Creole. In North America, we associate the word with Louisiana. We see it as a sultry mix of cultures and food, a blend of races, spices and language. It’s where French (and Spanish) colonials met with African-Americans and Native-Americans, free or enslaved, in the heat of the south and everything melded together, willingly or unwillingly.
In India, Creole refers to the mix of French and Indian people that happened in the colonial-era, in the French colony of Pondicherry (renamed Puducherry in 2006). When cultures mix so do their foods, but since the French left Pondicherry in 1954 we wondered if their melting pot of food lived on?
When I first went to Pondi, as it is most commonly known, I thought I’d find restaurants celebrating Creole blends of French and Indian food. I’d ask to go to an Indo-French restaurant and my friends would say, yes, for sure! We’d arrive at a restaurant and I’d find myself staring at a menu with a list of French dishes down one side of the page and Indian on the other and never did the two meet.
I’ve since learned that such restaurants do exist. Even Lonely Planet lists a few. But, my idea of this brand of fusion was lost in translation with my guides at the time.
On our visit in 2016, I hoped to find it at last. I still didn’t find it in a restaurant. I found it somewhere WAY better.
The French ruled Pondicherry for over 280 years. There was lots of mixing and matching of citizenry, including the most prominent of both cultures.
This, among other reasons, is why Pauli-Ann and I were so delighted to meet Anita Goubert through our good friend Sumeet Nair. During our 2016 trip, we knew Sumeet was in Puducherry working on a new project. Turns out he was working with Anita to preserve her Indo-Creole culture’s recipes. Voila! Finally, I had found the real deal.
Our friend Sumeet Nair is a master at capturing and preserving recipes that might otherwise be lost to a culture. He worked for three years to produce The Bangala Table. For that project he devoted himself to coaxing a few hundred heritage Chettiyar recipes from one prominent family’s cook of 50 plus years. Sumeet and his team recorded, tested and photographed the recipes in a cookbook so artfully executed it was named in India’s Top Ten Books (all categories) the year it was published.
Anita Goubert is believed to be one of the last great keepers of the knowledge of how to make Indo-French Creole dishes. Sumeet was intrigued and happy to lend his talents to document this fascinating part of India’s cultural heritage in food.
A member of Anita’s family had been the chief minister of French Colonial Pondicherry. There are streets and a market named after Mr. Édouard Goubert and he was Creole. His father had been French and his mother Franco-Indian.
Making the connection
A decorator, antiques dealer and restaurateur, Anita’s food caught the attention of Karin Rao, the founder of Amethyst in nearby Chennai. Rao knew of Sumeet’s work so she connected them and supplied her abode in Puducherry as a place to work on a collaborative cookbook.
Other projects have put the book production on a hiatus for now, but during the day we spent with them in Puducherry we watched as they prepared a roasted chicken (poulet roti), a beef tongue gratin, and a sticky banana rice dessert. The roasted chicken technique was very French but the spicing very Indian. Beef is rarely eaten in mainly Hindu India. The exceptions are some Christian families in the south, Muslims throughout the country and a few Creole families in Puducherry. The banana dessert ends up a bit like a caramelized Bananas Foster – a Creole recipe which originates in New Orleans.
We’ll share the recipes for poulet roti and sticky banana rice in upcoming posts. And we hope to one day see finished what would be an amazing contribution to our global knowledge of food – the Puducherry Creole Table cookbook.
Thank you to our friends Sumeet Nair and Anita Goubert for inviting us to spend the day with them cooking and sharing their delicious results during our visit to Puducherry. Many thanks also to the KTM Society and Travel XS for sponsoring our travel throughout South India in 2016.
All words and photos are our own and were not shared with the sponsors before publication.