The Promenade is the most happening place to be when visiting Puducherry. Heritage mansions painted in pastels, colonial-style cafés, quaint street names and a towering statue of Joseph Francois Dupleix at the far end of the waterfront are a legacy of the French, who turned a fishing village on the Coromandel coast into a slice of the Mediterranean for 300 years.
But the most prominent souvenir of Puducherry’s colonial past is a café where you can order your latte – with an ironic twist. Called Le Café, this charming coffee house with a white façade, arched walls and polished interiors plum on the seaface is now a hipster hangout, where fries and a cappuccino, and a mandatory selfie are all its patrons really care about before saying “check please!”
What many of these fleeting tourists don’t know is that Le Café, the oldest coffee house in town, stands on the site where Europeans first set foot in Puducherry, in the early 16th century. Soon, it developed into a port and the town’s Port Office or Customs House was built on this very site. Somewhere down the line in the early 1950s, this modest structure was converted into a café.
But Puducherry’s cafés are more than just rest stops that serve croissants, puff pastry and steaming cups of coffee. Like the other coffee houses in the town, Le Café is a memento of Indo-French politics, relations, cuisine and tradition. From coffee houses run by French managers to those run by the Muslim community, these are spaces where Indo-French culture evolved and then went further afield.
The French took over Pondicherry in 1674, and in less than a year turned this sea-side town into their headquarters in India. They set up trading posts along the Indian coast, from Puducherry to Karikal and Yanaon along the Coromandel Coast, to Mahé on the Malabar Coast, and to Chandernagor in Bengal. However, the city frequently fell to the British during the Anglo-French wars between 1742 and 1763. It was only after the British occupied other parts of India in the 1850s, and seized prominent Indian states like Bombay, Bengal, Madras and Punjab that they allowed the French to maintain their colonial estates in India.
The British saw Pondicherry as being unimportant to their governance of India. Moreover, the French were restricted to a tiny part of South India, occupying only 510 sq km (of which 293 sq km constituted Pondicherry), while the British had occupied the rest of India, excluding the French territories and Portuguese-ruled Goa.
Thus, as politics and power games played out on Indian soil, Pondicherry evolved into a quaint French city. Step into Puducherry’s cafes and discover how these coffee houses were hubs of propaganda, diplomacy and soft power, all served with a smile.
Pondicherry’s First Café
The cafés in Paris were iconic markers of a way of life by the time the first café – Le Café – opened in Pondicherry in the 1950s on Goubert Avenue. While the former were places where artists, writers, intellectuals and revolutionaries engaged in discussion and debate, Puducherry’s cafés took on a very different meaning.
In the Pondicherry of the 18th century, French hotels like Hotel de L’Orient catered to the French elite and to the growing Indian middle class that began patronizing these spaces as part of a newly adopted ‘urban lifestyle’. By the middle of the 18th century, the Europeans were dependent on the Indian mercantile class to establish trade as the merchants were mediators between the colonizers and the sellers in the local markets.
This local mercantile class found an opportunity to acquire a new social identity. They became the new social elite as they were patrons of culture, art and local institutions. The restaurants that were built in the 18th century facilitated a widespread demand for coffee by serving it as a complimentary beverage along with their croissants and baguettes and set the stage for the cafes that were soon to be opened in Pondicherry.
Suddenly, there were spaces where the colonial rulers mingled with the new elite and much of the colony’s governance came to be discussed over hot cups of coffee.
Le Café was also well placed. In 1790, when the railway line ran along the Beach Road (now the Promenade), from South Boulevard to the iron pier, Le Cafe was a Port Office, where ships would dock and depart during an era of thriving trade. In 1952, a cyclone destroyed the pier, the remains of which can still be seen jutting out of the water.
The Port Office was then turned into a café, its architecture retained as you can see in the picture below. Only some minor changes were made at the north end. On the west and south, the café retains the original arched entrances with two gates and open windows at the front. Pondicherry Tourist Development Corporation now runs this café.
