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French/Indian - did it happen?

"even while the European powers ruled, none of them had any effect on the basic diet of the local people. Rice, mainly 'boiled' rice , remained at its core." Madhur Jaffrey

Australia could so easily have been colonised by the French. Which, alas, would not have changed the fate of the Aboriginal population, but it would have changed the dominant language, and culture and possibly the food. Although by now there would probably have been the same mix of cuisines from everywhere, but without the vegemite, the meat pies, snags, or the lamingtons. The food may well have been better earlier and not quite as stodgy. But we shall never know because the French missed out.


Apparently the British hadn't really shown a lot of interest in Australia until they heard the French, having lost a few colonies - most notably in Canada - were planning to set up a French new world in the Southern Pacific. So the first fleet was dispatched. The British just had to get there first. Even so, if La Pérouse hadn't wasted a couple of weeks looking for treasure islands, the story could have been oh so different.


Why am I rambling about Australia when the topic is India? Well it's just food for thought, and it also got me to thinking about which cultures merge and which remain separate when colonisation happens. And which culture has the bigger effect on the other. And why that should be?


What was my starting point? Well this is a lucky dip post and this is the book that David chose. I have taken to asking him to choose the lucky dip book because he has no idea what is where. I, on the other, hand, almost know what I'm picking because I know what book is where, and so it's not quite a random choice. Anyway he picked this rather unprepossessing looking book Provence to Pondicherry which I picked up some time ago from Readings bargain table. It was the title that got to me. I love all things French as you know, and the name Pondicherry is so romantic somehow. It trips off the tongue. Familiarly known as 'Pondi' by many it has reverted to its original Indian name Puducherry which somehow doesn't have quite the same ring. Change a couple of letters and you destroy poetry. Well poetry in a particular language. In Tamil Puducherry may be poetic.


The book might be about France and some of its colonies but it's written by one of those modern world citizens with mixed ethnicity who has lived in all manner of different places. Her name is Tessa Kiros, but she is not Greek. Her mother is Finnish, her father Greek Cypriot and she lived in South Africa between the ages of 4 and 18. Since then she has travelled to multiple destinations, from Mexico to Sydney, married an Italian and now lives in Italy. In this photograph you would say she could well be Indian I think. Well any number of olive skinned races. Multiculturalism at its very best. So if at first you wonder why someone with a Greek name is writing about France and its colonies, when you look into her background you can perhaps see why. As she explains on her website:


"I love travelling. Collecting things I love. Food. People. Colour. Smells. Fabrics. Details. Different cultures & traditions - why they do what they do & how they put their dishes together. How people, families & nations connect. And I love weaving these all together."


The page I turned to was the opening page of the section on Pondicherry. She, in contrast to Madhur Jaffrey seems to think that there is a French influence, still in evidence today:


"At first glance, it is hard to see any influence left by the French on the food of Pondicherry. After a while though, some distinctions are noticeable, a more subtle combination of spices and chilli, and the use of certain French cooking techniques that lean towards a more delicate plate - loosely labelled as Creole and based on the cooking of South India."

Which seems a little bit hopeful to me. Like the British, it seems to me that the Indians had more influence on French cooking than the other way round - but not nearly as much as it did on the British. The French are very nationalistic about their food. In fact I don't remember ever seeing an Indian restaurant in France. That lovely film The Hundred-Foot Journey amply demonstrated the gulf between French cuisine and the exotic Indian one. It doesn't even seem as if the baguette is a real thing in Pondicherry as it is in Vietnam. Although I have seen a few pictures like the one above of croissants - with a rather Indian looking filling. I had a quick look at that video of the cheerful looking Indian guy trying to find French food in Pondicherry. That croissant is the first example and the filling was Indian. The Vietnamese meanwhile just do croissants and other French pastry and bread kind of thing as it is. Even the Vietnamese in Australia do it. So why not in Pondicherry? Surely the Vietnamese are just as attached to their own food.

The French were there for quite a while after all, but with interruptions from other colonial powers. They first took over in 1673 after the formation of the French East India Company. Spices, silks cottons and precious stones were the name of the game. This is a map of the city in 1741 laid out in a grid pattern which experts seem to think is a French thing, although I can't say that I have ever noticed a grid pattern in any French town or village. The green line going across the city from left to right is a canal which divided the city into an us and them situation. Tamils above and French/Europeans below. Tessa Kiros recounts that it was said the canal was:

"stocked with crocodiles, as a safety measure to prevent anyone from the Tamil side crossing over to the French, with just one wooden drawbridge at the time linking the two. It is hardly surprising, then, that there was not much over mingling between the casseroles and the kadais."


Mind you in this drawing from the late 17th century it looks as if there is rather more durable bridge over the canal. And obviously the natives worked for the French in their houses. Still the implication seems to be that the French did not take on Tamil mistresses, like the British so often did. Something, I have to say that I find hard to believe.


