Updated: March 5, 2021 8:56:58 pm
When the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama disembarked near Calicut in 1498, he inaugurated a new phase in history. The sea routes were opened up, and the Dutch, French, Danes, and British soon followed. The coastal enclaves which they founded became hubs of cultural exchange. Their economic potential attracted many kinds of people, including merchant communities, from outside and within India. ‘Creolisation’ resulted. New, unexpected cultural products sprang up from this interaction between different languages, different gods, different ways of living, and, of course, different ways of cooking and preparing food.
What was cooking in creole India’s kucinis?
Kucini Tales is a five-part flash fiction series, based on research on creolised food histories of India: the results of cultural encounters within settlements on the Malabar, Konkan, and Coromandel coasts and Bengal’s Hooghly district, founded and fought over by the Portuguese, Dutch, French, Danish, and British. Communities remember memorable events through scenarios that repeat as dramatic stories or myths.
Our kucini tales are mini-scenarios, that entertain you with food stories from Creole India. The first story was about vinegar as a generator of creole connections. It introduced Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar and Vattalakundu Rani. Did they, and others in this crazy cast of characters, really exist? How do they relate to Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau and Bibi Juliana Firangi of this story? You decide…
Creolisation is about mixing up words as much as ingredients, so we invite you to savour new words you might encounter as you read, play guessing games with them, and find connections with words you know (‘Kucini’ is the Pondicherry Tamil word for ‘kitchen’, which comes from Portuguese ‘cozinha’ or ‘kitchen’).
At the end of each story, you will find: a glossary, an ‘axiom’ of creolisation, and a summary of the underlying historical and cultural facts.
Marie le pêcheur, ouskilé poisson ?
La mer la monté
La ligne la cassé…
Fisherman Marie, where’s your fish? The waves are rising… the line is broken!
Koravakuppam Kreyol Festival.
The colourful banner fluttered festively. Passing under the archway into the town, Chinali could barely contain his euphoria. A masquerade! He jumped down from the cariole and joined a group of dancers. Hooked by the music and the joyous atmosphere, Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau also wanted to take part. But he didn’t have a costume…
An Amerindian festooned in peacock feathers gave him an address. Leaving Chinali to his dance, he took the street that led towards the Alamparai Fort. Constructed in the 17th century, the fort with its 100-meter-long pontoon was a busy point of export for zari, salt, and ghee. Dost Ali Khan, the Nawab of Arcot, had ceded it to Dupleix in recognition of services rendered during the Carnatic War. Ever since, Alamparai Fort became increasingly coveted by all European merchants. If Kadappakkam was reserved for business, Koravakuppam was for chilling out. And the Kreyol Festival, which took place every year before the start of Lent, was famous – not only throughout the Deccan peninsula, but across the oceans, too!
‘What costume would you like, sir?’ Rodrigues, Koravakuppam’s best artisan for costumes and masks enquired, as he was about to step inside his fitting room. Oh sorry, please wait a minute, I still have someone in there. But don’t worry, they’re nearly done. Why not try on a mask while you’re waiting?’
Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau took a mask and exited. He lit his pipe and looked around him as he waited. The Creole neighbourhood was just one long lane crowded with beautiful Tamil houses. Their traditional architecture mingled with delicate Chinese and Portuguese lambrequins. During the festival, the entire community was much in demand. Some were busy confecting masks, others the best creole delicacies in their kucinis. Mouth-watering scents floated across the lane. He should have brought Chinali with him! His insubordination notwithstanding, the old Malaccan slave was, after all, an excellent cook. Chinali’s inchi mintu– a marvellous Malaccan dish of bitter gourd stuffed with fish— was legendary all over India. He started feeling hungry. To distract himself he began a little guessing-game.
Is that a fougad I smell cooking? No… though I detect coconut, that’s no cabbage in there—I believe it’s greens— with some tender prawns… probably a kousid, then! Ah! Now I can get a whiff of beef with the coconut! A bafad for sure…!
The person who came out of Rodrigues’s house was amused and not a little surprised to see a masked devil sniffing the air and talking to himself. Something caught her attention. That silhouette…
She threw him a light and mysterious smile.
Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau was caught off balance. A woman! Not only was she in full disguise as a Diablesse, but she even seemed Indian! He carefully scrutinised the figure in front of him: maybe it was a man disguised as a woman? No— this was assuredly a woman. A sudden desire to follow her overcame him. But what about his costume then? Disoriented, he watched her recede. In her wake a distinct trail of perfume lingered, mingling somewhat disconcertingly with the fragrance of creole cuisine.
Bafad! The MC proclaimed in his stentorian voice. On the gleaming parquetry of Indian redwood, the waiters posed ceremoniously with porcelain platters transported from China by the Dutch, and redecorated by Pondicherry surdécor artisans. Tripod Dog Baba descended from his seat at the head of the table, taking his time. Crossing the room with a haughty air, he sniffed the first platter. After a moment’s pause, he passed to the second one. He did the same with the others. He returned to the first platter and tasted the bafad. He returned to the valet who offered him a bowl of water. Tripod Dog Baba gargled, spat out the water in a receptacle held aloft by another waiter. A third wiped his mouth with a napkin made of Murshidabad raw silk.
Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau drew in a sharp breath. As long as this damned dog declared his Bengali bafat to be the best. He threw a glance towards the mysterious woman sitting opposite him. Through her mask, she flashed him a cheeky smile.
He simply had to know what was hidden behind that devil mask. A few hours earlier, he had tried approaching her, but had failed miserably. The Masquerade had left the main street and was heading towards the fishermen’s village. Monsieur le Diable Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau was desperately trying to attract the attention of Madame la Diablesse…
Finally, during the creole quadrille, he was able to address a few words to her. As the caller announced a change of partners, they suddenly found themselves face to face. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, face to face! Circle each other for two steps of chegakuttu!’ He seized the moment.
‘It seems I know you, Madame…’
‘Bibi Juliana Firangi,’ the Diablesse burst out laughing.
‘You are the famous Bibi Juliana Firangi?’
‘Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau, at your service, Madame.’ He bent to catch her hand, meaning to kiss it. Slash! The Diablesse’s tail lashed across him.
‘Watch it, Monsieur le Diable! I hardly know you…’
Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau bumbled about with a million excuses, totally discombobulated. Bibi Juliana Firangi hadn’t paid the slightest attention to his name. He, the grand Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau, Raja of Sandwip! Such insolence! Just as he was about to take his leave, someone tumbled on to a kattumaram. A Vedalam!
‘Oh no! that’s just what this party needed!’ exclaimed Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau. A few minutes later, a Diable was seen trudging towards Fort Alamparai with the Vedalam on his back. The Diablesse’s laughter masked the sound of the waves as the orchestra moved on with its frenzied rhythm: rapam papapam, pampampampam…
‘Here is the true bafat!’ Cried Bhuta Alupa Pandya of Tulu Nadu with a plate of dukra maas, redolent with bafat masala.
‘No! Mine’s the most authentic!’ Insisted Duarte Silva of Goa, waving under everyone’s nose his plate of duck bafat.
‘The authentic bafad is mine!’ Shouted Karuppusamy Colbert of Pondicherry. No one paid the slightest attention to his plate of potatoes and beef. ‘Brother’, said his sidekick Maduraiveeran De Gaulle, ‘there’s that vadagam with a twist they’re calling vadouvan now—perhaps a dash of it added to the bafad would make it a bit more competitive…’
‘The bafat of Bengal with the best tiger prawns! You can’t beat that!’ thundered Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau.
The grand hall was beginning to resemble a fish market. Everyone was shouting at the top of his lungs to promote his own baf(f)ad/t(e). Sitting at High Table, Koravan, the Chief of Koravakuppam, seemed satisfied. He liked this ambience of a village fair where the finer points of creole cuisine were being debated and clarified.
‘So, Tripod Dog Baba, who is right about his bafad?’
The crowd fell silent as the dog assumed his savant air.
