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Monday , August 8 , 2011
 
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Calcutta cuisine
North Calcutta was the seat of the 18th century renaissance in culture and religion. And great innovations in Bengali sweets like Bhim Nag-er sandesh... that caught the spirit of exploration in the air
The dark rich moistness of the Nahoum’s Rum Balls, punctuated by crispy bits of wafer and walnut that have sat in rum for several days, has not changed since those first days of westernisation
When spices simmer through the night and the Royal-er chaanp turns tender on its joint, the Nawab’s voice still whispers for a paradise lost
I can hear Harry Bellafonte and Pat Boone every time I enjoy Mocambo’s Devilled Crabs

The French art of cooking has just joined the Royal Ballet of Cambodia in UNESCO’s list of endangered heritages. Its holy pairing of food with wine, elaborate menus with orchestrated appearance for the dishes, the regimented code for placing knives and forks and even the conversation while enjoying the amuse bouche has made French cuisine an intricate ritual. But when I painfully remember the huge bill for a dinner at a French Riviera restaurant, I am not sure that the cuisine is going to be extinct anytime soon.

On the other hand, think of the food of Calcutta. Which cuisine straddles the history of such varied peoples, from Syrian traders and Dutch merchants to the retinue of a Nawab from Awadh? Or can claim to have nourished a religious reform and cultural renaissance, among other things? And which cuisine makes the wife draw up such a list of foods to fetch ‘without fail’ from Calcutta on every visit? Rum Balls and Fish Pantras from Nahoum’s, Devilled Crabs from Mocambo, the recipe of Lobster Thermidor or the chef from The Bengal Club, biryani and chaanp from Royal, fish kochuri from Shimla Street, sandesh from Bhim Nag or Dwarik. By the time I tick off all the items on the list, UNESCO would realise the heritage that is Calcutta cuisine.

For the first two items on my list, I have to thank a prosperous Syrian jewel merchant from two hundred years ago. Had he not reached Calcutta in search of royal customers, we may never have had Nahoum’s. Jewish merchants settled in and around Limbutola and trained Muslim chefs in the dietary laws of Jews till the khansamas became authorities on making kosher Pilau Matabak or Fish Pilau and Hameen, vegetables and meat cooked together over slow fire. The successive World Wars and upheavals in other parts of the world whisked away the Jewish families to other shores and only a few families like the Nahoums stayed back.

Nahoum Israel Mordecai opened a modest shop at Hogg’s Market. And Anglicised Bengalis, who were beginning to follow their European masters’ tastes, fell for its fruit cakes and macaroons. The dark rich moistness of the Rum Balls, punctuated by crispy bits of wafer and walnut that have sat in rum for several days, has not changed since those first days of westernisation. Tick.

Bellafonte and bawarchi

I can hear Harry Bellafonte and Pat Boone every time I enjoy Mocambo’s Devilled Crabs, the next item on my list. Or Chicken Meuniere. Calcutta once reverberated with the music and dance of Anglo-Indians. And the chugging of steam engines which ran like clockwork in the hands of the ruddy Eurasian engine drivers. But it is the Spiced Lamb Curry and Shepherd’s Pudding that remained to tell the tale of a colonial love union. So, tick.

Next on my list is meeting a slightly mad but loveable nawab. A connoisseur of all things fine and beautiful, the Nawab of Awadh still lost his homeland of Lucknow to the British. He spent the rest of his days on a princely pension in Metiabruz. Calcutta could never stop talking about his colourful menagerie of dancers, painters and singers. But it is his bawarchis who guarded the true treasures of Lucknow which came with the Nawab. Recipes of biryanis, rezalas, kebabs, kulfis. When spices simmer through the night and the Royal-er chaanp turns tender on its joint, the Nawab’s voice still whispers for a paradise lost. Tick that too.

I am running short of time for the flight but am hardly through the list. This has to be a conspiracy between my wife and Calcutta, one ensuring I spend my life running errands for her, and the other, as deceptive as any woman, ensuring I spend my life trying to fathom her delicious secrets. Here I am lost in north Calcutta, hunting for the tiny place that made fish kochuris. But it seems I am late by a few years too many. Globalisation, food courts and the McDonalds of the world have gobbled up the fish kochuris along with the tiny shop since the last time I came.

