|The Bengali vegetarian spread at Oh! Calcutta. Picture by Rashbehari Das
On one of the numerous visits to Bangalore to holiday with my father, I noticed some prime quality pui shaak (climbing spinach) growing wild in his back yard.
“No need to go marketing,” I said. “That’s our vegetable dish for lunch.”
“Nobody eats it here,” he said. “Jeeva (their cook) would not know what to do with it.”
I was quite astonished. Here I was, in the heart of predominantly vegetarian country, and this succulent pui shaak was just going to grow and be left alone! But come to think of it, though Bengalis are known to be confirmed non-vegetarians, our repertoire of vegetable dishes is probably as extensive as any cuisine in the world.
Flowers, stalks, leaves, stems, roots — we spare virtually nothing, and some of the preparations involve painstaking procedures, while others are remarkable for the imagination and creativity that goes into them.
In a first for the city, a restaurant is holding a festival showcasing the vegetarian delights of Bengali cuisine. Out of hundreds of choices, they have handpicked 14 items that take us from the simple environs of our grandmother’s kitchens to the kitchens of the palaces of Nawabs. In some cases, there has been on-the-spot improvisation as well.
Oh! Calcutta is the restaurant; the festival has just begun and will run for another fortnight at least, and the 14 items are add-ons to the existing menu, so diners can enjoy the best of both worlds.
Mochar Shami Kabab and Purbhora Chaalkumror Pata Bhaja were starters. For the former, banana blossoms (mocha), chick peas, tomatoes, onions, green chillis, yoghurt, sugar, black pepper, garam masala and other seasoning are combined thoroughly into a consistency the same as finely ground meat, as used in real shamis. This combination is shaped into flat, round patties and shallow fried. In appearance and colour they are just like meat shami kebabs but as you take a bite, the characteristic fragrance of mocha comes through and this is a delight.
Purbhora Chaalkumror Pata Bhaja sounds elaborate but actually just tells it like it is. The leaves of white pumpkin are wrapped around a stuffing; the roughly triangular envelope is dipped in a batter of seasoned rice-flour and fried to a crisp. The stuffing is grated cucumber, grated coconut, mustard paste, green chilli paste, mustard oil plus a little flour and salt. Crisp on the outside but slightly squishy inside with the tang of mustard paste and oil, this is another winner. Three chutneys — mint, tamarind and mustard (kasundi) were served with these starters.
Next was luchi and a subtle curry of corn kernels and dried potatoes in a light gravy which contained cashew paste, milk and powdered fennel seeds, among other more familiar ingredients. This was like a ghugni with a difference and the hot luchis at Oh! Calcutta seldom, if ever, disappoint.
There was also Chhanar Paturi — Bengali style cottage cheese, softer and more moist than North Indian paneer — combined with mustard and green chillies, wrapped in banana leaf and pan-grilled. And Aam Posto — raw mango, grated coconut, poppy seed paste, mustard paste, green chilli paste and seasoning stir-fried together till just lightly cooked, shaped into spheres and served. And an ingenious Niramish Dimer Dalna — potatoes halved and scooped out and stuffed with a spicy mash of chick pea to resemble eggs and cooked in exactly the same gravy as our traditional egg curry.
All these items were served with rice. Each having a distinct character and texture.
And finally, Enchorer Biryani. How can Bengali vegetarian fare be complete without enchor, or raw jackfruit' Known through the ages for its resemblance to meat and prepared the same way, it is even referred to as “gaach pantha”, or “goat meat that grows on trees”!
So a biryani was on the cards. Though it may resemble meat, it cannot be mistaken for such and should not need to, for enchor has its own virtues that speak for itself.
The biryani was delicately prepared and made for a good finale, capped by a dessert of Rosogollar Payesh.