In a nod to its past, Le Cafe still serves French quiche, café cortado, buttery galette stuffed with tomatoes and eggs, and chrysanthemum juice, but it’s been a while since Indian snacks like chaat and masala omelet appeared on its menu to sate the appetite of tourists. The café has also begun fusing the two types of cuisine through savories like Indian puff, where French pastry flakes meet spicy Indian fillings.
A Fusion of Culture & Food
While the French and the Indians met in coffee shops, the chefs in the kitchens began experimenting with the ‘nouveau cuisine’, the French term for ‘fusion food’, as Pondicherry’s cafes had to adapt to the diverse tastes of it consumers. Indian cooks employed by the French elite in their colonial mansions started adding spices while cooking the fresh catch brought in by local fishermen. But Tamil cuisine, with its primary components of tamarind and spices, was in stark contrast to the subtle components of butter and wine in French food.
The element that bound the two cuisines was dairy, which was widely used in Tamil curries and in French cuisine in the form of cheese.
The result was the baguette, which came to be served in cold coconut milk and topped with a mix of dry fruit! While French cuisine demands that vegetables, meat and sauces are prepared, presented and savoured individually, Tamil food is more gravy-based, where the components are mixed and served together. The Creole food that developed in Pondicherry began to adopt Tamil components like kombu turmeric, freshly caught fish, brinjal and broad beans, and began serving it a minimalistic manner like the French method of presentation.
The patrons of Pondicherry’s cafes began trying new dishes and this encouraged an appreciation of French culture. The cafés were primarily French but through their Creole food, suggested that they respected Indian cuisine. This was a political move rather than a mark of delicate etiquette – the greater the number of people that accepted French culture, the more likely they were to root for French rule in India. And the element that cleverly bridged this chasm was Creole food. It was popular among the French and Indian elite, as well as the Indian middle class in Pondicherry, and this set the stage for the flourishing of French café culture.
Speaking of Creole food, venture onto the quiet and mellow Suffren Street, where Café Des Arts was built out of an old French house dating back to the 1880s. On entering the cafe, take a small pathway that leads up to the house with white pillars. Inside, you see vintage French architecture complimented by wooden colonial furniture and yellow walls, a sharp contrast to the Indian pop culture photographs and a rickshaw in the garden lawn!
The ceiling of the café has a colonnaded roof, a hallmark of Tamilian architecture. French food is served in the café, from crepes, tartines and gazpacho to croque-monsieur, fondant au chocolat and sandwich-baguette. The café, in the late 1990s, opened a library in its premises for its well-read Indian and French customers and, in recent times, opened two shops, Nirvana and Cottonwood. Nirvana has a cutout of Rajanikant, the popular Tamil actor who greets customers as they look at quirky products on sale. In Café Des Arts, Indian and French culture continue to coexist as if undisturbed across time.
A five-minute walk from Café Des Arts will bring you to the heritage café, Carte Blanche, inside the luxurious Hotel De L’Orient, which dates back to the 1760s when Pondicherry was rebuilt during the restoration period. When a room named ‘Masulipatnam’ was being renovated in 1999, an inscription which read ‘H RUDER 1809’ was found, suggesting that the hotel was once owned by a French family. More than two centuries later, the hotel was bought from the Sinnas family, in 1952.
In 1998, Francis Wacziarg, a French entrepreneur who turned Indian relics into luxury hotels, acquired Hotel De L’Orient and restored it in 18th century style. Hence the wooden beams and ochre terracotta epoxy-painted walls that grace the premises. Café Carte Blanche was opened in the hotel only later in the late 19th century and it has on its walls glimpses of the 18th century in the form of maps of a still developing Pondicherry, old French lamps and framed town-planning drawings that help recreate the ambience of the period.
Carte Blanche serves authentic Creole cuisine, and some of its most popular dishes are soupe glacée aux concombres et amandes, which is a cucumber and almond cold soup; aromatisées à l’eau de rose, a salad of dates, dry fig and oranges dressed in rose water; and the paneer ratatouille, an assorted vegetable and paneer dish.