‘Each and every one is right. The bafad is a creole dish. It may derive from the Portuguese verb ‘abafar’—to stifle— and certainly Mangalore’s bafat masala can choke a firang newly arrived on India’s shores! But what’s in a name? It’s entirely appropriate that there should be no single version. This is a creole festival, and even the word ‘creole’ means different things to different people! No standardisation in kreyolisation! The more bafads in the world, the merrier we shall be! Eat, and let eat! It’s not about authenticity or spelling or correctness. It’s about which bafad is the tastiest.’ His mouth watered at the prospect of an infinite variety of bafads, even the Pondicherrian one, now that there were some interesting improvements proposed by Maduraiveeran De Gaulle.
A scent of salmi pervaded the grand hall. A shiver of anticipation ran through the assembly as Maharaja Aftab Chand Mahtab of Burdwan made his entry. Even the Koravan, slouched in his seat, attempted to sit up as a mark of respect. Tripod Dog Baba licked his chops and got ready for this grand finale.
‘Ours is the best salmi in India,’ he announced grandly. After all, we in Burdwan are descended from the family of Bernadine Salmi.’
‘What nonsense!’ pooh-poohed Tripod Dog Baba. ‘Salmi is the creole word for salmis, that derives from the old French dish salmagundi…but wait! Here come the other salmis submitted to the competition!’
As the salmi platter bearers paraded solemnly, Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau noted a slight agitation on Bibi Juliana Firingi’s part. She hadn’t yet presented anything to the gastronomy competition. What was she doing here if she wasn’t participating? Her knowing smile beneath her mask exasperated him. But just as Tripod Dog Baba was about to pronounce on the salmis, her crystal-clear voice broke the silence.
‘Wait—the competition isn’t over yet. Here’s my entry: salmi of Mauritius, prepared by my cook, Moris Bawa!’ A murmur of admiration arose. Mauritius! So far, only the enclaves on the peninsular coastline had contributed their versions of creole kucini favourites. With this wild card insular entry, the Bibi had really raised the bar!
The Raja of Burdwan wasn’t giving up without a fight. ‘Tripod Dog Baba, you’ve said it’s taste, not authenticity, that counts in creole cuisine. My salmi is tastier than anyone else’s. It’s made of peacock meat and seasoned with the best bagani moshla of Chinsurah’s Dutch kitchen gardens.’
‘Ahaan!’ Jumped in Bibi Juliana Firangi. ‘Peacock is a fancy bird but only to look at. In Mauritius, they’ve moved away from game birds. That’s so French, so… last century! This salmi is with lamb.’
‘Lamb salmi!’ Tripod Dog Baba couldn’t restrain himself. ‘Bring it here at once! Bibi, tell me— you have retained the red wine, haven’t you?’
‘Yes, Tripod Dog Baba. You can put anything into a salmi— in Reunion, they’re even using hedgehog! But you can’t do without the red wine.’
Tripod Dog Baba was delighted with this deep understanding of creole culinary principles. ‘Indeed, Bibi,’ he pontificated, ‘one or two constants are all you need as an edible record of creole connections. Red wine, like salmi itself, acknowledges the memory of France. As indeed, does the European herb garden—even transplanted to Chinsurah. Ah yes! I detect thyme in yours, alongside the ginger and garlic top-notes! Full marks, Bibi, full marks!’
Until now, the Bibi and the Raja were neck to neck in the competition. But suddenly Tripod Dog Baba noted something else on Bibi’s platter.
‘What’s the salmi sitting on, Bibi?’
‘Oh, Tripod Dog Baba! That’s what they call mine bouilli in Mauritius. Boiled mien— noodles from China. Quite a few Chinese have arrived to work on the plantations there…’
Tripod Dog Baba was enraptured. ‘Who would have ever…? Since the first axiom of creolisation is innovation and improvisation, this unexpected serving of creole salmi on a bed of mine bouilli receives this year’s KKF food award!’
Moris Bawa pushed out the kattumaram gently towards Mauritius. He didn’t want to wake up the Vedalam, drunk and passed out. Let him open his eyes at Aapravasi Ghat and discover creole worlds beyond the Indian enclaves!
Back in Koravakuppam, the revelry had moved on to Fort Alamparai. The bal bobès was heaving. Candelabras gleamed. Dancers moved in and out of dizzying patterns, flirting with their partners before the positions changed with a new call, knowing they would face each other again when the next figure would commence. So it was that our diabolical duo, their tails twirling as they moved into place, savoured the delicious balancing act of the quadrille. For she had finally agreed to be his partner for the set.
