It was a typical hot summer afternoon in Pondicherry as I rolled up my sleeves in anticipation of a unique culinary experience. What followed took me completely by surprise. I was at Chez Pushpa, a 'Table d'hote' experience in Ariyankuppam in Pondicherry. This historic part of Pondicherry is close to the Arikamedu archaeological site. This was believed to be a major port dedicated to bead making and trading with Roman traders. Table d'hote' translates to 'the host's table', a term that was initially used in French inns where residents of the guesthouse would sit at the same table as their host. Chez Pushpa is one of Pondicherry's most engaging dining experiences. It was here that I tried mutton sambar for the first time. It set me on a fascinating journey to unravel one of South India's most fascinating micro-cuisines.
Motchamary Pushpa moved to Pondicherry from Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu after her marriage. She quickly discovered a whole new culinary experience: what she likes to call Franco Pondicherry cuisine. She learnt the intricacies of this cuisine from her mother-in-law who had spent over three decades in Vietnam in Cambodia. It was quite common for Tamils from Pondicherry to serve in French colonies during the French occupation of Pondicherry.
Pushpa is one of the few remaining flagbearers of a cuisine that's slowly disappearing from many Pondicherry homes. It's not the only micro-cuisine that is facing an existential threat. A couple of years ago I had spoken to Bridget White-Kumar who champions Anglo Indian cuisine, she blamed large scale migration of the Anglo Indian community to countries like Australia for the decline in Anglo Indian cuisine. It's same story in Pondicherry that has been witnessing gentrification of sorts over the last few decades. Many of the town's original residents have moved to France, that is seeing an erosion of many aspects of the original culture.
Madhulika Rajan's family originally hails from Pondicherry, her father was my German teacher in school. She reminisces about summer vacations and Christmas breaks at her grandmother's home in Pondicherry. While the French cultural influence is very strong, she also tells me about the Portuguese culinary influence. The Portuguese set up a factory here in 1523, much before the French arrived in Pondicherry. One of the traditional dishes here is Pork 'Vindhai' that's almost identical to the Vindaloo, a Portuguese dish that is flavoured with vinegar. Dodol, a popular sweet in Goa is still made in some Pondicherry homes to this day.
Pushpa serves signature Franco Tamil cuisine on a banana leaf as part of her Table d'hote' experience. Pondicherry's Tamil Catholic community have preserved this cuisine; it's essentially Tamil cuisine with influences from French colonisation. One of the regulars - I've experienced this wonderful banana leaf twice, is a Créole salade. It's not just the unique twist in the recipes, it's also the nomenclature. Madhulika's grandmother used the term cotelette to describe chops (usually made with mutton) that is served with Thenga paal rasam and rice. This typical Franco Tamil rasam is made with coconut milk and is 'tempered' with a mild spice mix.
One of the many unique culinary techniques in Franco Tamil cuisine is the use of 'vadavoum'. These flavour pellets were a product of French colonisation. Vadavoum is a mixture of shallots , garlic, sesame oil and spices that is sun dried for at least 20 days and then preserved. The vadavoums are used in multiple dishes as a final touch and add a distinct flavour profile to the dish. Pushpa painstakingly makes these vadavoums every summer and stores them for use around the year. Madhulika tells me there's a simple Vadavoum curry that is made around Easter.
Pushpa calls it the Margandam Mutton Sambhar, a popular dish among diners who have dined at her home. The French used to refer to the lamb used in Pondicherian "mouton" (mutton). According to Pushpa, Margandam sambar is derived from Dalcha that can be traced to the Wadiyar dynasty who moved to Pondicherry from Mysore escaping Hyder Ali's oppression. This sambar combines vegetables with mutton ribs and is tempered with Vadavoum at the end. You can also try making it without the vadavoum.
Margandam Mutton Sambhar
Recipe courtesy: Motchamary Pushpa
Ingredients for dal:
- 100 grams toor dal
- 1/2 teaspoon asafoetida
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1/2 teaspoon coconut oil or any oil you wish
- Add 1 cup of water, the toor dal, turmeric, asafoetida and oil in a pressure cooker. Cook it for 10 minutes. Keep the cooked dal separately
- Ingredients to prepare mutton ribs
- 1/2 kilo of mutton ribs
- 1 soup spoon sambar powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 small garlic peeled
- Add mutton ribs, sambar powder, salt, garlic and 1 cup of water in a pressure cooker. Cook it for 10 minutes
- Ingredients to cook vegetables
- 100 grams fresh tomatoes cut in pieces
- 100 grams onion sambar (do not cut)
- 1 drumstick to be cut in few pieces
- 3 eggplants (cut into pieces)
- 2 soup spoon sambar powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 soup spoon of tamarind juice
- Add tomatoes, onions, drumstick, eggplant and fill water in a large casserole till you cover all the ingredients. Add salt and sambar powder and tamarind juice. Cook it for 10 minutes.
Ingredients for tempering
- 2 soup spoon of coconut oil or any other oil
- 1 soup spoon of vadavoum
- 1 strip of curry leaves
- Take a small pan, add oil. Once the oil is hot, add the vadavum and the curry leaves. Keep it on slow fire for a minute.
- Add the cooked mutton and the dal to the big casserole where all the vegetables have been cooked for 10 minutes, now. Cook for 10 minutes.
- Then add the vadavoum which has been tempered in the casserole.
- Just cook it for 1 or 2 minutes. Serve with white rice.
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.