While the well-heeled guests of Hotel De L’Orient have dinned in this in in-house café for years, the café was later opened to walk-in customers, inviting more and more people to sample Creole dishes that were not available in other cafes. Carte Blanche became an elite café, serving delicacies to different classes of people and thus continues the Indo-French tradition in Pondicherry.
Venture further into the lanes of Suffren Street and you will see a pair of worn wooden shutters under a sign that still boldly announces ‘Café Lune’. The café was permanently shuttered in December 2016 and while open, was unfazed by the mighty Le Dupleix adjacent to it.
This brave little café was one of the oldest South Indian coffee houses with a French name to have been built in Pondicherry. It threw its doors open in 1961 and was the only café in Boulevard Town that was opened by the Cluny Hospital under C.A. Gafur. ‘Lune’ in French translates to ‘moon’ and symbolises the Islamic spirit as it was run by Muslims, who only served vegetarian food in the French quarter as they wanted to serve authentic South Indian breakfast cuisine to the Tamillian population and also develop a taste for it among the French. In 1963, the café moved to Rue Suffren as the owner was able to rent a slightly larger space, and it became the first cafe to serve idiyappam, a South Indian dish of rice noodles, in Pondicherry.
The Lune’s marble-top tables and mirrored walls resembled Parisian café furniture. The tables were surrounded by brick seats attached to the walls. The owners still boasted fridges, broilers and fans that they had installed in the 1980s. Brothers Ansari and Anwerdin ran the café up until recently. They were continuing the legacy of their father, C. A. Gaffur, who had opened it in 1961.
Locals say the brothers had a lively sense of humor that encouraged customers from around Pondicherry to patronize their establishment. They initiated conversations with foreign and Indian nationals and also learnt a bit of French.
The café’s menu was not printed on cards but the brothers would recall orders placed by regular customers and serve them instantly.
It was a unique selling point and worked wonders for business!
In its heyday, Café Lune served coffee to a diverse crowd, from government officials, to students, to local sweepers and cleaners, to politicians, and foreign nationals, all coming together over coffee. Over the years, it acquired various nicknames, such as Pazhamozhi Kadai (Proverb Shop), Annan Thambis Kadai (Elder And Younger Brother Shop) and Idiyappam Kadai.
Although the café served local fare, the owners gave their establishment a French name, hinting at how the coffee house catered to a population that favoured French culture. Even though it has shut down, it is an integral part of the cultural memory of Pondicherry.
From Café Lune, continue your bougainvillea-laden trail towards another old café, this one situated on H M Kassim Street. The Hot Breads café was visited by Judith Ritter, an award-winning radio and print travel journalist when she came to Pondicherry in 1999. She wrote in the National Post, dated 6th November 1999, about this cafe that had opened in the 1990s which was situated in the White Town, or the French quarter, that it was popular among the 700 French nationals and Indian elite class in Pondicherry.
She went on to write about the hotel manager, Francis Gerald, who says the cafe was an “exact replica” of a Parisian cafe, except that it has integrated local culture as well. In the late 1990s, the café’s interiors boasted sandalwood elephants on simple wooden shelves along with romantic pictures of Paris taken by Robert Doisneau, a French photographer of the 1930s.
Initially, when French food was served here, Indians found it to be rather bland, and thus the chef began to include Indian spices in the croissant fillings. The manager says the cafe hosted women who “looked like French consulate party guests” decked in saris, gold jewellery and grey hair, and served them mille feuille, a rich cake made of thin puff pastry layers filled with cream and jam, as they took a break at the cafe after their afternoon shopping spree. The manager adds distinctively that the hallmark of the cafe is l’amour (love), where he has witnessed many accounts of coup de foudre (love at first sight) at least three of which resulted in weddings!
The old cafes in Pondicherry, from an old Port Office to renovated French colonial bungalows, incorporated the cultural and political changes that took place in the town across the centuries. Their décor and menus are thus a narrative of history, where the past lingers in the present and aid the telling and retelling of Indo-French tradition in Pondicherry.
Cover Image Courtesy - Sandip Dey / Wikimedia Commons