Kucini Tales I – Vinegar: The secret ingredient of creole connections

Kucini Tales is a five-part flash fiction series, based on research on creolised food histories of India. The first story focuses on Vinegar which unites Indic creolised cuisines, be it Goan, Pondicherrian, Anglo-Indian, or even Calcutta Chinese.

Written by Ari Gautier and Ananya Jahanara Kabir

When the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama disembarked near Calicut in 1498, he inaugurated a new moment 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 over time as dramatic stories or myths. Our kucini tales are mini-scenarios, that entertain you with food (his)stories from Creole India. Did Jean-Foutre Kattumottar, Vattalakundu Rani, and others in this crazy cast of characters, exist? 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 facts.

~~~~~

Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar couldn’t believe his eyes. A woman in a kallukadai! That too, in the kallukadai under the tamarind tree! Curiosity swiftly followed surprise. What was this woman doing in an alcohol den? What’s more, she seemed no ordinary woman. She was regal. Her haughty mien, her elegant outfit, this impertinence with which she sat amongst her fellow customers — all suggested that she couldn’t be anything but royalty. He was consumed with the desire to know: who was she? What was she doing in this part of town? Apart from a few weaver families, there was nothing else beyond the Kurusukuppam cemetery. Her presence baffled him.

On the verge of going up to her, he changed his mind. Something warned him: to approach her would be no simple affair. He turned towards his companions.

Although propped up against the old tamarind tree, the Koravan was floating on an ethylated cloud nine, while Tripod Dog Baba heartily tucked into his boti curry. To send her way a three-and-a-half-legged dog — however smart might he be — would be to insult this grande dame. Although who knew! The sight of him might stir some pity in her. Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar hesitated a few seconds before prodding the Koravan with his foot.

‘Hey Korava, go check out this woman. Ask her to join us.’

‘You’re looking for trouble, aren’t you?’ responded the Koravan, eyes resolutely shut.

‘Why, do you know her?’

‘Hmmmmm…’

‘What “hmmmm”? what does that mean?’ Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar was losing his patience.

‘As you wish. You’ve asked for it!’ The Koravan hauled himself up and stumbled across to the woman.

‘I am the Rani of Vattalakundu.’ Taking a swig of kallu, she plunged her fingers into the food on her vasi.
‘Thoo! This partridge is foul! It’s tasteless! And also somehow too strong. Is it you who eats this rubbish?’ Addressing Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar, she disdainfully pushed the vasi towards him without waiting for his response.

‘For 3000 years my clan dwelled in the Himalayan heights….’ Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar and Tripod Dog Baba hung on to her every word, open-mouthed, as the Rani settled down on a granite outcrop. The Koravan, losing interest, preferred the comfort of the tamarind tree.

‘I’m the only daughter of Raj Bahadur, king of Vattalakundu. My ancestor Veera Bahadur, the Diwan of Makkala Nayaka, received from him the lands of Vattalakundu which became our kingdom. After the invasion of Veera Sekhara Chola, Kulappa Nayaka — Makkala Nayaka’s son— and our family lost our lands. Krishna Deva Raya reinstated the Nayaka dynasty and granted us another kingdom but no one remembers where it is. And so, I’m in search of it.’

‘But what are you doing in Pondicherry?’ Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar plucked up the courage to ask.
‘Oh, I’m just passing through,’ she replied airily. ‘I told you, I’m seeking my lost kingdom.’

Suddenly, there was a sharp noise. Someone fell out of the tree. Vattalakundu Rani gave a start.

‘Who on earth is that?’ She demanded, horrified.

The Vedalam brushed the dust off his skin, arranged his tail behind his back, and sat down beside the Koravan.

‘That’s the Vedalam. I came to fetch him at the request of my guru Kreyol Baba who needs him to make a yagam. But he’ll come with me only if I cook something new for him. And if I don’t, not only will he not come, he’ll also shatter my head in a thousand pieces.’

‘Oh no, Monsieur, what are you going to do?’ Vattalakundu Rani was seized with pity.

