Sixty-eight-year-old Motchamary Pushpam, Pushpa to most, adjusted her apron and kept a pan on the flame. “Let’s fry the fish in the meantime,” she said in Tamil. On the adjacent flame, thinly sliced onions, garlic cloves, fresh curry leaves and a single bay leaf sizzled in another pan, releasing delightful aromas that wafted through her sunlit house.
Pushpa was busy making the quintessentially Pondicherrian Fish Assad Curry, a coconut-milk-laden curry, flavoured with anise and curry leaves and finished with a squeeze of lime. She would serve the dish at her table d’hôte lunch, later in the afternoon. “They have cut the fish a little too thin,” she complained, while grinding poppy seeds in an electric grinder. The poppy seed paste is an essential ingredient for the Assad Curry.
Anita de Canaga, Pushpa’s daughter, effortlessly repeated her mother’s words in French to the two French women, who had their attention and mobile cameras trained on Pushpa’s every move as she smoothly manoeuvred her way around her airy, uncluttered kitchen – chopping, blending and stirring, while the fish sizzled and crackled in the background. “My mother can speak some English and French, but she feels shy,” de Canaga explained. The conversation soon shifted to where to shop for white poppy seeds in Paris.
Pushpa’s reservation-only table d’hôte meals, which she hosts at her tastefully done home in a quiet, lush neighbourhood near the backwaters of Puducherry, are carefully curated to showcase the region’s own brand of Creole cuisine, which is fast disappearing from the city’s restaurants. The food is served on banana leaves and eating with hands is encouraged. Pushpa also offers cooking demonstrations, on request, at an additional charge.
During the nearly 200 years it was a French colony, the native cuisine of Pondicherry (renamed Puducherry in 2006) acquired a French accent. At the same time, local cooks working in the kitchens of their colonial masters introduced a hint of spice and seasoning to French sauces. So, the French Bouillabaisse morphed into the turmeric-tinted Meen Puyabaise, prawns were cooked in a spice-infused tamarind sauce, and fiery native curries were toned down, often with coconut milk, to suit the French palette and sensibility. In fact, the restrained use of spices is a distinct characteristic of Pondicherrian cuisine.
“We use lots of spices in our food, but our food is never spicy,” said Pushpa.
Though Pondicherrian food is largely seen as a product of fusion of Tamil and French cuisines, it also has hints of Portuguese, Dutch and even Mughal influence. Moreover, “large numbers of Pondicherrians, who were sent to Vietnam, Cambodia and erstwhile French Indo-China in the 19th and early 20th centuries, brought back recipes and culinary knowledge that were incorporated into the local cuisine,” said de Canaga.
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At Pushpa’s home, the Vietnamese Chaiyos are just as popular as dosas and steak-frites. “My mother makes excellent rice dosas, stuffed with pork, and flavoured with fish sauce and fresh coriander,” said de Canaga, illustrating the South East Asian connection.
De Canaga was the one who goaded Pushpa to start her culinary enterprise. “The food traditionally cooked in old Pondicherrian homes is very different from the food people have come to associate Pondicherry with,” she said. “We wanted to give people a taste of the food we cook at home, something restaurants don’t offer.” It also helped that Pushpa loved entertaining guests at home.
Surprisingly, for a champion of its cuisine, Pushpa is not a native of Puducherry. Originally from Karnataka, Pushpa is a Pondicherrian by marriage. Her husband, Noel de Canaga, was born to Franco-Pondicherrian (Indian-origin French nationals) parents in Vietnam. He returned to Puducherry in the 1950s and later shifted to Paris. Pushpa’s introduction to Pondicherrian food was through her mother-in-law.
“For a long time, I didn’t know how to cook at all,” said Pushpa. At her parents’ home, Pushpa never set foot in the kitchen. “It was the same at my in-laws’, my mother-in-law hardly let me do any chores, let alone toil in the kitchen,” Pushpa reminisced affectionately. “She was a fabulous cook and did all the cooking.”
