|A roadside food stall at BBD Bag; (above) a phuchkawalla near Dharamtala. Picture right by Rashbehari Das
At the end of last week's Tongue Twister I should have put a note saying 'to be continued' because so much had been left unsaid about my encounter with celebrity chef, world traveller, TV personality and author Anthony Bourdain, that continuation seemed to be the appropriate thing to do.
In this day and age fusion food and experimental cooking is something that is bound to crop up in a conversation and of course it duly did. Bourdain told me about Spanish chef Ferran Adria, whom he described as 'the Jimi Hendrix of today's culinary scene' (he has also been called the Salvador Dali of the kitchen), and declared that he thought Adria was a creative genius, gifted and imaginative, though there were many imitators creating mayhem in his name.
'He might decide to prepare something that combines chocolate with sardines and come up with something magical. He does research in a lab, constantly experimenting with tastes and flavours and finding compatibility between ingredients that might seem completely unsuited to one another. He has even experimented with cooking with liquid nitrogen!'
Thoroughly intrigued, I did a bit of research of my own on Ferran Adria and discovered that he is indeed charting a brave new culinary world. I came across an article which appeared a few years ago in The Guardian, a British newspaper.
'Schhllurk. I am testing an experimental snack, which fills a clear plastic tube the size of a cigarette' presented to me on a transparent plastic cushion filled with blue anti-freeze gel. The goo in the tube makes a satisfying, noisy slurp as I syphon it up, and whatever it is floods my mouth in a nice, gloopy jet. It's caviar, lubricated with egg yolk, and maybe something else, but I can't tell what.
'This is cyberfood' it comes along with a cocktail in the form of a solid, perfect cube of translucent jelly, plastic slurpies of mousse, savoury lollipops and little sweeties in cellophane' I'm in the lab with the backroom boys, who are working on the new dishes for Ferran Adria, Spain's and possibly the world's most innovative cook.'
Adria's world famous restaurant, El Bulli, with its three Michelin stars, is usually booked out months in advance during the holiday season.
Bourdain and I agreed that to make this kind of experimentation work requires true genius and we got back to topics more immediate and down-to-earth.
He was here for a day on February 15, working on a new series called Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, for the Discovery Travel and Living channel. Rajasthan and Bengal were to feature in this series. He had spent a couple of days in the Sunderbans and while in Calcutta, wanted to know, among other things, about our street food/indigenous fast food, and perhaps sample some as well.
We were on the Maidan, watching cricket on the grounds of the Dalhousie Athletic Club and there was a chap selling bhelpuri near at hand. I suggested he try bhelpuri first, with its muri or puffed rice base, and then batata puri, with its potato base. Bourdain had no problems with the grubby condition of our fast food chef, the dirt blowing across the field or the soiled plywood ice-cream spoons preferred for eating the bhelpuri with. He had sat in the jungle drinking Vietnamese moonshine with war veterans and flirted with bacteria all across the planet; for him, this was Mickey Mouse and we greatly enjoyed the batata puri preferring it over the bhel as it was more savoury and less sweet.
I lamented that this was an infinitesimal part of our fast food/street food and that we were a stone's throw away from BBD Bag, which at lunchtime transforms itself into one of the finest centres of this cuisine you will ever see. I also wanted him to try some good phuchkas, which do any Calcuttan proud.
'Don't worry,' said one of the people in the TV crew. 'We'll give him some pani puri in Mumbai.' While I agree that generically the two items are the same, how can pani puri compare with phuchka' Bourdain was amused. 'This is like a face-off between someone from Boston and someone from New York!'
We talked also about the rich variety of Calcutta's cuisine. What are its strengths' In the last 10 to 15 years, many elements of world cuisine had become a part of the culinary scenario here and the same kind of revolution that had happened in many cities had, in a smaller way, happened here as well.
But the real strength, I felt, lay in influences that were decades, sometimes, a few centuries old, and came to the city with the people who were drawn to it, adding to the already rich tapestry of Bengali cuisine. In some cases the food cannot be accessed through a restaurant.
For example, there are no places for Parsi food. But there are caterers and apart from that, anyone who has lived here long enough has experienced this magical cuisine, as is the case with Goan food.
Then there is excellent south Indian, Gujarati, Nepali, Rajasthani, Tibetan, Punjabi and Mughlai to be had. Coastal cuisine is relatively recent, but Kerala-style non-vegetarian has been available for quite sometime.
Then the presence of the British and other Europeans created a cuisine unique to Calcutta ' we have our own Continental favourites and we must not forget that this is the influence which spawned the chop-cutlet culture ' fish rolls, mutton chops, kabiraji cutlets et al.
And of course the finest Cantonese cuisine found its home here. More recently, Szechwanese, Manchurian and other styles have come in, but you can still get the old Cantonese style in a few places if you know the map.
Mr Bourdain, who revels in all cuisines if they bear the stamp of character and quality, is welcome back in Calcutta any time.