‘Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar!’ Urged the Koravan, who had just woken up.

‘Is that your name then?’ She asked, amused. ‘You, this Koravan, a three-and-a-half-legged dog, and a Vedalam. A merry bunch of fools indeed!’ Tossing back some kallu, she returned to the vasi. The unpalatable partridge dish stared back, deflating her.

‘Wait, dear lady—I’m going to find you something.’ Kaattumottar got up, took the vasi, and went towards the kallukadai’s owner (whom he knew quite well). Two minutes later, he entered the kucini. Vattalakundu Rani, gazing after him, was taken aback.

‘What’s he up to now?’ She asked the Koravan.

‘Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar is an excellent cook. Because you didn’t like the partridge, he’s surely gone to make something delicious for you.’

‘Ahaan! Interesting! But tell me first of all, who is he? He isn’t an Indian, is he? But neither does he seem European…’

‘Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar is the only son of a French textile merchant. He was born here. He inherited enormous wealth, but he abandoned his father’s business. He passes his time with sadhus, sufis, and charlatans who promise him Nirvana.’

‘Hmmmm!’ Vattalakundu Rani turned towards the kucini in admiration. ‘I’m going to see what he’s up to. I want to see what he’s making for me.’

‘Do you see that? Do you know what it’s called?’ His fingers clasped a vial of Murano glass, a sparkling kaleidoscope. He sprinkled some drops of a brown liquid into the vaanal where he had emptied her vasi of partridge. ‘You’re about to witness alchemy… this nectar will transform the very partridge you declared foul. The Portuguese call it “vinagre” after the French “vinaigre”, or “sour wine”— wine turns sour indeed when left exposed to the air, but what results can magically preserve meat and fish from rotting! Exactly what one needs on those long sea voyages… this potion infuses in food a most extraordinary tartness, of a kind totally different from your achars and urukkais! They’re trying it already in Goa, you know… there’s even a dish they’ve invented there, I hear, called vindalho—it’s getting so popular they’ll have to ferment their toddy to make local vinagre, instead of waiting for the Indiamen to dock with their barrel-loads from Orléans… though you know what they say… “c’est le secret du vinaigrier?” (is it the vinegar-maker’s secret?) Those vinegar-brewers won’t part with their secrets in a hurry!’

In his desire to impress the Rani, Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar had degenerated into babble. To his deep disappointment, she didn’t seem one bit impressed. A mocking, enigmatic smile played on her lips. Dipping a spoon into the vaanal, she elegantly tasted its contents.

‘Your vinagre has certainly improved the partridge. But try now with this.’ Undoing the pleats of her sari, she revealed a flame-coloured silk surukku payi hanging from her paavadai. (The glimpse of her waist left Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar somewhat flustered). She extracted from it an exquisite snuff flask. Vegetal patterns glowing with delicate yet vivid colours suggested a Jingdezhen provenance to his discerning eye. They framed a cartouche within which was inscribed a single character: 醋

‘Cù,’ said she, casually. It meant nothing to him. She measured out few drops onto the spoon she had slowly licked clean (while he watched her, mesmerised). ‘Try it.’

Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar did another double-take. Never had he seen such disregard of jootha. A queen, dipping a spoon in a vaanal, licking it, and offering it to him to taste this Cù, whatever it was! His head reeled. His taste buds came in contact with the spoon’s contents.

‘This is …is it also vinaigre? But…. it’s incredible, such flavour!’ His disorientation deepened.

‘Aged for years. The best, from Shanxi in China. But dear Jean-Foutre, I confess—I would have never dreamt of adding it to partridge. Like the memsahibs of Calcutta, I’ve been reserving it for medical emergencies only.’

Delighted with their new-found culinary complicity, Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar and Vattalakundu Rani got ready to return to their companions.

‘Hey!’ The Rani flashed a victorious smile. ‘Weren’t you supposed to take some dish to the Vedalam to save your skin?’

‘Oh no, that’s right!’ Seduced by her queenly presence, Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar had completely forgotten his problem. ‘Quick! I have to find something.’ He paced the kucini, desperately seeking inspiration.

