East is East and West is West: Pondicherry and French Curry

Street scene in Pondicherry (Photo credit: Ascension Gateway)

In Pondicherry, Pondichéry, or Puducherry as it is now called again (since 2006), you still see streets sparkling with old colonial buildings, dating back to a time when passersby heard French spoken daily.

Puducherry Police Officer (Photo credit: Adam Jones)

Yet, those buildings, policemen’s hats, and a fully functioning French lycée or school, are among the few overt signs that you’ll notice of France’s colonial presence in India. The French colonized a piece of India in the 1600s, leaving only in 1954. After the Treaty of Paris in 1815, France had rights to five comptoirs (trading posts), including Pondicherry. The comptoirs were Mahé, Yanaon, Karikal, and Chandernagor. Unlike the British or the Dutch, the French borrowed very little from the cooks of Pondicherry. And did the cooks of Pondicherry dip their figures into the ragoût? Likely not, if the ragoût contained beef or pork or even chicken.

A series of French governors ruled the region.  Bellanger, a French officer, took charge on February 4, 1673. In 1674 François Martin became the the first French governor and turned the area into a port town.  Joseph François Dupleix, who arrived in 1742, left the deepest footprint. Dupleix married a Creole woman from Chandernagor, a sign that you know led to changes in the kitchen as well as the social melting pot.

Governor Joseph François Dupleix (Picture credit: Larousse)

Divided as it was into two sectors, the French Quarter (“Ville Blanche” or “White Town”) and the native Quarter (“Ville Noire” or “Black Town”), the mere geography of Pondy stymied culinary interchanges, although you will still find French restaurants in the city today.

But some clues let you in on the fact that French colonists didn’t completely abhor curry and brought a taste for it back home to France.

Old Pondicherry Café

Antoine Beauvilliers first mentioned curry in his 1814  work  L’Art de cuisinier (The Art of French Cookery). He mentions curry (Kari) in three recipes: Curry Sauce, ou à la Indienne; Curry of Chickens (Kari de Poulets); and Sauce en Tortue.

Curry Sauce, ou à la Indienne. Put into a stewpan three spoonfuls of reduced telouti, as much consommi, a tea-spoonful of currypowder ; take a little saffron, boil it in a small pan; when it has given its colour rub it through a search into the sauce ; let it boil, and skim it; if it 15* not hot enough put in a little Cayenne pepper.

Sauce en Tortue. Put into a saucepan a ladleful of reduced Espagnole, a large glass of hard Madeira, a tea-spoonful of curry powder, and half that quantity of Cayenne; reduce the whole; skim, put in some cocks’ combs and kidneys, artichoke bottoms, a veal or lamb’s sweetbread ; boil the whole, that the ingredients may taste and take the colour of the sauce; at the moment of serving put in six or eight hard yolks of eggs; take care not to break them in stirring the sauce, and serve.

Even the British commented on the plethora of French cuisine in India.

Colonel Kenney-Herbert, a British Army officer and author of ‘Wyvern’ (Colonel Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert): Culinary Jottings for Madras (1878), wrote that “… dinners of sixteen or twenty, thoughtfully composed, are de rigueur; our menu cards discourse of dainty fare in its native French.” [Emphasis added.] This trend began, according to Lizzie Cunningham, as early as 1838 or before. In Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (2006), she quotes (no attribution given) a British visitor to India who delighted in finding that “French cookery is generally patronised, and the beef and mutton oppressions of ten years since are exploded.”

Given that Indian cooks — generally males — working for gentlemen like Kenney-Herbert and Governor Dupleix toiled in rather rustic kitchens, as David Burton says in The Raj at Table: A Culinary History of the British in India (1993),

… this overblown fare was precisely what was demanded of the Indian cook of the era. Faced with this task, without proper ingredients or any real tuition, and using primitive charcoal stoves with rudimentary implements, in a hot humid climate (which made the task of pastry making, for instance, almost impossible), it is little wonder that what the Indian cook produced fell somewhat short of classic French cuisine.

No less a luminary than Georges Auguste Escoffier included a recipe for chicken curry (Emincé de volaille au curry) in his monumental work, Le Guide Culinaire, saying as well that, “It may be of interest to note that the authentic type of Indian curry is not suitable for European tastes, but the flavor of the above sauce is generally acceptable.”

David Burton, in his more recent French Colonial Cookery (2000), suggests that cross-cultural marriages like that of Dupleix led to the invention of spicy French-influenced dishes in Puducherry, such as Panchanaga Seekarane (Pondicherry Lamb Roulades) and one recorded by French poet Stephane Mallarmé in a French magazine in 1874, called Moulongtani pour un Réveillon (a version of the more well-known English mulligatawny.

French Colonial Architecture in Puducherry


Photo credit: Melanie M.

For primary manuscripts on the French in Pondicherry, see Descriptive Catalogue of Manuscripts in the French institute of Pondicherry (4 volumes).

To be continued …

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

7 thoughts on “East is East and West is West: Pondicherry and French Curry

  1. Again, so very interesting and well researched. Having had an American (California) public school education my world history is spotty at best, and I didn’t know until now that the French were in India! The Brits, I knew about but not the French. Interesting cultural combination. Thanks for filling me.

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