Seeking madeleine in Mahe

zac o?yeah | Updated on January 30, 2020 Published on January 30, 2020

Bon appetit: French Empire in Mahe is the place for north Kerala delicacies like fish biriyani;   -  photos zac oyeah

A frenzied search for Continental fare in a former French outpost that retires early

Located on India’s sunny west coast, Mahe, once part of the French territories in India, might today appear to someone who is just passing through as nothing but a busy stretch of highway lined with cheap bars. Its status as part of alcohol-friendly Puducherry Union Territory aka Pondicherry aka Pondy — even though, as the bird flies, it’s 470km away — is what sets this tiny 3x3 sqkm township apart from the state of Kerala, which surrounds it. But the moment I walk down a leafy by-lane I’m on a different planet, a non-touristy version of Pondy: Vintage bungalows, check; famous church, check; spooky graveyard, yeah, it’s right there; and, following a charming riverside walkway, I even discover a boathouse where folks are taking catamarans for a spin.

Besides, Mahe just got its first heritage hotel: The lovingly restored colonial-era Villa De 1945 brims with teakwood fittings and Belgian coloured-glass windows, but, unlike elsewhere, luxury doesn’t cost a bomb here, with rates starting at ₹3,000. With only 14 rooms it feels terrifically exclusive and I spend leisurely evenings sipping tea on a huge balcony overlooking the town’s quiet boulevard, peculiarly spelled as “Bulu Ward Road” on street signs. In the dining hall I sample prawn kizhi, roasted mussels, rich sambar curry and oh-so-light-fried vegetables, while for breakfast there’s puttu — a tubular steam-cooked coconutty rice cake served with spicy curries; not exactly Parisian fare, but sublime all the same.

Tender flesh: Local snack Kallumakaya — mussel married to an idli   -  ZAC O’YEAH


There aren’t many grand sights to be ticked off, no Eiffel Tower or Louvre, which means one spends the days simply chilling. Even the government museum must be the smallest in the world — displaying some old table, a couple of swords, and a gramophone recording of the French anthem. Between meals I stroll aimlessly, discovering a laidback harbour where fisherfolk mend nets, and a quaint temple complex made famous by Mahatma Gandhi having visited it in 1934 — telling the locals that “whether it is French India or British India it is one and the same country. The same blood flows through my veins that goes through yours, the same soil, the same atmosphere, the same manners and customs and many things too numerous to mention are common to all of us. But for the difference in the uniform of your police and the French language I read here and there I would notice no difference whatsoever”.

At Tagore Park, a monumental open-air bas-relief depicts the plot of a Malayalam novel on colonial history, On the Banks of the River Mayyazhi by M Mukundan. Speaking of fiction, I next stop at the riverside Le Café in the hope of sampling something French like a café au lait with a Proustian madeleine cake to strengthen my memory, but they only serve Indian filter coffee along with tapioca fry, which feels like a completely fictive French menu. Of course, it’s another matter that, in reality, Marcel Proust didn’t eat the madeleine he made famous in his autobiographical novel, but gnawed on rusk.

Although part of France until 1954, there’s no haute cuisine or creole-cookery à la Pondy, but who cares when the delights of coastal Kerala are served in every eatery? The bars are tremendous value even if some resemble Dickensian nightmares: Drinks are sold at MRP, or a nominal 10 per cent is added in their dining halls where, for an average ₹150 per plate, the grub includes fresh seafood such as prawns cooked golden in coconut oil or plump mussels pan-fried with onion, chilli, coconut chunks and curry leaves. Everything is uniformly mouth-watering.

Bar-hopping classics include Cee Cee’s in an oldish bungalow with a huge kitchen and the day’s catch hiccuping in a well-lit fridge, while my personal choice for rock’n’rollicking frolic is the Foreign Liquor Palace which, despite its name, has no French-trained sommeliers on duty. But it’s a friendly-enough dive right by the Mahe Bridge, offering priceless views all the way to the azure-coloured Arabian Sea. Barflies should be aware that Mahe gets sleepy by 9.30pm, so last orders are served until 9.23pm, giving drunks approximately seven minutes to drink up. On the other hand, they open early, so the party restarts with wet breakfast at 9am!

Stepping out at 10am, I run into mildly inebriated gents who beg money off me to pursue sunrise binges. I suggest coffee would be healthier at this hour.

However, Mahe is not only about getting addled. A popular non-drinking restaurant, French Empire (Main NH17 Street) is where to go for north Kerala delicacies such as fish biryani, beef fry and mutton soup, but they also do assorted Indianised Chinese delicacies including paneer Manchurian and Schezwan chicken-gravy, and new-fangled culinary imports from the Gulf such as hummus and al-faham barbeque — all in a very affordable ₹100-200 range. But nothing French.

The town’s patisserie on Railway Station Road is a typical Malayali bakery-cum-cakery, and I’m about to give up my frenzied search when I come across the cool diner-styled Café Eiffel (near Tagore Park), which is as Conti as it gets with quotes by Napoleon on the walls to ponder as I munch my halal chicken cheeseburger (₹90) and, of course, French fries (₹50).

To round off on a wholesome note, I head to Greens Ayurveda to reset my bones with a relaxation massage and, to my delight, I hear French spoken everywhere — the place turns out to be full of Frenchmen and mademoiselles. Greens is among Kerala’s best — its rates (from ₹3,775 per day) include treatments, wholesome vegetarian meals in an airy rooftop canteen, and comfortable private rooms; hence it attracts plenty of price-conscious tourists who stay for months through the winter. Instantaneously, I almost feel like I should never leave this cute town that offers just about everything a weary traveller might need.



Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; zacnet@email.com

Published on January 30, 2020
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