Meen Puyabaisse: The Pondicherry version of Bouillabaisse
November 27, 2020
I grew up in the French colony of Pondicherry which is located by the Bay of Bengal. One of the first things that grabs your attention when you reach Pondicherry is the French spelling. Our landlord was named Mr Callianasoundarame. His son was called Seyasangarane. In case those names seem complicated, read again. These are the French spellings of the Tamil names: Kalyanasundaram and Jayasankaran! If you have a slight understanding of the Tamil alphabet, you will recognize that there is one letter ka (க) for the four letters of the Hindi alphabet (क ख ग घ). So what you write as Ganga in Hindi could be read as Kanka in Tamil, as there was no equivalent for the other sounds and you pronounced them depending on the situation. Similarly one letter pa (ப) works for the four letters प फ ब भ. So Padma could be written as Bathma in Tamil and still be correct.
Three hundred years of French rule also meant a culinary exchange between the Tamils and their French rulers. This Creole version which is better called the Pondicherrian cuisine, retains cooking techniques from the French, while keeping the spice and tangy flavours of Tamil cuisine intact.
I often wondered how the coastal town of Pondicherry would have interpreted the most famous fish soup from Marseilles: the Bouillabaisse. And I found my answer in Lourdes Tirouvanziam-Louis’ translation of her French cookery book, “The Pondicherry Kitchen”. The Bouillabaisse had transformed into a Meen Puyabaisse! And you now know exactly how the B of a Bouillabaisse turned into a P of a Puyabaisse!
However I wasn’t satisfied with the recipe which came from the 1930s primarily because it used ghee. I couldn’t bring myself to marry ghee with a fishy dish. So I found Julia Child’s authentic recipe on YouTube and came up with my own version of a Meen Puyabaisse. My version uses fish bones to produce a flavourful stock which makes the dish very rustic and appealing. Unlike the book recipe, I used tomatoes to get the authentic orangish colour of a bouillabaisse.
My other problem was that since I presently live in a town which is far away from the sea, I had access mostly to river fish, and only a few cuts of sea fish. A bouillabaisse is a rustic fish soup, where fisherfolk used mostly off-cuts and bones of a mix of sea fish, mussels, shell fish and scallops to produce a delicious fish soup. It is a whole meal in itself. My recommendation is to use a variety of different sea fishes which are fleshy and will not disintegrate easily. The saltiness of the sea fish adds to the distinctive flavour of the soup. Also include crabs, shrimps and shell fish if available.
Meen puyabaisse (Serves 4)
A mixture of 3 or 4 different sea fish (large fleshy pieces with bones)- 250 gm Shrimps-250 gm Prawns, shellfish and crabs (optional) Tomatoes (chopped roughly) – 2 large Onions (chopped roughly)- 2 Potatoes (peeled and cubed)- 2 Carrots (peeled and cubed)- 2 French beans (String and chop into small pieces)- 100 gm Bayleaf- 1 Cloves- 2 Fennel seeds-1 tsp Peppercorns- 10 Lemon- 1 Garlic – 6-7 cloves Ginger- 1 inch piece Green chillies (slit)- 4 Turmeric powder – 1/4 tsp White pepper powder- 1 tsp Maida/all purpose flour- 1 tbsp Butter- 1 tsp Oil- 1 tsp Salt to taste
To prepare the fish stock:
First wash the fish. Remove the gills and cut off the fins. Remove the scales. Carefully carve out and keep large boneless fillets aside for the soup. Retain all the bones to go into the stock.
Wash the shrimps. Keep the shells for the stock. Add a handful of them whole to the stock too.
Place a large thick bottomed vessel on a gas filled three fourths with water. Add all the fish bones, shells, shell fish and crab shells to the water. Throw in some shrimps too.
Throw in the bay leaf, cloves, fennel seeds, and whole peppercorns.
Add a chopped onion and roughly chopped tomatoes.
Add the garlic cloves and chopped ginger, along with some salt.
Let it boil on a medium flame for around an hour. Switch off the flame.
Strain the stock through a sieve.
After you do that, grind together some of the shrimps along with some shells (retained on the sieve) with a little stock, after cooling it completely (do this when completely cool, else you will be left with an explosion of fishy odours all over your kitchen!). Strain this mixture again through the sieve with some stock to extract the flavours of the sea.
To prepare the puyabaisse:
Place a thick bottomed pan on the gas. Melt some butter with a tsp of oil. Add a tbsp of maida and stir continuously till the raw odour goes away. Stir until there are no lumps because of the maida. Add some fish stock.
Add the slit green chillies, cubes of potatoes, carrots and the French beans. Saute a bit and add some stock. Let the vegetables cook almost 70% on a medium flame.
Add the pieces of fish, shrimps and prawns (and other sea food). Add all the stock. Don’t stir too much or the fish will disintegrate.
Season with salt and pepper. Cook until the vegetables are done.
Add a dash of lemon juice and switch off the gas.
To serve, place the fish and other sea food pieces on a platter, and the soup in a bowl. This soup is best served with hard, crusty bread. I did the best I could in this lockdown and used toasted garlic bread instead.