When India Meets France

This is the fifth post in a series on the French-themed trip I took this summer.  I’m not yet over Paris (and never will be), but for now I’ll take you on a side trip to Réunion, a French colony in the Indian Ocean, where we spent the earlier part of our trip.  This story is a lesson in linguistic and cultural confusion.  But it all works out, in a tasty way, in the end.  In case you missed them, read my earlier posts on how I became such a Francophile, come along on a Parisian food tour inspired by David Lebovitz, see me try out his recipe for pain d’épices au chocolat, read my homage to lovely Montmartre, and see the Space Invaders in Paris.  

*     *     *

One of the best sentences to come out of my daughters’ mouths was uttered a few days after our return from our five week trip.  We were in a grocery, and I asked an employee for some help.  “Wow, Mama,” ma fille ainée said, “It sounds so strange to hear you speak English.”

That brought a big smile to my face.  I used to be so proud of my French speaking ability.  In junior high, I even received a trophy in some (probably obscure) national contest for American learners of French.  But that was a very long time ago, and even at the peak of my abilities, I never had a chance to test out my language skills with the natives.  I should have prepared more before my French-themed trip, but I only had time to listen to language CDs in the car, which gave me some degree of confidence and a chance to practice my pronunciation (albeit to my empty car).  As anyone who has been in this situation knows, it is a different story in the real world.  Actual real, live people don’t speak as slowly, clearly, or as typiquement as you are taught in the textbooks or on language programs.

I slowly dipped my toe into the gentle and warm French speaking waters of the Indian Ocean.  Many people in the main towns of the French-speaking iles of the Indian Ocean speak some English, and I counted on that as my backup.  But outside of town, French would be the only option.   I dared to utter my first French words to the children my kids and I met at the beach.  Their French was at about the same level as mine, and they didn’t really care if I remembered the genders of French nouns.  Getting appropriate responses to such simple questions as “Quelle age as-tu?” and “Comment t’appelles-tu?” stoked my confidence.  I gradually became more and more confident uttering very simple French sentences to adults as well.  When we arrived in the French colony of Réunion, near Madagascar, I had no choice but to speak French so my family could survive.  I knew my sentence construction was poor and my vocabulary elementary, but I was determined to get by, since my Creole and Hindi (two other languages commonly spoken there) are nonexistent.
Bonsoir, madame,” I greeted the smiling Indian woman at the takeout window of Cardamome, an Indian restaurant in St-Denis, the capital of Réunion.  I had already looked at the menu and was intrigued by one variety of nane (the flatbread we know here as naan), listed among other Frenchified Indian items such as cari poulet and riz indienne.  It was listed as nane au fromage, and while I could figure out that it meant naan with cheese, I was curious as to what type of cheese it contained.  I imagined it might be paneer, the fresh cheese common in Indian cuisine.  I wondered what the word would be for paneer in French– panir?  (Or was that one of those -ir verbs?)
Bonsoir, madame,” she answered, “le fromage, c’est [something I couldn’t make out].”
Since that was much too fast for me to process, I asked her to repeat plus lentement, s’il vous plait, la sorte de fromage.  She answered again, and this time I thought I understood her– wasn’t there something called vacherin?  Finding no way to ask for any further clarification (being neither fluent in French nor in French cheeses,) I decided to gamble the euro for the naan filled with some possibly exotic French cheese.  While I waited with my family for the nane au fromage to be prepared, I shared my thoughts.  “Is there a cheese called vacherin? It’s vache something.  She said vache qui something, actually.”  Everyone looked blank, and we waited excitedly for our nane au surprise.
With a smile, Madame presented a warm-from-the-griddle soft naan wrapped in foil.  We bit into it for a taste.  Tasted like… cream cheese.  Suddenly, I understood that the exotic fromage she had been telling me about, explained to me the way one describes something that should be obvious and immediately understood, was not vacherin but La Vache Qui Rit— Laughing Cow! Yes, the same cheese wrapped in individual foil-wrapped triangular servings that you can buy at your local Safeway.  Pas tres exotique, after all.
Vacherin, by the way, is the name of both a dessert and a type of soft cheese produced in both France and Switzerland, but more rarified than what would be used to fill a roadside naan, milles de miles outside of Paris.
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Nane au Fromage (Indo-French Cheese Bread)
Back home, I tried my hand at recreating nane au fromage.  Having eaten many naan but never having made any, I Googled for a recipe.  I came up with a few recipes in French only, and settled on this recipe from Indo-French blogger Pankaj, which I have translated into English, converted from Metric, and adapted using American ingredients.  The product was tasty and reminiscent of the nane au fromage we had in Réunion (and later, in Paris’s Little India), but didn’t look quite right, not quite flat.  At first I blamed my inadequate French skills, but upon further reflection, I am sure it’s because of the use of yeast.  Next time, I’m going to substitute baking powder for the yeast and cook on the griddle instead of in the oven.  Try this out and please share any suggestions to make this more Indian, and less French.
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
4 oz plain Greek yogurt (about 1/2 cup)
8 servings of Laughing Cow (this is one round container, as it is typically sold in the grocery)
2 pinches of sugar
2 pinches of yeast
2 pinches of salt
One tablespoon oil
1/2 cup hot water


1.  Place flour in a bowl, make a well in the center, pour the oil into the well, and mix well.

2.  Add yeast, sugar, salt and yogurt and mix into the dough, then add water.

3. Knead into a ball of dough, then coat with oil. Knead again until the dough is soft, then let it rise in a warm place for 3 to 4 hours.

4.  In another bowl, make a paste with the Laughing Cow.
5.  Preheat oven to 500 F.
6.  Divide dough into four balls. Roll each ball into a flat circle, then spread an equal portion of the cheese paste in the middle of each circle.   Seal the dough into triangles or circles. Gently press to flatten.
7.  Place filled dough circles onto a baking sheet and bake for about 5 minutes at 500 ° F.
8.  When done, drizzle a little ghee or melted butter on top, and serve immediately.  Chai makes a great teatime accompaniment.
Bon appetit!

10 responses

  1. Very clever use of Laughing Cow–I never would have imagined it. Vacherin cheese, by the way, is awesome–traditional in France for New Year’s celebrations. Your trip sounds like a real pleasure, too!

  2. Pingback: Belleville: La Vie est Belle | spicebox travels

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