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Friday, July 23, 2021

The journey of the Thoothukudi Macaron: From Italian nunneries to the Coromandel coast

The final Kucini Tale tells the story of the creolised macaron uniting the Coromandel and Canara coasts, Portuguese and Muslim traders, Arabs and Jesuits, Italy and France, and, finally, our elusive lovers.

Written by Ari Gautier, Ananya Jahanara Kabir | Manchester, Oslo |
Updated: June 18, 2021 4:52:53 pm
food history, macarons, macaron, Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu food, kucini tales, Thoothukudi, Tuticorin, food stories, food articles, Tamil Nadu news, Indian ExpressMacarons emerged in the late Middle Ages out of monastic experimentation with rich and luxurious ingredients: eggs on the one hand and almonds and palm sugar on the other—which entered Europe through trade with Arabs, along with the use of almonds and sugar to make sweet snacks. (Photo- yummytummy Aarthi)

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 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 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. The second tale presented Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau and Bibi Juliana Firangi competing for the best creole dishes. In Kucini Tale 3, Sangli Kalpou, Tamil diasporic deity, and his beloved Mohini befriend Kappiri Muthappan, the leader of African spirits of Fort Kochi, and the mermaid Kadal Kanni, to reveal the transoceanic secret of the iconic kerala dish ‘puttu’. Kucini Tale 4 shone the spotlight on the iconic Bengali dish, potoler dolma, taking us to a Calcutta soirée where Armenian singing star Gauhar Jan met the mysterious Oumalakkan Tattankuchi from Pondicherry, and keema stuffing met a variety of Indic gourds. Our final Kucini Tale serves you the famous Thoothikudi macaron as dessert, where cashews replace almonds, and egg white enters the Indic sweet. The creolised macaron unites the Coromandel and Canara coasts, Portuguese and Muslim traders, Arabs and Jesuits, Italy and France, and, finally, our elusive lovers.

Creolisation is about mixing up words, ingredients and techniques, 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.

A suffocating heat welcomed Bastiāo Rodrigues as he stepped ashore on to Kilakarai. After Vasco da Gama had opened up the sea route to India, the Portuguese had moved to the southern part of the Coromandel Coast to access Ceylon better, and were now thriving in this bustling port. Chelingues danced an incessant ballet, coming and going with their merchandise-laden holds. Porters scurried, bent double under their goods. Muslim merchants, caressing their hennaed beards, kept a strict eye on the goings-on. Cargoes were being loaded onto oxcarts. Bastião Rodrigues wove through this teeming scene. He needed a drink. The magnificent mosque built by the philanthropist Periathambi Maraikkayar loomed into view.

Oh no! This predominantly Muslim city wouldn’t have a Saarayakadai! Bastiāo was annoyed. He should have stayed on board: at least there was always something to drink there. Perspiring profusely, he took shelter under the shade of a tamarind tree.
Badang!!! Something fell at his feet. Or rather– someone. Vedalam!
‘Looking for a drink? You won’t find any alcohol in Kilakarai! We have to go to Musal Tivu, a small island not far from here. Come with me?’ Proposed the Vedalam mischievously, dusting himself off.

****
Musal Tivu’s Saarayakadai was heaving. The Vedalam went straight to his usual place at the back: the foot of a huge banyan tree. Sitting on its roots, a man and a three-and-a-half-legged dog were enjoying a succulent vindaloo with a bottle of arrack.

‘Let me introduce you to my friends: Koravan and Tripod Dog Baba.’ The inebriated duo barely raised their eyes in greeting. Just as well, since the Vedalam had forgotten to ask the sailor his name.
‘I’m called Bastiāo Rodrigues, and I’m from Portugal.’ Seeing other Europeans in the Saarayakadai, he saw fit to clarify this detail. ‘What am I getting you guys to drink?’

*****
Sated and merry, the foursome were heading back to Kilakarai in their kattumaram.
‘I would give my kingdom now for a macaron!’ With his mouth on fire after that spicy food and strong alcohol, Bastiāo Rodrigues suddenly craved something sweet.

‘What’s that? Your local toddy?’ The Koravan asked longingly, his thirst apparently unsatiated.
‘You don’t know about macarons?’ asked Bastiāo.

‘And you know the halwa of Tirunelveli, do you?’ Retorted the Vedalam.
‘Erm, no…’ Bastiāo felt a bit stupid.

‘So stop seeing the world from your eyes only! Otherwise we’ll throw you into the sea and you can swim back to Portugal!’