I have to say though that Indian food does not turn up very often in France - not as in Britain. It may be because there have not been many immigrants from Pondicherry? Maybe the French rule in the town ended too long ago, before the large waves of emigration and immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. Whatever the reason it is difficult to see a whole cuisine, like Anglo-Indian food, emerging.

There is one item though that seems to be having a moment - well probably had its moment. I'm always behind the times on such things. This is a spice mix called vadavan or vadagam - vadauvan in French - and English too.


The authentic version, as shown here is created by mixing together spices and cooked shallots and garlic. You mix this all together into a wet mix - there is oil involved as well, and then form it into balls which are dried in the sun for a few days. As a blogger called Domestic Daddy says:


"It isn’t pretty, but it has a beautifully dusky flavor that’s very different from what we think of as “curry.” It’s deeper, subtler and a little smoky, and it brings a sophisticated base note to a wide range of dishes, from seafood to poultry to soups." Domestic Daddy


I would like to say that the mix is pretty much consistent, but of course there are endless recipes out there - all different. One of them is from our own Not Quite Nigella and she seems to have more spices in hers, than in Tessa Kiros' version It looks pretty good though. According to Wikipedia the minimum requirement is cumin, fenugreek and mustard seeds - and indeed that is what Tessa Kiros has in her recipe. Plus a little turmeric and urad dal. In modern times there is no drying in the sun of course - you do that in the oven. The main takeaway is that it is mild I think - catering to French tastes. Virtually all sources that I have checked do seem to think that it is indeed a spice mix that was developed particularly for the French who did not like the heat of chilli. Which is interesting too. The British, after all, seem to have embraced heat.

You can actually buy it online from Herbie's Spices as a spice mix, or if you really want to lash out you could buy this small (150g) jar from The Essential Ingredient for $22.50! I think I would be going online to find a recipe to add to my increasing stock of spice mixes from here, there and everywhere. It will be called by its French name - vadouvan - of course.


So what can you do with it? Well spice up any dish that needs spicing I guess. I found that a few 'real' chefs did indeed use it in various fancy ways. I don't know whether they still do, but here are some examples and some of the things they do.


“My favourite way to use the vadouvan is to mix it with a salty crème anglaise and use it over a vegetable carpaccio or fish ... Today, vadouvan is commercially available as a dried powder. French chefs use it to make the Viennese crust where the vadouvan is mixed with flour and butter to make a casing for meat or fish, giving it an added layer of flavour. It is used in marinades too." Renaud Ramamourty (chef)


"A salty crème anglais" sounds most unlikely, but then I guess that's what chefs do.


All of which are very French ways of using it I guess. Vegetables, in fact, seem to be a favourite pairing: Roasted carrots with vadouvan butter and almond cream from our own Andrew McConnell; Slowly-roasted Carrots with Quinoa, Kale, Vadouvan Curry Oil & Yogurt - Farm 2 Chefs Table and Vadouvan and roasted lemon vegetables from Curtis Stone and it seems that Scott Pickett at the Smith St. Bistro has a dish called Tarte de chou-fleur, vadouvan, asperge local, although I could find no picture of it.


In my wanderings around the web it seemed that Duck vadouvan was a thing in France, but honestly the examples I found all seemed quite different to each other, although all very 'haute cuisine' looking rather than Indian. One example is this American one - Duck Vadouvan - Robert Sisca/Long Island Pulse.


I also found that in India - well in Pondicherry - there was a Pork Vadagam dish but I could find no examples of this anywhere.


All in all I think that it's a real thing but in a very small way and not something that has taken France by storm in the same way that Anglicised versions of various Indian dishes have.


If you go back to Madhur Jaffrey and her reference to rice, then you find that the Tamils use rice in two particularly ingenious ways - well they make a batter from ground rice and water which is then either made into Dhosa - a kind of crêpe, or Idli - in which the rice batter has spices added before being left to ferment for a couple of days. Then they are put into moulds and cooked a bit like a steamed pudding. They are then unfolded and served as a breakfast food with Sambar - a spicy broth. I suppose the dhosa could be a French influenced thing, although only in the technique and the ultimate form. The batter is decidedly Indian. The Idli though are just Indian. Well maybe the cooking technique is French?

At the beginning of the Pondicherry section of this book there are other spice mixes - the most unique one being something called Kuzhambu Thool - a hotter mix which also includes dal. I think this is more a general Tamil mix though rather than specific to Pondicherry.


It's a really nice book and I have made a couple of other things from it - from other sections. And where else would you find recipes from La Réunion and Guadeloupe? Well you would have to seek them out. And so interesting that the French, who boast one of the world's great cuisines, had such little impact on the Tamils - and vice versa. I suspect that both nations are so proudly independent and nationalistic that a merger would be difficult.



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