese toast), broccoli and tomato quiche and chicken and veal Cordon Bleu. La Terrase on Subbiah Street does the pretty much the same thing with similar dishes &mdash and for much more affordable prices &mdash but the owner lets his dogs roam the restaurant and kitchen, which, at least to my mind, makes it advisedly unrecommendable.

A word of advice do not expect an exclusively French experience. Even where it is available, and there is indeed much to be savoured, French and Creole food in Pondicherry is found all over menus, not at all affronted to find itself tucked in between pastas and pakoras, only sometimes rewarded with a whole page or two of its own. This absence of exclusivity does not in any way diminish the experience and, in fact, sent my bourgeois heart into ambrosial raptures. I honestly did not think French food could be this much fun.

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