To Understand France's Food, Look at the Places It Colonized

June 19, 2017

“The idea of a mythic France appeals more than real French food,” food writer Bee Wilson wrote in The New Yorker in 2013. She was correct. The world’s working definition of French cuisine has long been straitjacketed and rigid. It's terribly easy to buy into the fiction that France's food is simply a collection of mother sauces and laborious, intricate pastries, precisely because that belief is so intoxicating.

Provence to Pondicherry: Recipes from France and Faraway, a book from food and travel writer Tessa Kiros released earlier this year, does not simply challenge these definitions; it inverts them. The book reckons with France’s colonial past, one of brutality and subjugation, and honors the indigenous home cooks in the country's former colonies who've built on the techniques and flavors introduced by their French colonizers. Kiros, whose food writing career began in 2005 with Twelve: A Tuscan Cook Book, starts her journey in this book within France, in Provence, and then sprawls across the globe to the different sites of French colonies—Guadeloupe, Vietnam, Pondicherry, Reunion—before ending back on French soil in Normandy.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Born in London to a Finnish mother and Greek-Cypriot father, Kiros was raised primarily in Johannesburg. Her mixed, cross-cultural upbringing was filled with foods that each of her parents treasured: cinnamon-and-cardamom breads from her mother, halloumi and feta cheese from her father. This upbringing, she tells me, nurtured her lifelong fascination with traveling the world. Provence to Pondicherry, her 10th cookbook, is anthropological in spirit: It is curious without being exoticizing.

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The book grew out of Kiros’ enchantment with traveling the world along with her frustration regarding the widely-held conception of “French food,” too limited and monochromatic to really be sustainable. Kiros’ book honors those home cooks—many of them people of color in the lands France once colonized—who contributed to its broadening and maturation.

I spoke to Kiros, who now lives a five-hour drive from Provence in Italy, on the phone last month about what motivated her to write this book. The book is structured as a travelogue-cum-cookbook, but it amounts to something more: a subtle recognition of the authors of French cuisine who are not typically recognized as such. They are the cooks who have shaped what the world should regard as French cuisine; they are the cooks who who continue to redefine it.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

MAYUKH SEN: What was your understanding of French food growing up?

TESSA KIROS: I had no real understanding of French food. The theme that has always inspired me is travel, and what people do to reestablish their roots when they live in another place. I find it interesting how my mother brought her cinnamon buns [from Finland] to South Africa, for example. We all have that pillar of familiarity that we try to recreate when we’re not at home. I try to make my mother’s cinnamon and cardamom buns every Christmas for my children. It’s a wonderful thing. They’ll probably make it for their children.

When people move to another place, they look for a trace of their community in that new land. I see all over the world how people like to have something to hold onto, a memory, something to remind them and to take them back to what they know and love. When I looked at the history of French colonialism, I would notice that one of the first things that people would do was recreate their dishes so they could feel as if they’re closer to home.

In the French colonies, I find it especially interesting that wherever the French went, they always maintained a strong influence over their food, so they obviously tried to recreate that influence when they settled in these places. But their flavors and techniques then mixed in with the native cultures in a way that I find that absolutely fascinating. I was fascinated when unraveling how the baguette got to Vietnam, how it stayed there and gained a new identity—the fillings are now, today, mixed in in a “Vietnamese way,” with lemongrass. In other places I went, though, this fusion has involved more subtle mixing.

MS: What’s an example of these subtleties?

TK: Well, in Pondicherry, in India, I was expecting more obvious blending between French and Indian cooking. But there wasn’t. I think, at least the time I was there, I figured that Indian flavors were possibly so strong that there couldn’t really be a mixing of flavors from both worlds. Instead, what developed within the cuisine of Pondicherry was a subtle infusion of French techniques with Indian flavors. A lot of dishes were “spiced down” for the French palate with coconut milk.

MS: People seem to mischaracterize French food, at least where I am in the United States. They reduce it to mother sauces, croissants, baguettes. It’s very simplistic.

TK: Yes, I think so. You’re absolutely right. A lot of people have told me, in fact, that they eat really badly in France when they go to restaurants. And I believe that’s because the French just have got this kind of label due to so much tourism that people can't shake—I mean, it happens in Italy where I live, where people see a tourist and say, let’s give them a slice of pizza, or some lasagna.

I’m very lucky when people let me into their kitchens. I try not to interfere [or] come in there with an attitude. Without the locals, I would’ve had nothing.

MS: Right. The reason I was drawn to your book is because it was trying to broaden of what even constitutes “French cuisine.” What is people’s impression of French food where you are? Is there this same mischaracterization?

TK: People are stuck on an idea from many, many years ago about what French food is. The reductions, the complicated cooking. French food can, at times, be so simple, and I wanted to showcase these aspects of it in the book. I wanted to take a little mix of what people may expect from a book about French cooking and what they might not anticipate. We’ve got the Provence chapter where we see that Provence's cuisine has some similarities to Italian food, with foods like tomato tarts, because of its geographical proximity to Italy. And then we go up to Normandy, which has all these beautiful creams, ciders, and toffees. In Guadeloupe, people make soups with fish and rum. I personally think [this synthesis] showcases a lovely collage of possibility.

I wanted to show all of that in this book—to show that French food is not just made up of dishes where you need to use tons of butter and spend five hours in the kitchen making pastries. In my travels, I realized you have to get beyond the touristy layer and talk to the locals and ask them what they’ve eaten that night.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

MS: When you were talking to your subjects, how did you, as an outsider, make yourself seem like a welcome presence? How difficult was it to be invited into their kitchens?

TK: If you don’t have a preconceived idea of what’s going to happen when you write, you just trust the whole process and let it unfold. There was this wonderful woman in Guadeloupe, Madame Clotilde, who was incredible. I met her and asked if I could watch her in the kitchen one day. She said sure, though I know she could’ve easily said no.

I sat very quietly the next day in a chair feeling so honored to watch her at work. Madame Clotilde would keep her garlic and chillies in water, which would make it easier to chop them up afterwards. She was so neat and meticulous in the way she cooked. To me, an experience like that is a jewel. An absolute gem. In India, I asked the workers in the hotel I was staying in to see what their chef, Ashok, did in the kitchen. I sat with Ashok for three days. He let me watch him work, and it was amazing.

I’m very lucky when people let me into their kitchens. I try not to interfere. There was a lot of generosity I encountered, but you generally have to tread carefully. I try to never come in there with an attitude. Magical things happened on this trip. But without the locals from these places, I would’ve had nothing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

For more on French food (sans white tablecloth), head here.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Matt June 19, 2017
I wonder how the people from these different countries feel about having their foods be labelled as "French".
Matt June 19, 2017
If you found fusion foods from Algerie and called them French, I'm sure the locals would spit on you.
Nikkitha B. June 19, 2017
Hi Matt - The book (and the interview) talk about the cuisine of France and its former colonies as separate entities that have influenced each other. No one is calling Algerian or Indian or Vietnamese food "French."
scott.finkelstein.5 June 19, 2017
Huh, I remember being excited for this when it came out, but being turned off by a NYTimes review that found it to have a lot of questionable claims.
Nancy June 19, 2017
Just when I thought there were no new wrinkles in French cooking...wonderful!