‘Don’t you worry. I’ve a great idea. You take this to him: tell him its partridge vindalho.’

‘Brilliant! What a stroke of genius!’ Unable to contain his joy, he made as if to kiss her.

‘Look here, Monsieur—we hardly know each other…. I’m afraid I can’t quite permit this…’ Seemingly in a huff, she was blushing all the same. ‘Why,’ she murmured, ‘does he seem so familiar though…’

Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar, suffused equally with embarrassment and a sudden sense of déjà vu, was both saved and doomed by another realisation. ‘No, that’s not going to work, alas!’

‘And why ever not?’

‘Because the Vedalam already knows of vindalho.’

‘Ahaan—an up-to-date Vedalam!—how inconvenient…’ Vattalakundu Rani fell into thought. ‘How do you say “vinho” and “alho” in French?’

‘You mean the Portuguese for “wine” and “garlic”? It’s pretty similar—“vin” and “ail”,’ replied Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar, nonplussed. Where was she going with all this?

‘Well, it’s utterly simple. Call this dish partridge “vindail” and voila! There’s your new dish for the Vedalam!’

‘Here you go, Vedalam!’ With a flourish, Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar set down the vasi before a somewhat tipsy ghoul. He and the Koravan had emptied the bottle of kallu.

‘Mmmmm! That’s absolutely delicious! What is it?’

‘It’s partridge vindail, Vedalam.’ Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar winked at Vattalakundu Rani.

‘What’s the recipe, then?’ After a moment of delectation, the Vedalam turned inquisitor. Vinaigre! No sooner had he heard the magic word than he shot back up the tree.

‘What’s up with you now!’ A panic-stricken Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar shouted upwards. ‘This isn’t what we agreed.’ The Vedalam slid down as quickly as he had ascended.

‘Here, Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar, take this and make me a fresh vind… vindo… oh, whatever it is that you call it.’

‘Vindail,’ stepped in Vattalakundu Rani helpfully. ‘And what’s it?’

‘That’s tamarind vinegar that I’ve just made. I’m sure you can make it also with kallu.’ The Vedalam radiated satisfaction. ‘Let’s try it out!’

‘Wait a minute!’ The Koravan emerged from his torpor. Feeling about his waist, he opened one of the myriad pockets on his belt to offer Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar a silver vial.

‘What’s this now, Korava? Really, it’s a vial of one’s own here!’

‘Kachumpuli or kodumpuli. Vinegar from Coorg. My cousin Kodava gifted me some. They’ve been using it for centuries in fish and wild boar curry. So, please— you keep hold of your “vinaigre”.’ The kallukadai reverberated with his cackling.

‘I’ve never heard of such a thing!’ Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar was incredulous.

‘Because it’s a jealously-guarded secret. Only the Kodavas use this condiment— vinegar made from Malabar tamarind (Garcinia gummi-gutta), originally from Indonesia. They maintain it was first concocted by the descendants of those soldiers of Alexander who came to their region and married into this tribe of hunters. You’re not the only possessors of a rare commodity!’

The party was in full swing. The kallu flowed freely. The Koravan and the Vedalam joyously danced the dappankuttu. Tripod Dog Baba’s tummy was full. Four different vindails! With Portuguese vinagre, Chinese Cù, Vedalesque tamarind vinaigre, and Kodava kachampuli.

Jean-Foutre was glowing and in love. Not only was he able to take the Vedalam to Kreyol Baba, but he had also found the woman of his dreams.

‘Vattalakundu Rani, can you please wait here? I’ll deal with the Vedalam and be back in a jiffy. Kreyol Baba is right next door, in the Karuvadikuppam cremation ground.’

The Koravan was snoring. The Kallukadai was empty. No trace of her. Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar was in tears. His Rani had disappeared. ‘It’s with honey and sugar you catch flies, young man– not with vinegar’, philosophised Tripod Dog Baba, getting ready to nap under the tree.

Jean-Foutre Kaattumottar turned to drown his sorrow in a glass. Suddenly, his eye fell on something. The porcelain flask of Shanxi vinegar glinted in the dusk. At the same moment, he realised his Murano vial of vinagre was missing.
~~~~
First axiom of creolisation:
Expected the unexpected. Think on your feet. Improvise.
From unplanned encounters, unpredictable things arise.