In the early 1980s, Pushpa migrated to France with her three children to join her husband in Paris, which would be her home for the next three decades. Required to put food on the table for her family, Pushpa gradually found her way around the kitchen, albeit with the help of extensive notes and recipes from her mother-in-law. “Cooking was a big part of my life in Paris,” she said. “Eventually it turned into my passion.” Friends and family visiting them were soon raving about her food. Encouraged and heartened, Pushpa opened her home and kitchen to travellers and culinary enthusiasts upon the family’s return to India.
Among her admirers are chefs and restaurateurs. She recently cooked for Kumar Mahadevan, the most prominent face of Indian cuisine in Australia, as well as Chetan Sharma, founder-chef of the London-based Mad Hatter Hospitality. “He [Sharma] cooked flat beans poriyal with prawns and kesari in our kitchen,” said Pushpa, as she added the finishing touches to her curry.
The day’s menu, handwritten and accompanied by a colourful doodle made by Pushpa’s husband, included a few vegetarian dishes – banana stem pachadi, bottle gourd and ground nut poriyal, and a poriyal made with thinly sliced flat beans, pearl onions and fragrant curry leaves. “Often, we add small prawns or minced beef to these poriyals,” said Pushpa. “It is characteristic of Pondicherrians to add some meat or seafood to traditionally vegetarian dishes.” Her mutton sambar, for instance, peps up the vegetable-and-lentils preparation with goat ribs, cut into small pieces.
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That day, it was fish that headlined the cast. There was spice-laced fried fish and a fish salad – flakes of spicy fried fish tossed with onions and tomatoes in a light vinaigrette – and finally the tangy, delicately spiced Assad Curry. “She got the fish herself, fresh from the bazaar this morning,” said de Canaga as her mother nodded in agreement. The delightfully fragrant curry leaves were fresh from Pushpa’s garden, where everything from aubergine, chillies, flat beans and different kinds of spinach to basil, peppermint and tomatoes are grown.
Pushpa grinds and blends most of her spices at home. “My mother-in-law always stressed on fresh, homemade spices,” she said. Her secret spice blend comprises more than 12 kinds of spices. Another pantry essential at Pushpa’s is the vadouvan. Variously dubbed as “intense French-Indian spice mixture”, “flavour bomb” and a spice mix “notoriously difficult to handle”, Vadouvan or vadavam, as it’s locally called, is what gives some of Puducherry’s iconic dishes their signature taste. Typically, vadavam is made with onions, garlic, curry leaves and a host of spices like turmeric, asafoetida, mustard and anise, which are combined, mixed with oil, shaped into balls and dried in the sun for a month. It is a cumbersome process.
Pushpa sources her stock of vadavam from her sister-in-law, who makes large batches every few months. “It gets better and stronger with age,” said Pushpa, who makes a brilliant rendition of the Duck Vadavan Kozhumbu, if her friends and family are to be believed. According to her, Pondicherrians acquired their love for duck, pork and intestines from the French. “My mother also makes a fantastic Vindail, the Pondicherrian counterpart of the Goan Vindaloo, though the two are distinctly different in terms of taste and flavours,” de Canaga added. “The similarity ends at the use of vinegar as a souring agent.” Pushpa uses apple cider vinegar in her version.
Pushpa’s favourite dish to cook is the mutton biryani. While most southern biryanis use short grain rice, the Pondicherrian version, according to Pushpa, uses basmati. She serves the biryani with onion pachadi, a typical Pondicherrian chutney made with aubergines and tamarind, and a salad made with carrots, beetroot, onions, tomatoes, boiled eggs and potatoes, and dressed in a simple vinaigrette. “We call it the Creole salad,” said Pushpa.
For Christmas, Pushpa typically drums up a fragrant turkey biryani with aubergine, paired with onion pachadi, tamarind chutney, Creole salad and Vennaiputtu. “My mother-in-law also made Puducherry’s special Christmas cake – the Vivikam cake,” said Pushpa. A Creole import to the region’s kitchens, the deliciously boozy cake is made with roasted semolina and pure ghee, and comes loaded with rum-soaked raisins and cashew nuts. “It is quite a laborious process, I don’t make it usually,” said Pushpa. Her signature dessert is the quintessentially French Crème Caramel. But on that day, there was saffron-hued Kesari on the menu. Perhaps another time then.