On Pondicherry’s Platter

A writer eats his way through haute Indian cuisine, regional firecrackers, and organic fare in the coastal town.  
Pondicherry
The colonial architecture of Pondicherry’s streets is interspersed with old Hindu temples (left). It is easy to visualise the two sides of a historical coin: a city where Frenchmen and Tamilians lived side by side for almost 300 years. Parla meen kohzambhu (bluefish curry) (right) served at Maison Perumal is a delicious start to discovering the city. Photos by: Jonas Gratzer

Visiting Pondicherry is like taking a bite out of the tastiest parts of Europe—spiced up to match Asian sensibilities, it’s a veritable paradise for lovers of Euro-Med-Asian fusion.

The French have left an occidental esprit behind: street names are still prefaced with Rue, the leafy avenues are lined with plenty of heritage buildings called Maison something or the other, and policemen wear red pillboxy French caps. I feel like I’m inside a Tintin comic or starring in Life of Pi (the novel, incidentally, starts with a scene at the atmospheric Indian Coffee House adjacent to the colourful Goubert Market and where one gets lovely egg dosai for Rs55).

With an economy increasingly dependent on tourism, there’s a pressing need to preserve architectural heritage. Even new constructions are built to blend in, I notice as I check into Palais de Mahé on 239 Rue de Bussy. Although its elegant rooms have all mod cons, every detail down to the wrought-iron door keys bespeaks of heritage mindedness.

The gourmet fare at the hotel’s airy roof terrace restaurant Les Alizés is close to flawless—chef N. Kathir excels at dishes influenced by Kerala cuisine. The kokum-marinated fish grilled in banana leaf wraps, he says, is just like it’s done in Mahé (erstwhile French colony in Kerala); the prawns in mango-coconut curry eaten with fluffy appams are sublime. But even better is his Indian-style haute cuisine, or what he calls “progressive cuisine.” Dishes to die for include the garlic-marinated medium-rare steak in a peppery sauce served alongside taro root wedges tempered with mustard seeds and a touch of chilli; I’m floored by a fennel-and-lime-crusted kingfish fillet accompanied by a Catalan paprika sauce and spicy yam; and reach nirvana when I sample grilled curry-marinated tiger prawns with traditional lemon rice and stir-fried creamy babycorn. All the gourmet dishes are about Rs600 per plate which is the best VFM ever.

Pondicherry 2

Watching the city wind down from the rooftop bar at Hotel Ajantha Seaview at Goubert Avenue (right) is one of Pondicherry’s loveliest sights; Khuzi paniyaram, a lentil stew with utterly yummy, spongy rice balls is a signature dish of chef Cougarbabu at Maison Perumal (left). Photos by: Jonas Gratzer

Between meals, the town is perfect for a Proustian stroll to build up appetite—I turn the corner into the charming Rue Romain Rolland, named after a long-ago French winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is lined by a library, a theatre with an old Pathe-Cine-Familial sign still intact over the gate, and a great number of hangouts such as La Maison Rose (8 Rue Romain Rolland), a café-cum-cocktail bar in a salmon-coloured colonial mansion which also houses a cool bookshop. The lunch menu, with everything from Thai-flavoured stir-fried calamari and Japanese crispy prawns tempura, to Mediterranean hummus and tzatziki, is particularly recommendable for its mango pad thai salad (Rs380) that comes with chilli rice noodles, sprouts and greens in a sweet and sour dressing. It goes well with a pork chop-stuffed sourdough sandwich (Rs340). After the walk I reward myself with a banana lassi at the 24/7-open Le Café, housed in the former harbour office with amazing ocean views and a cool breeze.

Pondicherry is one of the best Indian towns for pizza love where authenticity and affordability combines into amazing hogging. Xtasi Gastropub (28 Rue de Bussy) is famous for wood-fired pizzas, including vegetarian pizzas topped with aubergine and zucchini. Cocktails can also be ordered in any size, I notice as three sozzled girls at the next table down a pitcher of Bacardi. I make do with a pint and order a seafood pizza—topped with generous chunks of fish, black olives and veggies, all smothered in cheese—and while eating away I observe a girl entering in burka, walk into the restroom, come out in jeans and tank top, and order herself a beer. It’s very à la Pondicherry. A more classic selection of traditional Italian gourmet pizzas (at only Rs300) can be found at Tanto Trattoria (Auroville Main Road), worth the 10 kilometre trip out to Auroville also for its fine pastas and risottos, as well as organic ravioli. They sell their own tagliatelle coloured red with beetroot or green from spinach.

