Menu: Phuchka, Egg Roll, Luchi
Venue: A bar in London
A pop-up hosted by a Calcutta girl recently gave Londoners their first taste of her city's street food.
Shrimoyee Chakraborty grew up not only feasting on rolls and phuchkas but also watching the roll-wallah roll out and toss the flaky parathas or phuchka-wallahs make the spicy potato filling and she set out to recreate the experience at Zensai Bar in Camden.
Staying away from home since college didn't change Shrimoyee's love for Bengali food. If at all, it made it stronger. "I used to cook a lot in university and my flat became a sort of a mini supper club every evening as hungry students flocked to my kitchen for home-cooked food. I started experimenting with food and thought of making videos and posting them," said the Ashok Hall girl. Thus was born her blog ( www.eatwithmeshrimoyee.com).
Shrimoyee, Shrim to her English friends, didn't let her day job as programme producer for Asia House get in the way of her passion. She began fiddling with the idea of starting a food app last year but ended up planning a pop-up instead. "I was on a cookery show on TV with some famous chefs and I made Bengali dishes such as kosha mangsho, porota and kalo jeere diye machher jhol. Everyone was rather intrigued and loved the dishes. People here have a misconception that Indian food means curry and I wanted to break that myth, as Indian food is so much more," said the 25-year-old aspiring entrepreneur.
Cooking comes easy to Shrimoyee but there was a lot more to do as well. "I had to invest my own money, which comes from my day job. I spoke to Paul Bloomfield, a reputable caterer in the UK and my mentor in many ways, and he jumped at the idea. He has tasted my dishes many a times and has loved my food. So I got my kitchen staff from Paul. The next step was to find a venue. I walked into Zensai in Camden, a very buzzing area in central London and spoke to the owner. He loved the idea."
Shrimoyee went on to make a fun promotional video, which got noticed, and Cobra Beer agreed to be her official partner for the event. "I also had a DJ playing Bollywood Funk (Bollywood retro mixed with jazz and funk)."
Things in place, Shrimoyee got down to the most important part - the food. "I sourced all the spices from India. My uncle was on a work visit and he got me most of what I needed. The rest I easily found in London besides the phuchkas, for which I had to go to a Gujarati store in Tooting on the outskirts," Shrimoyee said.
She also introduced her own twists. "I couldn't find khoya for the kosha mangsho, so I used cashew paste. For the chicken filling in the roll, I used my own recipe with kasuri methi (dried fenugreek), garam masala, lemon, coriander and garlic. It gave the roll a slight gourmet touch," said Shrimoyee, who would spend hours at home trying to replicate the Bedouin roll she loved. "As for Pav Bhaji, I followed the recipe I had learnt from the vendors in front of Vardaan Market on Camac Street."
Shrimoyee had cooked for large gatherings, up to 30 people, but a pop-up was no family feast. "Cooking for a hundred was a different ball game altogether. But it turned out to (be) fun as I tried to train the local sous-chefs who had no idea how to make any of the dishes. More than 80 people turned up at my pop-up, paying tickets worth 15 pounds for three dishes and a beer."
From an English couple who wanted gluten-free (food) to a Bengali girl who celebrated her birthday by giving her English friends a taste of real Calcutta food, everyone loved the fare served by Shrimoyee. So much so that the Pav Bhaji and Egg Roll were sold out before the last 15 could make it to the counter.
For London-based Amrita Dasgupta, the experience of a Calcutta street food pop-up in London was completely different from the streets back home. "It enabled me to relive every moment of those food journeys while I demonstrated how to eat a phuchka. Is the tamarind water a sauce, a dip or a soup? I found myself unable to answer that question because it doesn't fit into any category of continental cuisine. I am still thinking about an answer," she said.
The pop-up was also lawyer Duncan Lanser's first tryst with Calcutta street food. "I loved the egg roll, which was well complemented by beer. I enjoyed the light richness of the roll itself, which worked well with the meaty filling. I could easily have eaten more of those!" he said.
Matt Bellis, a management consultant, now has a whole new idea about India food. "I had never tried the dishes at the pop-up before. When you think of Indian food and the dining experience as a whole in the UK, it tends to be viewed as an evening meal; and one that is fairly heavy, truly leaving you in a food coma. This pop-up served much lighter dishes, which were perfect for a lazy Saturday afternoon brunch." His favourite: Lamb Kosha.
Shrimoyee's mentor was also all praise. "There is a great passion for more authentic food in the UK now, particularly among the younger generation. People want real Indian street food rather than the Anglo-Indian interpretation. Shrim is passionate in presenting this," said Bloomfield.
Not one to rest her ladle, Shrimoyee has already done two more pop-ups. The second one was a sea-food special at Bonnie Gull with the tagline, "Think mustard and jhal". Kankrar Jhal and Machher Paturi did the rounds at the high-end sea food restaurant in the posh Exmouth market of London. "Unlike the first pop-up, this time I was approached by the restaurant. I didn't have to go searching for a venue," Shrimoyee said.
The third one at a jazz bar at Stage3 Hackney Central served a three-course Bengali meal. And the two standouts from the evening's menu were Calcutta Lamb Biryani with Chicken Chaap (Mughlai style) and Pithe.
"The biggest challenge I faced was cooking such large amounts in my small kitchen at home as most of the cooking needed to be done off site. Also I had a tough time finding the right sous-chef. Finally, I managed to find a Bangladeshi woman from Brick Lane, Rahia, who has been of fabulous help."
What Calcutta food should Londoners taste? Tell [email protected]