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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 March 2019

Fusion of flavours: 5 eateries to try in Pondicherry

A merging of cultures in the Indian city has resulted in a diverse and colourful dining scene

The French Quarter’s quaint colonial buildings. Getty 
The French Quarter’s quaint colonial buildings. Getty 

If there’s one thing I learned in Pondicherry, it is this: the spirit can be wonderfully refreshed by unforgettable food.

For decades, the experimental community of Auroville and its ashram, founded by spiritual leader Mirra Alfassa, were the seaside town’s greatest claims to fame. Thousands came to find themselves; many hundreds stayed. The rest of Pondicherry was a choatic blur. Tourists ambled around the French Quarter or crowded central ­beaches, and a quality trip could be rounded off in two days.

Now, though, instead of existing side by side, the town’s French heritage (Pondicherry was a colonial settlement until the 1950s) and South Indian culture have merged to create a charming but buzzing town. A four-day visit was far too short – I wanted to permanently move into the French-style cottage on Serenity Beach that was my home during the trip. The hammocks on the terrace were perfect for midnight naps, the sea breeze wild yet comforting. There was a delightful cafe two doors down where the coffee was delicious and the vibe decidedly Mediterranean.

Perhaps I could have grown bored of this idyllic life had the food not bowled me over. Every­thing was a revelation, including the late-night shack next door where a fisherwoman served mackerel curry and rice out of steel drums for a paltry nine rupees (47 fils).

Pondicherry has experienced a dining explosion, thanks to its well-heeled local population, a thriving community of expats and a handful of French-Indians who have returned from Europe to reconnect with their roots. Some are working to revive the culinary traditions of Creole cuisine, while others have opened bakeries or restaurants.

I spent an evening walking around the French Quarter and down its popular promenade, with the sea on my left and a row of quaint pastel-­coloured colonial buildings on my right. It was enchanting and there was also a sense of isolation, as if the town is separate from the ­rest of India.

I had breakfast at the restaurant of a guest house just off Serenity Beach. Everything was made from scratch and there was just one cook, so the wait was long, but the hot pancakes and crepes, criss-crossed with chocolate sauce, were outstanding.

The cherry-on-top meal experience was at Maison Perumal, a spectacular heritage hotel on a quiet street in the heart of Pondicherry. It’s an 18th-century Chettiar bungalow in the Tamil Quarter that deserves praise for its beauty alone. Brightly lit and adorned with kitschy artwork, its open-hall dining room is never empty. And as much as I enjoy light Mediterranean fare, Indian food is my first love. A blackboard announced the menu of the day and I settled for masala fried fish, seafood rasam, podi-grilled fish and fennel-grilled prawns with piping hot rice. Dessert was a ravishing muskmelon panna cotta, and after that I could barely move.

Here are a few other eateries to try if you are in town.

Tanto

It is incredibly spacious, with alfresco seating and the character of a Tuscan hideaway. Daniel Emdin runs a classic joint, with evergreen dishes that are cooked based on his ­mother’s recipes with fresh vege­tables organically grown at his massive farm in Auroville. A woodfire oven spits out un­believably tasty pizzas. All the staff are also local, to support the community.

Villa Shanti

The restaurant offers an eccentric set of dishes – the menu reads like a Kandinsky painting: colourful and with a lot happening. You can order pan-seared barracuda, meen moilee (a Kerala fish curry) and patrani lobster (a Parsi dish) in the same breath, and round-off the meal with jalebi, halwa and creme caramel.

Goyo

This restaurant, where diners are asked to remain silent throughout their meal, serves organic vegetarian Korean food, based on a set menu. It doesn’t sound much like a restaurant, but Goyo’s meals are booked far in advance. Lunch is served on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and includes staples such as kimbap, thur, kimchi and bibimbap. It can only accommodate 10 guests at a time.

Chez Pushpa / La Table d’Hote

 Chez Pushpa serves French-Creole dishes at its pop-ups. Courtesy Chez Pushpa
 Chez Pushpa serves French-Creole dishes at its pop-ups. Courtesy Chez Pushpa

Anita de Canaga and her ­mother Pushpa host authentic Creole pop-ups at their residence, and they’re worth every penny. Franco-Indian food is a subtle blend of flavours from the various French colonies across Asia, so you will find hints of Vietnamese and Cambodian food in the cuisine. Chaiyo, or local spring rolls, is the most well-known dish in this genre, but Pushpa whips up a varied menu.

Appachi Chettinad

You can’t leave Pondicherry without trying Tamil Nadu’s fiery Chettinad cuisine. Try classics such as minced baby shark, crab masala, gingelly oil roast, keema dosa, kuz­hambu and sukka.

Satsanga

For an Indianised European meal experience, this hits all the right notes. First of all, its menu is in French and lists essential dishes such as ratatouille, boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin and sole meuniere, as well as fusion food like prawns in Creole or coconut sauce, and beef and mushroom curry. The list is ­exhaustive, so choose wisely.

Updated: February 27, 2019 03:00 PM

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