‘Macarons? That tells me something!’ Tripod Dog Baba stirred in his alcohol-induced stupor.
‘Ah yes? And where did Monsieur Charlatan come from? You’ve been living at my expense for some time now– I don’t think I’ve fed you macaroni.’ The Koravan and Tripod Dog Baba always conversed in this combative manner.

‘Not macaroni’, repeated Tripod Dog Baba with exaggerated patience. ‘Macarons.’

‘And what the hell is a macaron then?’ The Koravan grumbled.

‘It’s a delicious sweet! Though people think it’s from France, it’s actually from my country, Portugal!’ Bastiāo seized his chance to re-enter the discussion. ‘We make the best sweets’, he added proudly.
‘Watch your words, Whitey! Another silly statement, we throw you into the sea. Understood?’ Tripod Dog Baba, fully awake now, was in his element. Leaving the sailor open-mouthed, the dog turned to the Vedalam and the Koravan. ‘This Johnny-Come-Lately thinks he can barge in here claiming everything for Portugal. Such an unhealthy trend Vasco da Gama started! But neither is the macaron just French, as everyone assumes. It’s a complicated story– bound to go over the head of this lot here’, he sniffed scornfully.

food history, macarons, macaron, Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu food, kucini tales, Thoothukudi, Tuticorin, food stories, food articles, Tamil Nadu news, Indian Express ‘Traditional’ French macaron, also called ‘massepain’ (Photo-La cuisine d’Annie)

As much as the trio enjoyed baiting each other over facts, nothing surpassed the pleasure of a complicated story. Koravan and Vedalam arranged themselves in appropriately supplicatory poses and made sure that Bastiāo followed suit.

‘Heavenly macarons!’ Started Tripod Dog Baba. ‘A fine blend of trade and religion as every popular thing seems to be! But nothing to do with Portugal, and even France enters the story late. The word is from Italian maccherone, or paste—the same etymology as macaroni, Koravan’— hearing this, our man danced a little jig which his canine guru resolutely ignored— ‘but it’s a sweet paste, of almonds, sugar, and eggs. This combination was first fashioned into dainty little morsels by Italian nuns, who—while practising vegetarianism for monastic austerity, still needed energy from somewhere.’

‘Why this combination? Why the Italians?’ Vedalam’s curiosity was piqued.

Almonds were the height of culinary fashion in the Middle Ages. And sugar was the height of luxury. The Arabs first brought sweets fashioned out of sugar and almond paste to Europe.’

‘Just like the Maraikkayar legacy here in Tirunelveli and Nagore!’ declared Vedalam. ‘Halwa stuffed with dried fruits and nuts!’

‘Right you are, Vedalam. You know marzipan, right? It’s basically an almond halwa, cooked for a long time over low heat. And do you know the easiest routes through which Arab culinary trends passed into Europe?

food history, macarons, macaron, Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu food, kucini tales, Thoothukudi, Tuticorin, food stories, food articles, Tamil Nadu news, Indian Express Marzipan (Photo- Oliver Hoffman)

‘Sicily and Venice!’ Said the Koravan triumphantly. ‘Hence the Italian etymology!’ Tripod Dog Baba threw him a pleased glance. Emboldened, the Koravan pressed further. ‘But when did it get Frenchified to macaron?’ Tripod Dog Baba was impressed. ‘Good question, Korava! They arrived in France when the Italian noblewoman Catherine de Medici married the French Duke of Orleans in 1533. By the 17th century, macaron recipes were in all popular French cookbooks….’

food history, macarons, macaron, Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu food, kucini tales, Thoothukudi, Tuticorin, food stories, food articles, Tamil Nadu news, Indian Express Wedding of Catherine de’ Medici with Henry, the Duke of Orleans (Photo- Wikimedia Commons)

‘There’s something I don’t understand, Tripod Dog Baba…’ Vedalam interrupted delicately. Tripod Dog Baba glared. ‘How did eggs enter the picture? Halwas don’t use eggs…’

‘Monasteries and nunneries,’ confirmed Tripod Dog Baba. ‘The hotbeds of eggy sweets! But macarons use egg white only. That’s the secret of their wonderful texture, crisp outside, chewy inside. Egg whites, and high temperature inside ovens.’

Bastiāo was amazed. ‘So was it the Jesuits and other monastic orders that brought macarons to Portugal?’ He asked. ‘Absolutely!’ replied Tripod Dog Baba. ‘They are basically edible versions of a baroque church altar, or a madrigal— Italian cultural fashions were very popular all over Europe. As with furniture and music, so with goodies. Those men of God are actually men of baked goods! They’ve even introduced the oven and bread-making to the Konkan, Canara, and Malabar coasts!’