The starting point for this kucini tale was our observation that a dash of vinegar unites Indic creolised cuisines, be it Goan, Pondicherrian, Anglo-Indian, or even Calcutta Chinese. It’s the key to unlock creolised food histories in India.

Vinegar is a fermented product used both to preserve and enhance the taste of food. Its characteristic sourness is obtained from a two-stage fermentation process (the first leading to ethanol and the second, producing acetic acid). Additional taste notes derive from the precise raw materials used (either sap of sweet fruits or cereals) and length and process of aging. One of the oldest condiments known to humankind, vinegar originated in parallel in two great civilizational incubators: Mesopotamia (around 3000 BC with evidence from Babylon) and China (around 1200 BC).

Indian civilization did not have a robust vinegar-making tradition of comparable antiquity. Our pickles and conserves utilised the sourness of unripe fruits. Unsurprisingly, Indian regional cuisines using vinegar are those marked by cultural contact in coastal enclaves and ports: Goan food most obviously, but also Anglo-Indian dishes such as jhalfrezi. In Pondicherry vindail, a sprinkling of vinegar is mandatory, almost a memory of Portuguese influence here alongside French cultural dominance, and who can forget the spicy vinegar and chilli mix beloved of Calcutta Chinese?

The catalyst for the absorption of vinegar into Indic foodways was European expansionism, and the need to transport preserved meat as ship’s rations, as well as the means to ensure further preservation once landed in India. Meanwhile, a strong artisanal vinegar industry had developed in medieval Europe centred around Orleans. A mystique accrued around vinegar’s acidic properties which were deemed to have alchemical and medicinal powers alike. The latter’s use was prevalent in British Indian circles.

At some point, vinegar began permeating the cuisines developing through cultural contact between all these groups. At the same time, our many-stranded connections with China cannot preclude the possibility of East Asian vinegar entering the Indic world at different points in time, right down to the creation of a Chinese diaspora in imperial Calcutta. Where historical records falter, the historically informed imagination steps in.

In creating a scenario for the moment vinegar entered the Indic kucini, we have not forgotten that vinegar, a liquid, needed receptacles to be transported in– from ship barrels to the delicate vials we focus on in this tale. A combination of material culture and food history enacts how creolisation brought ideas, technologies, and things together to create new tastes on global and local levels. The exchange of vials at the end suggests that creolisation is always an open-ended process with many surprises along the way.

Glossary

Kallukadai: toddy shop (Tamil)
Boti curry: tripe curry (Tamil)
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).
Kallu: toddy (Tamil)
Vasi: plate (Tamil, from French “assiette”)
Rani: queen (all Sanskrit-derived languages)
Vedalam: Indic revenant or evil spirit (Tamil; from Sanskrit “Vetala;” “betaal” in Sanskrit-derived languages)
Yagam: fire ritual (Tamil, from Sanskrit “yagna/ yagya;” “yajna” in Sanskrit-derived languages)
Monsieur: Sir (French)
Kucini: kitchen (Tamil, Malayalam, Konkani, from Portuguese “cozinha”)
Vaanal: frying pan (Tamil)
Vinaigre: vinegar (French)
Vinagre: vinegar (Portuguese)
Achar: pickles (all Sanskrit-derived Indian languages)
Urukkai: pickles (Tamil)
Surukku payi: purse (Tamil)
Paavadai: petticoat (Tamil)
Jootha: soiled by saliva– deep Indic taboo on food and drink sharing (Hindi, Bengali; related to Sanskrit “uchchhishta”)
Cù: vinegar (Mandarin)
Kodava: ethnic group of Kodava, Coorg.
Dappankuttu: folk dance from Tamil Nadu (Tamil)

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