Not so long ago, I remember writing about how there had been an amazing turnaround in Calcutta as far as the availability of ingredients for international recipes was concerned. Today the culinary enthusiast can cook up just about anything at home. Sauces for Oriental cooking — plum, hoisin, oyster, black bean, fish, soya (dark, light, Japanese kikkoman) — vinegars for Continental or Oriental recipes — white wine, red wine, balsamic (dark or light) — all the dried herbs — sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, tarragon, marjoram, basil — some of these even in their fresh form, as well as stuff we had never even heard of — chives, dill, leek, artichokes, celery, brussel sprouts — it’s all there.
And it is not as if one has to make pilgrimages across the city to access these items. Whether in Alipore or Ballygunge, Salt Lake or Central Avenue, one does not have to go far. There was a time when one had to go all the way to New Market even for green peppers — commonly known as capsicum — today, the vegetable man who comes to the doorstep has the choicest samples. I have found fresh celery, dill and parsley on the pavements of Bondel Road (sometimes, not often) and if you told folks who have lived away from the city for even five years that all the dried herbs mentioned earlier were available in a small little shop in Gariahat market, they would say you were having them on.
The same phenomenon — in a reverse kind of way — is at work in other parts of the world as well. Even 20-odd years ago we would commiserate (feeling inwardly quite smug) with friends and relatives who lived abroad — in the UK, say, about how it was well nigh impossible for them to cook a proper Bengali meal at home if they had run out of the supplies bought in Calcutta on their last visit — spices, various dals and other non-perishables — but even if they had these, what about the right vegetables' And, more importantly, what about fish'
Things have changed radically. On a recent visit to London to hang out with family, I walked into my sister’s kitchen, randomly opened one of the cupboards and was assaulted with the finest fragrances. It was the cupboard where she keeps her spices, and over the years, even though they are kept in tightly closed containers, the smells have lingered and you can detect top quality cumin, dry red chillies, kalo jeere, turmeric and other aromas. And she gets all these from shops in the locality — particularly one shop run by Gujaratis exactly a two-minute-walk away.
Gone are the days when a Landrover would have to travel half way across the city to specific pockets to get ingredients for Indian cooking. Today, wherever you live in London, you can get what you need within a kilometre’s radius. Just like it has become for Calcuttans who want to cook up some thing not Indian.
So I decided to spoil the sister by having a hot, home-cooked Bengali meal — a simple one of only two courses — waiting for her when she got back from work. A shop down the road had some excellent okra. In her kitchen cupboard there was some fine masoor dal. The menu was decided. Masurir dal, Dhyarosh and Aloor Tarkari and Maachher Kalia. Not a thoroughbred kalia, but a simple adaptation.
What fish to get' A fish bar run by a Turkish family was nearby. They had seven or eight varieties of the finest fish laid out invitingly on ice slabs and I was sure to find something. I came home with salmon; firm red flesh, bright silvery scales and caught in fresh waters. A perfect substitute for rui or katla. The young lad in the shop was amused by the way I asked him to cut it, and it worked right on. Did not break while frying, attained the exact golden brown hue and was all set for popping into the gravy, which was made by popping some cumin seeds with bay leaves (better than the ones I get on Dover Road, Calcutta 700019), adding sliced onions, turmeric and chilli powder mixed into a paste, chopped tomatoes, salt and sugar.
For the okra, I used just kalo jeere, turmeric and green chillies (absolutely the real McCoy) and for the dal, kalo jeere, onion and dry red chillies (as good as you’ll get).
Veggies too, are easy to get. I found potol, jhinge, lau, korola, drumsticks, sweet potato, white radish, raw mango, raw papaya, snake gourd (chichinge) and even the vegetable used a lot in Rajasthani food — gawarfalli! All in a single south Indian run shop called V.G. Food Products in the middle of Stoke Newington. The first four mentioned I have seen in Sainsburys supermarket under “Exotic Vegetables”.
But here’s the clincher! In a Turkish grocery in north London I found a bottle of mustard oil with a Bengali label: “Khaati Sorsher Tel”.
What’s your favourite vegetable for Bengali cuisine' Tell [email protected]