‘Tripod Dog Baba!’ Interjected Koravan. ‘I’ve been dying to tell you something. An oven has also arrived here on the Coromandel Coast. Just down south from us. Thoothukudi!

Tripod Dog Baba was thrilled. ‘Bastiāo! You want your macarons? We’ve got an oven! Vedalam, turn round the kattumaram. We’re going to Thoothukudi!’

****

Rat-a-tat-tat! The Koravan knocked on the door of a large and striking house. Its symmetrical façade boasted ornamental arched windows with stucco moulding and balustrades strongly of Portuguese architecture. Balconies and verandas overlooked the street and the sea. As on Portuguese porches, people were using them to chat to neighbours and enjoy the evening breeze. Bastiāo was stunned by the unexpected, opulent throwback to his native land.

‘Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar, meet Bastiāo Rodrigues. This young man wants something called Macaron, Koukaron or Bacaron… Since you are the only one who owns an oven, I’ve brought him here. Have I not done well?’

‘Come in, come in, friends! You did well indeed, Korava! I was just thinking of making something new. So, what’s this macaron? How is it prepared? What do we need?

*****

The macaron party was not going well. The men hadn’t the faintest idea of technique. Jean-Foutre had some almonds from his Maraikkayar friends. But making a macaron was more than mixing almond paste, sugar, and egg whites and sticking little dollops into the oven. The first macarons turned out as hollow shells after baking; deep cracks across the top caused the second batch to collapse. The third attempt, the macaron batter had spread into one big contiguous mess. (‘A bit like the Arabian Sea’, observed Bastiāo, unhelpfully).

Rat-a-tat-tat-tat! Someone was at the door.

‘What a wonderful surprise!’ The Koravan’s joyous exclamation could be heard from the kucini. ‘What brings you here?’

‘And you, what brought you here?’ Retorted an arch feminine voice. Its owner moved through the house, secretly delighted by the Koravan’s presence: a definite confirmation of Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar’s presence here too. She had been looking for him. Following the rumour trail, she had finally landed up in Thoothukudi.

A single glance sufficed for the two lovers to rediscover the passion of their first meeting. But they couldn’t help playing their old game.

‘I detect a familiar scent…you are baking…’ Vattalakundu Rani looked at Jean Foutre Kaattumottar.
‘You know of it? Bastiāo Rodrigues here wants me to make him a cacaron …’

‘Macaron!’ Corrected the sailor.

‘Yes, something like that. But, er—we’ve run out of almonds. And you’ve arrived just at the right time! What can we do? I know your talent for improvisation.’

‘Ahaan! It’s not just almonds that are lacking here…’ Vattalakundu Rani raised one eyebrow. Jean-Foutre Kattumottar’s heart skipped a beat. ‘But I have something for you.’ She reached into her waistline, bringing out the flame-coloured surukku payi. At the flash of trim waist, his heartbeat skipped again. That woman… his attention was quickly diverted to the creamy, curvy nuts she was pouring out of the silken pouch. ‘Kishu nuts!’ she said. ‘Introduced by the Portuguese on the west coast— an excellent substitute for almonds— especially in macarons. And that’s exactly what they call them there, too! Macarons!’
‘How? What!? Macarons in South India? Where exactly?’ Jean Foutre Kaattumottar and Bastiao Rodrigues exclaimed in unison.

‘Mangalore. kishu macarons are all the rage there, you know. Here,’ she said, fastening her pallu around her waist, ‘Let me show you what to do…’

Mangalore macarons (Photo- Ankita Ghosh)

***
‘Creolisation needs a woman’s touch.’ Thus pronounced Tripod Dog Baba, nibbling daintily on one of the Rani’s creations. ‘I bet you these are superior to the Mangalore macarons. I like their cute shape.’