The khansama’s secret

But I have miles to go before I eat. And the last item on my list is a revolution to boot. North Calcutta was the seat of the 18th century renaissance in culture and religion. And great innovations in Bengali sweets like Bhim Nag-er sandesh or Nobin Chandra Das-er rosogolla or Dwarik Ghose-er mishti doi that caught the spirit of exploration in the air. ‘Bagbazar-er Nobin Das, rosogollar Columbus’, went a popular ditty in those days. “There are two creators of taste,” Rabindranath Tagore is once said to have joked with friends. “First is Dwarik Ghose and the next is Rabindranath.” Rani Rashmoni always ordered two maunds of Bhim Nag-er sandesh on her way to Ma Bhabatarinir Mandir. One for Ma Bhabatarini and the other for Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa. He enjoyed them and distributed the sweets among his disciples equally, saving just a few extra for his favourite disciple, Naren. If the immortals could be ecstatic over these sweets, shouldn’t we mortals be forgiven for drooling?

You may have noticed that I have given one item on the list a wide miss. A recipe out of the chef of Bengal Club I could not get. They have a venerable record of guarding recipes which goes back to a clever khansama long ago. The khansama made such mean roasts and pies that every British memsahib wanted to employ him. Naturally his employer guarded him and his recipes like a treasure.

Once a very special guest came to dinner. The Viceroy. The food was perfect and everything went well. But there arose a problem. The Viceroy’s wife wanted to personally meet and congratulate the khansama. Her plan was to try and get his recipe of Sirloin Roast with Yorkshire Pudding. But the hostess was not about to give in. Now, how could she refuse a meeting with her khansama without offending the Viceregina. Then the khansama himself stepped in. He told her, he would pretend that he spoke no English. Well then, a meeting was hastily arranged. And what followed was a very animated discussion, mostly in frantic gesticulation. In the end, the Viceroy’s wife gave up and left, without the recipe. Till today those recipes are a closely guarded secret, to be enjoyed only at the Bengal Club. At least that’s the story I could recall for the wife on my long flight home.

But next time my wife draws up a list of delicacies from Calcutta, I am handing it to the people at UNESCO to introduce them to the intangible heritage of Calcutta’s cuisine. While I enjoy my Royal-er biryani in peace.

The Maharashtrian spread at Taj Bengal

MAHA MENU

From the interiors of Kolhapur and Solapur to the Konkani coasts and streets of Mumbai Taj Bengal’s Sonargaon is set to give you a taste of Maharashtra in all its spicy, tangy and flavourful glory.

“We had last done a Maharashtrian food festival in 2005 and the response had been good. So, we thought it might be a good idea to hold another one. The menu has been selected on the basis of popularity, though we have kept the Konkani cuisine to a minimum because there is so much variety in coastal cuisine that it can fill a whole menu,” says executive chef Sujan Mukherjee.

Cooked in goda goda spice, red chillies, groundnut oil, peanut and desiccated coconut, the flavours and textures of Maharashtrian food are unique. “The food is spicy, has a coarse texture and will be a completely different experience for those used to only eastern cuisine,” adds Mukherjee, stating that the dessert section might be tweaked to accommodate Besan Laddoos, Banana Sheera, Basundi and Puran Poli.

Start your gastronomic journey with appetisers like Batata Wada (fried potato dumplings) and Sukha Jhinga (jumbo prawns tossed in goda goda spice) while sipping on Solkadi (Indian sour berry and coconut milk drink), before moving on to a delicious vegetarian or non-vegetarian main course of your choice.

The non-veg section comprises Malwani Prawn, Chicken Kolhapuri and Sukka Mutton a must-have while Bharli Vangi, or baby aubergine cooked in peanut coconut gravy, is recommended from the vegetarian list. There are classics, too, like the Amti (toor dal tempered with onion and garlic) to be teamed with Masala Bhaat.

On till August 15, the festival will be a la carte for lunch and dinner. A meal for two will cost around Rs 2,000 (taxes extra).

Biteright

What: The Sindhi Food Festival.

When: August 12-28.

Where: The Marble Room, Kenilworth Hotel.

On the menu: Dig into a traditional Sindhi meal with sweet-and-spicy dishes like Besan Jee Kadhi (a gram flour curry served with aloo touk, sweet boondi and plain rice), Khattaa Mithaa Karela, Toovar Daal, Methi Machhi and Seyal Magz (slow-cooked brain curry). End the sumptuous spread with desserts like Lahori Gajjar (saffron-flavoured sweet potatoes), Murmilan Jee Mithai (sweetened vermicelli squares) and Satpura (a deep-fried flaky dessert).

Meal for two: Rs 1,500 (taxes extra).

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