Imagine silky French sauces tinted with saffron and turmeric, speckled with dark mustard seeds, headily flavored with curry leaves and sometimes enriched with coconut milk instead of cream. Add delicate seared scallops, or fresh shrimp and julienned mango -- and you have the makings of the kind of Franco-Indian dishes that are described in “La Porte des Indes Cookbook” (Pavilion, $30).
These unusual recipes blending Indian and French ingredients and techniques are drawn from dishes served at La Porte des Indes in London, one of two restaurants of the same name (the other’s in Brussels) specializing in the Creole cuisine of the Indian city of Pondicherry. Mehernosh Mody, executive chef, and Sherin Mody, executive director of La Porte des Indes, are the authors, along with John Hellon, a Brussels-based food and travel writer.
As the authors explain in a series of short forewords (which also detail the restaurants’ histories), the French arrived in Pondicherry, a French enclave along the southeast coast of India on the Bay of Bengal, in 1670. They set up a trading post at the invitation of the local sultan. The history of their colonial efforts in the region is long and complex, riddled with skirmishes with the British. France’s influence in India eventually declined, and the colony in Pondicherry was the only French outpost, becoming part of India in 1954.
French influence still lingers in the charming city, which is about three hours south of Chennai (Madras). Tourists can stroll along Rue Romain Rolland and visit the Alliance Francaise and the Lycee Francais in the old French quarter, where bougainvillea spills over walls and colonial mansions have been turned into hotels.
French is spoken in restaurants such as Au Feu de Bois and Le Club, where chateaubriand with bearnaise sauce and coq au vin are on the menu. Despite the southern heat, it’s the custom to drink wine with meals in restaurants that specialize in French and Continental cuisine.
The Franco-Indian cuisine of Pondicherry is more delicate than traditional Indian food. The spicing is more subtle, although it draws on local ingredients; the presentation is more artful, and the flavors are enchanting. You’ll find such dishes as tandoori foie gras, lamb samosas wrapped in puff pastry and duck breasts in spicy tamarind sauce.
South Indian techniques that carry over include sauteing mustard seeds in oil until they pop, then adding other spices and curry leaves. This mixture is poured into the dish that is being prepared. Indian seasonings used in Pondicherry include curry powder, garam masala, tamarind, coconut, chiles, ginger and cilantro, which are blended with French additions such as butter and rich cream.
The recipes in “La Porte des Indes” reflect these principles and other significant characteristics of the cuisine, such as the abundance of seafood dishes (a natural, given Pondicherry’s coastal location). The lavishly illustrated book (with superb photos by Tony le Duc) also incorporates regional Indian dishes in a nod to the restaurant’s cooking staff, which hails from all parts of the country.
The recipes are well tested and reliable, far easier than I expected, and the photos offer guidance as well as gloss.
Working with the seafood recipes, I was enchanted by an elegant dish of seared scallops subtly flavored with curry leaves, curry powder and saffron. There’s no denying its delicate French heritage, but the intriguing peppery flavor of the curry leaves is what makes the dish memorable. A recipe for shrimp curry that incorporates unripe mango is equally novel -- again, easy to make but with a knowing emphasis on the interplay between crisp green mango, smooth coconut and fiery chiles.
Another classic Creole recipe is smoked aubergine (eggplant) crush. In Pondicherry, the authors note, the eggplants are grilled over live charcoal, but we used the oven method and had marvelous results. Baked eggplant is scooped from its shell, pureed and cooked again on the stovetop with a combination of spicy and bright flavorings. It’s fabulous, especially considering how easy it is to make.
Crab Malabar, a dish of crab and corn kernels with mustard and poppy seeds, involved just a few steps: frying the spices and aromatics, adding yogurt and coconut milk to make a simmering sauce, and adding the crabmeat and corn. Cooking times, amounts of ingredients and procedures were clear and worked exactly as stated in the book.
Other regions weigh in
Among the recipes from other parts of south India are one for guinea fowl from Chettinad, a district in Tamil Nadu state known for spicy food; a fish curry from Kerala; and a pork curry from Coorg in Karnataka state. There are a few North Indian recipes too, such as tandoori chicken, which is used to make one of La Porte des Indes’ most popular dishes, poulet rouge (chicken in a creamy red sauce).
British terminology, such as “double cream”, and metric measurement is used in the recipes along with American equivalents. I wasn’t sure what type of fresh chiles are available in England, and they’re not specified, but serranos and jalapenos worked fine.
Categories of recipes include soups, rice and breads, tandoori grills, even cocktails. I tried just one dessert, a pale pink pudding of ground, soaked basmati rice perfumed with confit de roses (rose petal preserves) and rose syrup. It was as pretty and delicate a dessert as any I have seen, made even lovelier by its garnish of fresh rose petals. And the flavor was mysterious, sweet and evocative, with a lingering finish.
I’ve worked with many Indian cookbooks, all of them devoted to traditional recipes from various regions. “La Porte des Indes” cookbook is something different -- contemporary, yes, but authentic too -- very different in its choices of flavors, the lightness of the dishes and its intriguing linkage of two of the greatest cuisines in the world.