The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A taste of the traditional and trendy

Bengali cuisine in Calcutta came out of the closet, so to speak, about 10 or 12 years ago, when up-market outlets and restaurants where you could take your whole family and dine in a comfortable atmosphere began serving up our very wonderful fares.

Prior to that, the 'pice hotels' had existed for decades; functional places where you could get a wholesome meal with few trimmings, and many customers were single working people. Not places normally associated with social outings, but very often serving delicious food. One exception was Suruchi, on Elliot Road, run by women's co-operative and renowned for good Bengali food. Not as simple and functional as a pice hotel, but then again not carpeted and air-conditioned either. Somewhere in between.

But now that Bengali fare is widely available, Poila Baisakh naturally saw special treats on offer at many places, with the newspapers carrying pictures and information on mouthwatering menus, course by tempting course, right down to the chutney, doi, mishti and paan.

But most of us have been there, and done that, and we still have a bee in our bonnets about how it could never get better than special occasion food in our own homes, with grandmother or mother in charge of ceremonies.

I have no idea how many Bengalis the Poila Baisakh festivities drew; but if our brethren from all the other communities of the city ventured forth into the pleasures of Mochar Ghonto, Enchor, Doi Machh or Luchi Mangsho, it would make us glow with pride.

For me, it was the most un-Poila Baisakh like lunch I have ever had. Wondering what to do for lunch, the decision was made for me when the doorbell rang and a young lady with a charming smile said 'Shubho Noba Borsho' and a uniformed gentleman walked in bearing a hamper full of goodies courtesy the Dum Pukht restaurant at the ITC Sonar Bangla hotel.

Manna from heaven. Heavy terracotta vessels, lids sealed with dough, containing Awadhi delights cooked in the dum pukht style. Enough to take care of any New Year's resolutions one might have had to go easy on the calories. But that was the last thing on my mind.

There was Koh-e-Awadh, a dish made with lamb shanks in a heavenly gravy. Shanks are chosen such that the maximum amount of meat is on the bone. These are marinated in salt, ginger garlic paste, Kashmiri red chilli paste and powdered mace, clove and cumin. Onions are sauteed in ghee, then the shanks are added along with the whole garam masala (which includes star anise and unpowdered mace) and when the mutton is singed, mutton stock and ground onion paste are added, the dish is sealed with dough to cook in the dum pukht style and on a very slow fire, the meat is cooked for four hours.

When ready, the shanks are removed, the gravy is strained and simmered till reduced to the required consistency and then the meat and gravy are recombined.

It is a truly exotic example of Awadhi cuisine, and as accompaniment there was Sheermal, that delicious bread made with a dough of refined flour, milk, green cardamom powder, ghee, saffron, salt and sugar. Kneading the Sheermal dough is an art without which the right consistency will not come, and once it is rolled into rounds, these are baked in a tandoor.

There was also Awadhi Mutton Biryani cooked in the dum pukht style, and Dum Bekti in a rich mustard gravy garnished with lemon wedges, green chillies and sliced tomatoes. But this had to wait for a later meal, and delicious it turned out to be.

An unusual start to an auspicious day, but evening brought an experience more Bengali in essence. An adda session organised by Concern for Calcutta at Vivekananda Park on Southern Avenue. Anchored by theatre person Satinath Mukhopadhay, the adda participants were singer Swapan Bose, magician P.C. Sorcar (Jr), tabla player and percussionist Bikram Ghosh and yours truly.

Like any good adda, there was humour, gravity, a little impromptu singing and sharing of experiences. I remembered once anchoring a TV programme for the UGC with Pradipda (P.C. Sorcar) as guest. The UGC thought it was good enough for me to deserve a small award as host. When I told my friend Lou Majaw about it, he said, 'Well, he's a magician, man!'

There were Chhau dances from Purulia, dhakis performing, Bangla bands, theatre and other items as well, stretched over two days at the event, like a mela, with food and other stalls as well.

From the traditional one again lurched into the pell-mell of modern life by night, to attend the launch of a new lounge-bar-cum-restaurant called simply 'I', at the Metropolis, Hiland Park, just off the EM Bypass.

Loud remixes of Shaadher lau interspersed with live performances by Ishita Ganguly, Anjum Katyal and Jeffrey Menezes and later Bikram Ghosh along with a band of musicians from France saxophone, drums, electric bass, guitar and Bikram on tambourine. A creative and high-energy set.

Back home around midnight, thinking of all the cultural crosscurrents experienced in a single day, the first of the year 1413.

Not a bad way to begin.

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