‘To agree would be to consign myself to a lifetime in the kitchen. I love it, but I also appreciate having a choice.’ Vattalakundu Rani had indeed spent some satisfying hours overseeing the pounding of the cashews and the whisking of the egg whites with sugar until they stood up in peaks. Moving fast, she had folded the pounded cashews into the egg whites mixture and piled them into little conical shapes. Then some quick baking— and, finally, leaving the macarons inside the oven for an hour to achieve that light, airy, yet chewy crispiness. ‘But I will acknowledge the transformative power of the sea. So—here are my sea-shell shaped macarons!’

food history, macarons, macaron, Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu food, kucini tales, Thoothukudi, Tuticorin, food stories, food articles, Tamil Nadu news, Indian Express The sea shell shaped Thoothukudi macaron (photo- Ankita Ghosh)

‘These are our Thoothukudi macarons, our kishu macarons!’ Already in Jean-Foutre’s Frenchified mouth, ‘kishu’ was sounding like what it would soon be known as—’cashew’. Who needs almonds? We’ve discovered something just as good! What Mangalore does, we can do better!’
‘It’s not about better or worse, Jean-Foutre’, said the Rani primly. Creole Indias is about variety. Have you forgotten the many different vindaloos we enjoyed at our first meeting?’

***
Sitting at the head of the table, Tripod Dog Baba, monocle in his right eye, watched over the preparations, glancing frequently at the pocket watch which hung over his mutilated paw. The Koravan and the Vedalam salivated over the procession of dishes. Vindail, baffad, kousid, puttu with kaald, potoler dolma, inchimintu, podulangai farci… and the newly-named Thoothukudi macarons: all served in a porcelain dinner set from Jingdezhen, redecorated in Pondicherry’s world-famous overglazing workshop. Bastiāo Rodrigues couldn’t believe his eyes. He had never imagined such a feast in Thoothukudi.

***
The guests departed. Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar took Vattalakundu Rani’s hand. Sitting on the balcony, they savoured the light sea breeze.

After a long, passionate kiss, Vattalakundu Rani smiled at what she was holding in her right hand. Detaching herself from her lover, she approached the balcony’s edge and threw two glass bottles into the black night. The vials of Murano glass and the Jingdezhen porcelain shone, suspended like two stars. Turning pale with jealousy, the full moon retreated to sulk behind a cloud.

‘You are my lost kingdom of Vattalakundu,’ whispered the Rani.

‘You are my lost creole soul’, replied Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar.

Clinging to the cloud, the Vedalam somersaulted one last time to gaze on the world upside down!

Fifth axiom of creolisation:
With creolisation, there’s no ‘first in Europe, then in India’
Orleans, Mangalore, Thoothukudi: the more macarons, the merrier!

Glossary

Chelingue: Boat for embarking and disembarking (Karikal dialect of Tamil)
Saarayakadai: Arrack shop (Tamil)
Vedalam: Revenant or evil spirit (Tamil, from Sanskrit ‘vetala’)
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 three-and-a-half-legged dog, Tripod Dog Baba, who is also a main character in Gautier’s first novel, Carnet secret de Lakshmi (The secret diary of Lakshmi).
Kattumaram: raft (Tamil, origin of the English word, ‘catamaran’).
Surukku payi: purse (Tamil)
Pallu: over-shoulder end of a sari (Hindi)

Historical note

The historical basis of this final Kucini Tale is intimately dependent on its geography. The action takes place along the coast of the Gulf of Mannar in the extreme south of India’s Coromandel Coast, between the historic ports of Kilakarai and Thoothukudi (that the Europeans called Quilcare and Tuticorin); one of the small islands of the Gulf, Musal Tivu, is also thrown in for good measure. The bay’s closeness to northern Sri Lanka as well as the Malabar and Canara Coasts west of Kanyakumari had made it a hub of Indian Ocean trade, long before the Portuguese entered the scene. The story sets its scene on Kilakarai as the base for Muslim Maraikkayar merchants, an ancient maritime community descended from Arab traders and local women. The arrival of Bastiāo Rodrigues is a reminder of early Portuguese expansion from their original base in the Malabar eastwards towards the Coromandel, primarily drawn to the pearl diving industry already established here.

food history, macarons, macaron, Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu food, kucini tales, Thoothukudi, Tuticorin, food stories, food articles, Tamil Nadu news, Indian Express Thoothukudi (Painting by Anarkali Checkrahamatoula)

Thoothukudi was a central node in this expanding web of maritime trade that brought many different kinds of people together. A memorable result of the creolisation processes that ensued is the famous Thoothukudi macaron, celebrated for its recognisable conical shape, its airiness, and its use of cashew nut rather than almond (the key ingredient in European macarons). But Thoothukudi was not the only Indian site that produced a local macaron. There is a Mangalore macaron too, flatter in shape, but also made of cashew nut. Our kucini tale provides a scenario for this two-pronged creolisation of the macaron in Indic space. At the same time, we remind readers that the macaron’s complex European history can also be explained as creolisation. Indeed, some key moments in that history happened well after the Portuguese consolidated their presence in South India.