‘Are you really Bibi Juliana Firangi?’
‘And are you really Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau?’
During the vigorous Galop, a little vial of Murano glass and a delicate porcelain snuff flask from Jingdezhen escaped their owners and rolled across the redwood parquetry.
Second axiom of creolisation:
No standardisation in kreyolisation!
you need some constants, but there must be variation.
This Kucini Tale draws on Ananya Kabir’s research into creole festivals, creole quadrilles, and creole food. Through this research, she deduced the conditions under which creolised cultural products emerge. Explaining their circulation in many variants as resistance to standardisation (including variations in the spelling of ‘Creole’ in Creole languages), she analysed this characteristic as creole culture’s gravitation towards festive rather than marketised forms. The Tale brings together her fieldwork at the Seychelles Kreol Festival and Ari Gautier’s deep knowledge of Pondicherry Creole culture, which shares with creolised societies worldwide festive and expressive genres broadly similar but divergent in details (balls with creole quadrille dancing; the sega music and dance genre of the Indian Ocean islands; creole songs like ‘Marie le pêcheur’ known throughout the Francophone Indian Ocean; masquerades; carnivals; and food competitions).
This pattern of similarities with divergences explains how some Pondicherrian Creole dishes have the same names as dishes on the Konkan coast, but involve different ingredients. In Pondicherry, kousid is a very specific dish with coconut milk, greens, and shrimp (sometimes chicken too), but while the same word exists in the old Portuguese Creole of Kochi, it doesn’t signify something so specific. In the Portuguese-speaking world, including Goa, ‘kucid’ simply means a platter of boiled meats and vegetables. In the glossary, we explain how bafad and salmi also exhibit such divergences. The Tale dramatises the logic behind this ‘same, but different’ principle, which we propose as the second axiom of creolisation.
Historical sites (such as Alamparai Fort and Aapravasi Ghat, Mauritius) and historical figures (the Raja of Sandwip, the Maharaja of Burdwan, Bibi Juliana Firingi) co-exist here with fictive places and people, blurring the line between what actually happened and what could have happened. Maduraiveeran De Gaulle and Karuppusamy Colbert incorporate the names of minor deities of the Tamil-speaking world who became very important in diaspora. The overall intention is to create a scenario illustrative of creolisation processes in peninsular India where transoceanic trade and travel routes converged with local circuits of cultural exchange. We thus incorporate details from Malacca (Melaka), Bengal and Mauritius, all interconnected through the movement of people, goods, and ideas.
A Pondicherrian workshop of surdécor (overglaze) existed to touch up Chinese porcelain brought through Malacca by the Dutch (though its platters might not have been used for a Kreyol food competition). Through the prawn bafat and peacock salmi, documented as Bengali recipes in cookbooks in English and Bangla, we draw Bengal into the creolising matrix and remind readers of the transportation of indentured labourers from Calcutta to Mauritius, where lamb salmi on mine bouilli (a testament to the co-presence of Chinese migrants on the island) is indeed a much-loved combination. The Melakan inchi mintu is a precursor to the next Kucini Tale. Attentive readers of Kucini Tale no.1 will find clues to the identity of the Diable and Diablesse, dropped by them in the heat of the dance.
We acknowledge gratefully the contributions of Hugo Cardoso and Sinjini Chatterjee and thank Suda Valmy of ‘Suda Cuisine’ and Symteesha Seegum of ‘Curried Spatula’ for their photographs, which were inspired by posts and events on le thinnai kreyol.
Cariole: English; old-fashioned carriage, from French ‘carriole’.
Pontoon: English; floating jetty, from French ‘ponton’.
Zari: Farsi, Urdu, Hindi; gold thread for weaving into clothes.
Lambrequin: English, French; decorative overhanging in Creole domestic architecture.
Inchimintu: Kristang (Malaccan Portuguese Creole); bitter gourd rings stuffed with fish paste in a coconut milk gravy.
