My passion for Bengal food is immense. I have been interested in how it has evolved for a very long time. If you notice, I call it Bengal food and not Bengali food. To me, it’s food from Bengal — not specifically food by Bengalis. This part of the country has been a melting pot of culture. Why it has been so is because people didn’t just come here to visit but to do business as well. They came here to stay.
Say when a Portuguese man of trade came here, he may have tried the local fare of rice and dal. But ultimately he would have gone back to his vindaloo. But the person cooking for him would have been a local fellow and even with the Portuguese guy’s instructions, the dish would not have been the original vindaloo he had back at home. Nor would it have been anything from Bengal. It would have been an amalgamation.
If you look at the English, they had been ruling our country for 200 years of which 150 may have been peaceful co-existence. That’s a long time and in those 150 years there was intermingling at various levels — among women of the house to bawarchis and amongst various classes and caste and creed. This, I would say, gave rise to a different genre of food. It changed the food in Bengal as we know it.
Did you know chhana (cottage cheese) was not a part of Bengal? It was only introduced to Bengal by the Portuguese. So everything from chhanar jilipi to rosogolla came after that! Everything we had for dessert was made from kheer or coconuts.... Bengal has always adapted food. Take the Chingri Malai Curry. It comes from Thailand or what was then Siam. A lot of Bengalis lived in Yangon (Myanmar) and there was a trade route from there to Bengal.
Coming to Bengali food, what would you say are its pillars? Shorshe maachh, chholar dal, luchi and alur dom are food we treat as markers for Bengal food. But there is so much more to it. These days no one knows anything more than these few dishes and a few odd posto dishes. I’m only trying to take it forward, expand the horizons a little.
Contemporary Bengal food, according to me, is where we use only Bengal spices to make food that will be accepted even by people not initiated into Bengali food or fish or mustard. That is why all our fish dishes are boneless variants. You can call this my crusade. Today we have chefs learning Thai, French or Italian but no one is really cultivating Bengali culinary art. But if you look at the greatest chefs today, they are only interested in their own kind of cuisine. Does Gordon Ramsay make a Tandoori Chicken or a Chinese Chilli Chicken?
I remember when I was appearing for interviews for The Oberoi (Centre for Learning and Development), and in my final round I was asked where I’d like to take the board for a Bengali meal. I said nowhere. At that time there was nothing but Suruchi on Elliot Road. So one of them commented, “Kyun? Ghar ki murgi dal barabar?” I asked them: “Eighty per cent of your kitchen staff is Bengali. You have the money, land and other resources. Are you taking the risk and putting up a Bengali fine-dining restaurant? Then why expect a restaurateur who will probably mortgage his house and pawn his wife’s jewellery to open a restaurant? He will obviously opt for the safer chicken bharta kind of restaurant!”
Another thing got to me later. I was then working with the Speciality Group and was on holiday in Delhi where I read a food guide which had a very interesting paragraph on Bengali cuisine. There were no restaurants listed under its subhead. And it had a line that got my goat, that although there is a sizeable Bengali population in Delhi, there aren’t Bengali restaurants because Bengalis lack the entrepreneurial gene. I sent a photocopy of that piece to Anjan (Chatterjee). And he said, “Okay, we’ll start Oh! Calcutta.”
As told to Malini Banerjee
Pictures by Sayantan Ghosh
Chilli Pickle and Cheese Baked Crab with Kolmi Greens:
I created this dish because I wanted to work with Bengali pickles. Pickles are interesting because pickles from each region — Bengal to Kerala, Punjab to Rajasthan — are different even if it’s the same ingredient. The Bengali green chilli pickle I use has mustard. We added the kolmi saag for the crunch of a fried kolmi. And one might say that the cheese isn’t Bengali but any food needs a sort of fat for moistness. I could have used Bandel cheese, which is more Bengali in origin, but it’s too much of an acquired taste. And khowa kheer — used in the Chingri Cheene Kebab, which is very similar to European-style prawn thermidor — would have made the dish too dry.
Layers and layers of malpua with not Philadelphia cheese or Mascarpone but chhana. After all, chhana is nothing but unripened cheese. It’s flavoured with malpua spices like black pepper, mauri (saunf) and star anise. It is amazing how all the elements can be used as desserts just with the right amount of balance. We have a Doi and Kalo Jeere Crème Brulee (yoghurt and onion seed brulee), and Daab and Shorshe Mousse.
Paanch Phoron Parshe:
This dish uses three of Bengal’s strongest flavours — paanch phoron, green chillies and preserved lemons. The parshe fillets are grilled with paanch phoron, which gives it a very subtle flavour. Over this, we add smoked green chilli sauce and serve it with rice that is tossed in lemony oil.
Mushroom & Pineapple Skewers with Spicy Coriander and Kalo Jeere:
I keep the words like kalo jeere to make it more accessible to a lot of people. If we call it nigella seeds or onion seeds, I don’t know how many people will understand. How many would know kolmi greens is Morning Glory?
Bacon-Wrapped Chicken Supreme:
Here, I’ve come back to my love for pickles and I’ve used aam kasundi to make a reduction sauce. Pork is something that has always been allowed by the Hindu religion and many still have it. The bacon just helps lift the dish.