As Tripod Dog Baba, the savant dog guru explains to his captive audience, macarons emerged in the late Middle Ages out of monastic experimentation with rich and luxurious ingredients: eggs on the one hand and almonds and palm sugar on the other—which entered Europe through trade with Arabs, along with the use of almonds and sugar to make sweet snacks. Marzipan is another famous example of the Arab influence on European sweet culture. Macarons emerged when marzipan, made from almonds and sugar, met meringue, made from egg white and sugar. What was additionally needed was technology of baking—ovens and temperature control. European monasteries and nunneries were wealthy establishments and (wo)manpower to develop these sweet-making techniques.

Tripod Dog Baba explains how the etymology of ‘macaron’ takes us to Italy, which provided several points of entry for Arab merchandise and culture. From Italy, creolised cultural products such as the sweets made from almond, egg, and sugar ‘macherone’ (paste) radiated deep into Northern Europe. Stories such as the macherone’s travel to France through Catherine De Medici’s marriage to Henry of Orleans in the mid 16th century are myths that memorialise this mobilisation of local culture to create wider European tastes. By the 19th century, the traditional macaron eventually developed into the sophisticated, jewel-coloured Parisian macaron relished globally today; but its older, simpler version migrated to India through the Jesuit and other missionary orders and took new shape—literally— through the conical macarons of Thoothukudi, site of early Portuguese proselytization.

food history, macarons, macaron, Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu food, kucini tales, Thoothukudi, Tuticorin, food stories, food articles, Tamil Nadu news, Indian Express The French macarons (Phtoto- Ananya Jahanara Kabir)

The retention of the European shape in the Mangalore macaron suggests that it could be an older variety, but what is truly a mark of creolisation is that the Indic macaron substitutes cashew nut paste for almond paste. On the one hand, the heavy Arab-derived culture of the south Indian Maraikkayars was producing halwas stuffed with almonds and pistachios in the environs of both Mangalore and Thoothikudi. On the other hand, cashew itself was a foreign import, albeit a very successful one, being introduced by the Portuguese themselves: the Indian word, ‘kaju’, is a creolisation of the Tupian (Brazilian indigenous group) word ‘acajù’. So all we can deduce is that, like the original macarons made from the almond, exotic to Europe, the Indic macarons also preferred a nut initially exotic to India—the cashew. As for the egg, to introduce any element of it—the yolk or the white— into bite-sized sweets was the work of Jesuits missionaries all across the Indian Ocean world—from Japan, the Philippines, Malacca, and, of course, India.

This little sweet treat with which we end our kucini tale series confirms all the prior axioms of creolisation illustrated by the previous tales: the importance of improvisation and substitution, the difficulty of standardisation, transoceanic trade as vectors for the exchange of technologies and ingredients, and ports as hubs for the transformation of tastes. It should be noted that the English ‘macaroon’, which uses coconut and egg, is yet another variant of the sweet known as ‘macaron’—we have retained the French name here in recognition of the non-British actors in this scenario. What this tale additionally reveals is that alongside traders, men and women of religion were also vectors of creolisation; developments in Europe didn’t have to predate those in India; and it’s very difficult, if not impossible to ask when ‘creolisation’ began: a creolised product like the macaron was in a sense, always already creolised.

Further Reading

More, JB Prashant. ‘The Marakkayar Muslims of Karikal, South India’, Journal of Islamic studies 2, no. 1 (1991): 25-44.

De Silva, Chandra R. ‘The Portuguese and Pearl Fishing off South India and Sri Lanka’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 1, no. 1 (1978): 14-28.

Dickie, John. Delizia!: The epic history of the Italians and their food. Simon and Schuster, 2008.

Kulye, Mahesh, Cashew Plant (Kaju): A Story of an Adopted Brazilian Child Thriving in India,

Yu, Su-Mei. ‘Thai Egg-Based Sweets: The Legend of Thao Thong Keap-Ma’. Gastronomica 3, no 3 (2003): 54-59.

Meyers, Cindy. ‘The Macaron and Madame Blanchez’, Gastronomica 9, no. 2 (2009): 14-18.

Mintz, Sidney W. ‘Color, Taste and Purity: Some Speculations on the Meanings of Marzipan’, Etnofoor 1 (1991): 103-108

Vas, Isaac, ‘Identity: Mangalore Cashew Macaroons’

Gerald, Olympia Shilpa, ‘In Search of Thoothikudi Macaroon’, The Hindu

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