Pondicherry 1

Pondicherry is a delicious buffet for the senses. A hot coffee at the iconic Indian Coffee House (top right) will set you back a mere Rs20. Markets peddle everything from fresh flowers (top left) to seafood. Before hitting the restaurant circuit, take a walk at Goubert Market to check out fresh catch (bottom right) from the coast; Policemen in Pondy still sport the typical red, very-French kepi (bottom left). Photos by: Jonas Gratzer

When I tire of eating, I pop into the Aurobindo ashram (Rue de la Marine) for some silent meditation, the newly opened Police Museum (4 Rue Dumas) with its collection of quaint uniforms and weapons, and the Pondicherry Museum (49 Rue Saint Louis) with a jumble of things the French left behind—foodies might be interested in the mock-up of a colonial dining room including special wine cabinets. The museum also has Roman and Chinese antiques, such as shards from first century amphorae for transporting Mediterranean wines and Sung dynasty porcelain with pale blue patterns on white glazing, attesting to the city’s ancient interest in foreign eating habits—and to think, that was thousands of years before the arrival of the French!

After a few days in the European part of town, I shift to the Tamil quarters and the charming Maison Perumal (58 Perumal Koil Street), a 130-year-old merchant’s mansion turned into a stylish boutique hotel. In its courtyards, local artists exhibit their work and the cheerful chef COUGARBABU, who spells his name with capital letters and is a born and bred Puducherrian, puts together an elaborate tasting menu of regional specialities. Entrées consist of vazhapoo vadai (fritters made of banana flowers served with a coconut dip), khuzipaniyaram (lentil stew with delicious spongy rice balls), and for mains I sample karuvepillai varutha meen—mahimahi fillets baked in coconut leaves with a sweet-and-sour sauce of jaggery, chilli and tamarind; era podi thooval (shrimp sautéed with ‘gunpowder’ mixture) and parla meen kohzambhu, which is bluefish curry—altogether taking the art of cookery to a heavenly level.

Raising the Bar

Pondicherry happens to be one of the best towns in India to go out for a drink: bars are a dime a dozen and drinking is dirt cheap.

Rock-bottom options include a surplus of popular bars such as the friendly Poudou-Poudou (31 Rue Labourdonnais) which also has a decent seafood menu, De Bussy Permit Room (81 Lal Bahadur Shastry Street) is great for tandoori snacks to go with your drink, and the old-world Amnivasam Factory Price Retail Outlet Budget Bar (corner of Montorsier and Capitane Marius Xavier Streets) is perhaps the cheapest of all for an ice-cold beer. These are slightly male hangouts.

For a sea view and environs more suited to female revellers, head to Seagulls (19 Rue Dumas) or the rooftop bar at Hotel Ajantha Seaview (50 Goubert Avenue). Rendez-vous (30 Rue Suffren) is another youthful place which offers decent bar grub.

Pondicherry 3

No matter how many hip cafés and artsy types flood Pondicherry, some old habits and morning rituals in temples (top) will always defy the passage of time; Food at the restaurant, Les Alizés (bottom), is a deft mix of Indian and European flavours, such as this fennel-and-lime-crusted kingfish fillet resting on a bed of spicy yam and veggies, all topped by a Catalan paprika sauce. Photos by: Jonas Gratzer

My personal all-time favourite is Hotel Dhanalakshmi Urvasi Roof Garden (59 Rangapillai Street), on the upper floor of a mansion with a balcony that overlooks the street making it the perfect perch for people-watching. Despite a certain seediness, this is an easygoing haunt with uncles in loincloths sipping hard drinks while a bunch of youth sing, ‘Happy birthday to Thambi.’ There’s even a squirrel that tries to jump into my beer mug while I’m distracted by the delectable snacks such as the ‘prawn-fish munch’ (Rs200) which is exactly what it sounds like—a hearty mix of fish and prawns fried with spices and veggies.

For those wishing to dress up, flashier bars include The Storytellers’ in the hep Le Promenade hotel (23 Goubert Avenue) and other star hotel bars, though the loveliest cocktail bar in town has to be Bombali (7 Rue Labourdonnais) which also features an extensive dim sum menu–if you tire of all the French fusion.

  • Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).

  • Jonas Gratzer is a Swedish freelance photojournalist with a focus on Asia. For almost a decade he has travelled through large parts of the Asiatic continent and covered issues of development, environmental, political and human rights.

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