Fougad: Pondicherry Creole, Konkani; also spelled foogat(h); a dry fried vegetable dish incorporating grated coconut, typically made with cabbage or green beans, prevalent in creolised Deccan and Anglo-Indian cuisines. from Portuguese ‘refogado’ (fried in hot oil).
Kousid: Pondicherry Creole, also spelled k(o)ucid(e); a dish made of coconut milk, greens, and prawns; across the Portuguese-speaking world, a creolised way of referring to the Portuguese boiled meat dish ‘cozido’; from Portuguese ‘cozido’ (boiled).
Bafad: Pondicherry Creole, Konkani; also spelled baf(f)at/d(e); in Pondicherry, a beef and potatoes stew; in Goa and Mangalore (where it is also called dukraa maas), a spicy stew typically made with pork and a special spice mix, bafat masala; also a curry in East Indian/ Anglo-Indian cuisines, including in Bengal, where it involved coconut milk and vinegar; from Portuguese ‘abafado’ (choked, stifled).
Diablesse, diable: French; female and male devil figures; popular characters in carnival masquerades worldwide including in Pondicherry.
Quadrille: a dance for groups where couples interchange places frequently, the quadrille was the rock-and-roll of European creolised cultures from the 17th-19th centuries and proliferated across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Quadrilles have a multi-part structure, being divided into sets which are further divided into figures.
Chegakuttu: an imaginary dance for a quadrille set made of two common dance words: chega (also known as sega in the Creoles of Mauritius and Reunion), and Tamil kuttu, ‘dance’.
Kattumaram: Tamil, raft (origin of the English word, ‘catamaran’).
Vedalam: Tamil; Indic revenant or evil spirit, from Sanskrit ‘vedala’; Hindi ‘betaal’.
Vadagam: a spice mixture typical of the Tamil kitchen.
Vadouvan: a creolised version of vadagam developed in the Pondicherry kucini.
Koravan: From Narikuravar, an indigenous hunter-gatherer community from Tamil Nadu. The character Koravan reappears in several of Ari Gautier’s short stories, along with his companion, the charlatan dog, Tripod Dog Baba, who is also a main character in Gautier’s first novel, Carnet secret de Lakshmi (The secret diary of Lakshmi). ‘Koravakuppam’ is an imaginary village whose name draws on ‘Koravan’ and Tamil ‘kuppam’ (village).
Firang: ‘foreigner’ in multiple languages stretching from the Arab world to the South China Sea; from Arab farang, itself derived from the European ethnic group ‘Franks’ that gave their name to France. They were encountered by the Arabs first during the Crusades.
Salmi: Creolised version of French salmis, from Old French salmagundi, a two-step dish that involves braising roasted and sliced game birds in a red wine sauce, which in creolised kucinis take on additional spices and herbs. Hedgehog and Octopus salmi are particularly popular in Reunion and Mauritius.
Bagani moshla: Bangla; masala of the garden; used in older cookbooks to describe European herbs cultivated typically by the Dutch in Chinsurah.
Mine bouilli: Mauritius Creole; boiled noodles, from French bouilli and Mandarin mien. A popular accompaniment to salmi.
Bal bobès: Seychellois Creole, grand ball (from French bal, ‘ball’, and bobêche, candlestick base.
Galop: a vigorous dance style incorporated into the multi-part quadrille.
Cardoso, Hugo C. “Challenges to Indo-Portuguese across India.” Proceedings of the FEL X (2006): 23-30.
Day, Harvey. The Complete Book of Curries. Kaye & Ward, 1970.
Debi, Pragya Sundari. Amish o niramish ahar. Ananda Publishers, 1995 (first published 1900)
Dumarçay, Jacques. “Un atelier de surdécor à Pondichéry.” Arts Asiatiques 34 (1978): 121-132.
Harris, Jonathan Gil. The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & Other Foreigners Who Became Indian. Aleph Book Company, 2014.
Kabir, Ananya Jahanara. “Creolization as balancing act in the transoceanic quadrille: Choreogenesis, incorporation, memory, market.” Atlantic Studies 17, no. 1 (2020): 135-157.
Tirouvanziam-Louis, Lourdes. The Pondicherry Kitchen. Westland, 2012.
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