The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Fish fest with tradition twist

August 24 is observed as Calcutta’s birthday. Our band was invited to perform at the fag end of an event where the participants were students from different schools, putting up various items, getting involved in some heated debating and generally having a good time. One was struck by the overall standard and particularly by the excellence of a studious looking young lad from my old school La Martiniere (or maybe St. James), singing, without any accompaniment, a flawless version of Tagore’s Purano shei diner katha.

Purely by coincidence, the next day I was having lunch at Charnock’s, the rooftop restaurant at Charnock City, one of Calcutta’s first multi-storeyed one-stop shopping centres. It commands a great view of the city, particularly on a monsoon afternoon with the sombre clouds scudding across the sky. It is a well-appointed place, complete with cobblestoned floor and genuine antique street lights. To cap the monsoon feeling, there was a fish festival on.

The festival is over now, but the popular items will be kept on the regular a-la-carte menu, which in any case surprised me because there are already as many as 15 Bengali fish preparations on it, involving varieties of fish not to be found in most places, such as aarh, tangra and bowal, which are among my favourites. During the festival they went even more off-beat, serving bele, gurjali, bhangor, sole, mourola, puti and loitta (known more generally as Bombay duck). All this, in addition to regular favourites such as prawn, hilsa, bekti, pabda, parse and chitol.

Needless to say, this lunch was a strictly Bengali affair, with only one exception — one of the starters, Prawn Goujon, is a Caribbean preparation, and not surprisingly, contains rum. Medium-sized tiger prawns are marinated in lime juice, salt and pepper and then dipped in a batter made with cornflour, flour, ginger-garlic paste and egg before being deep-fried to a golden colour. In another frying pan, oil is heated, chopped ginger, tomato ketchup, chilli powder and salt are cooked together. The prawns are tossed in this for a minute and then the dish is finished with rum and lime juice. Goujon Prawns are served with chilli tartare sauce.

The other starter was the celebrated Bengali item, Topse Bhaja, or batter fried mango fish. Simple but delicious, especially when freshly made and crisp, the topse is generously coated in a batter of gram flour, ginger-garlic paste, black onion seeds and salt and deep fried. Topse are small, never exceeding eight or 10 inches, though the perfect size for this item is about six inches; the entire fish, head included, is dipped in batter and fried to a crisp.

There were three main-course items, all had with plain steamed rice, along with fresh green chillies and — when appropriate — a twist of gandharaj lebu, a delicately aromatic lime.

First up was Catfish with Raw Mango and Mustard. They used big chunks of aarh. These are marinated in salt and turmeric powder for an hour, then fried on a slow flame and set aside. Oil is heated in a wok, then dry red chillies and panch phoron (the famous Bengali five-spice combination) are added, followed by a fine paste of black and pale mustard seeds. Salt and turmeric powder are added and when the gravy is half-done, the pulp of boiled raw mangoes is put in. The gravy is well stirred, the fish is added and in five minutes more of cooking time, the dish is ready.

Then came Bowal Maachher Rasa. Bowal is also a kind of scaleless catfish. Here again, large thick pieces from the midriff of the fish were served. The fish is marinated in salt, turmeric powder and red chilli powder for an hour, fried and kept aside. Onions are chopped, boiled and made into a paste. Another paste is made of tomatoes, ginger and garlic. Mustard oil is heated and the pastes are added. Salt, turmeric powder and red chilli powder are added and well combined with the pastes. The fried fish is added and cooked for about 10 minutes, before the dish is finished with lime juice and served.

Finally there was Chitol Petir Kalia. Chitol in English is feather back fish; it is one of our prized delicacies and this preparation is made from thick, large pieces cut from the lower flanks and abdominal portion, which include the long, hollowish tasty bones of the rib cage. The kalia is prepared almost the same way as the bowal rasa except that when the fish has been added to the gravy and cooked for 10 minutes, instead of finishing the dish with lime juice, it is finished with a mixture of yoghurt, ghee, ginger paste and a touch of sugar.

An intriguing dish which was served at the festival, which I did not try, was Mexican Sole fish. Fillets of sole fish are marinated in lime juice, chopped cilantro leaves, salt, pepper and Cajun powder, which is an ingredient common to the cuisine of New Orleans, is made by powdering the leaves of the sassafras plant and goes back to the culinary ways of the Choktaw Indians. The fillets are simply marinated in the fridge for four hours and then served with a sauce made with red pepper, Capsico sauce, tomatoes, yoghurt and cream. No cooking involved. Like Japanese Sushi.

Charnock’s is a multi-cuisine restaurant, with a comprehensive North Indian and Continental selection as well. At a glance the Continental menu looked inviting, while the North Indian was regular fare — but in all fairness, it was a cursory look. However, if it wasn’t multi-cuisine, for the variety, good sense in choice, traditional approach and extensive a-la-carte menu, which doesn’t work on a rotational day-to-day basis as regards the Bengali menu, Charnock’s might be surprise winner for Best Bengali Restaurant.

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