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Sleight of hand
Pictures by Rashbehari Das

Jokes abound about how the food-loving Bengali will go to any lengths to gratify himself, even if it means that pleasure might be followed by pain, in which case he will simply pop an antacid and carry on regardless.

But in fact, even a deluxe, full-scale course-by-course Bengali meal — all the way from shukto through the veg course, the fish and meat course to the papad, chutney, doi and mishti — can be a smooth dream-run that will leave you unscathed. Even if you have had a few deep-fried luchis on the way.

It all depends — or almost all — on the delicacy of the touch of the chef. If he or she gets it spot on, a Bengali meal can be light, subtle and well balanced. Understatement and proportionality hold the key.

The moment ghee and garam masala take precedence, the homeliness is lost and something showy and rich takes its place.

A few weeks ago I came across a place where, for a restaurant, the food was surprisingly simple and unpretentious, right from the selections on the menu to the preparations. Not quite as grandmother made it but not too far off. There were some dressy items of course but it was nice to see Jhur Jhure Alu Bhaja, Begun Bhaja, Begun Pora, Alu Posta, Methi Saag Bhaja and straight-ahead jhols of rui, chicken and goat setting the tone.

The place is called Rupasi Bangla at 1/1C Ripon Street and of course I contradicted myself completely by asking for none of the above (thinking I could always have them at home!) and going for some more elaborate fare, but this too was not too rich or heavy.

The starters section of the menu reflects our love for chops and cutlets and there are several egg-and-crumb-fried, or batter-and-crumb fried items. These are not normally part of a Bengali meal and are actually teatime snacks or “jol khabar”, but was I going to say no to a Mochar Chop' Banana blossoms chopped, boiled, then stir-fried with spices, shaped into rounds, then batter-and-crumb fried and served with kasundi, the typical Bengali mustard sauce.

Chitol Muitha was also on the starters list. If asked, they will serve it on a main course with a gravy, but as a starter they will serve it dry with sauces and dips. The flesh from the back of the featherback fish is painstakingly mashed and deboned. At Rupasi, the raw flesh is combined with onions, green chillies, ginger, coriander leaves (all chopped), boiled potatoes and salt, shaped into rounds and fried.

It was not a well-orchestrated course-by-course meal and sequences were not strictly followed. Being in the mood to try a little bit of everything, somewhere along the line I tried some luchi and chholar dal and this again was light and homely, as was their shukto — Bengal’s typical bitter gourd-based mixed vegetable stew.

Another Bengali favourite, koi maachh, or climbing perch, is on the menu as well — Koi Tel Jhaal, they call it. They prepare it by first popping black onion seeds in hot mustard oil and then preparing a gravy with chopped onions, green chilli paste, pastes of poppy seeds, mustard and cumin and coconut milk, and cooking the fish (fried first), in this.

Chingri Bansuri is an unusual item in which prawns are cooked in a gravy made by sauteing sliced onions and then adding sliced tomatoes, bamboo shoot, poppy seed and mustard paste, yoghurt, fish, cream and aniseed powder. The main cooking is done in a wok but the finishing is done in a sealed section of bamboo.

Other items to recommend are Pabda Sorse (they have six varieties of fish on the menu) and Mutton Dak Bangla. But the knock-out punch, for me at least, is that Rupasi Bangla has a full-scale coastal menu as well, complete with Vindaloo, Chicken Xacuti, Crab Coondapuri, Squid Kuliwada, Coorgi Roast Crab, Chettinad Curries and more. It is one of only three places in the city with a good coastal menu and it is the only place with the Bengali/coastal combination.

About eight months old, and one can surely say, so far, so good.

What is your favourite Bengali dish' Tell [email protected]

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