What's cooking in Calcutta?

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 7.07.13

B ritish chef Rick Stein travelled all over India during a three-month period while he made a television series for the BBC on Indian food but he began his culinary journey in what we all know to be the cuisine capital of the country — Calcutta.

With anything between 8,000 and 10,000 "curry" restaurants, Indian food is big in Britain.

This explains why Rick offered viewers introductory words of wisdom on the complexity of curry: "There is more to curry than three pints of lager and prawn vindaloo."

In Calcutta, Rick travelled up the food chain, metaphorically, and ended up at Kewpie's in Elgin Lane, where the owner Rakhi Dasgupta cooked rui maachh for him.

Rick started the day by trying kathi rolls at Nizam's in the company of one Seema.

"That is unbelievable," he enthused.

"We just love food," declared Seema. "Bengalis are crazy about food."

Then, Rick followed another guide, Kaniska Chakraborty, to the latter's favourite place which has apparently existed since 1879 and specialises in making fluffy prawn cutlets cooked in butter.

"This is melt-in-the-mouth, ethereal prawn cutlets," was Rick's verdict.

All I can say is that Rick was lucky. As Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca would probably observe, "Of all the prawn cutlet joints in the world, he's got into walk into this one."

Then the adventurous Englishman tried a variety of street foods, ranging from phuchka to mishti doi.

"People on the street smile at you, they're happy, they're kind to you," Rick assures his audience. "And I think above all, it's that persistent feeling, for me, of human resilience, the resilience of all us human beings which so impresses me about Calcutta."

He also tasted "really good Bengali food" at a restaurant in Taltala called Suruchi, run by the All Bengali Women's Union.

Rick sends his recipes over to his son in the UK and receives the following feedback: "Delicious, Dad, but nobody could eat it. Too hot."

Rick, though, is battle hardened: "The problem really is that I've just got a bit immune to chilli."

For me, the problem really is you cannot get genuine Bengali food in Britain.

That said, the series is a great promotion for India, especially Calcutta and its cuisine.

"Every time I come to India," said Rick, "I just love watching people at work because they just get on with each other so well, and actually, everybody is very nice to us, you know? You never feel threatened in India, because everybody's just getting on with their life."

  • Jumbo home: Sir Martin Broughton (bottom right, on the stairs)

High flying

At Heathrow last Thursday I managed to have a quick word with Sir Martin Broughton, chairman of British Airways, about the significance of the Indian market to his airline.

"The Indian market is one of the most important," confirmed Sir Martin, who was at Heathrow as part of the large welcoming group that had gathered for the arrival of the airline's first Superjumbo, the A380, from Toulouse.

As the huge aircraft taxied to a stop in front of a giant hanger where we were all waiting, 380 British Airways employees, from pilots to cabin crew and check in staff in their smart uniforms, enthusiastically fluttered their little union flags.

British Airways has configured the interior to be able to accommodate a maximum of 469 passengers across four cabins but some airlines, such as the Chinese and the Japanese, manage to squeeze as many as 880 people on domestic flights, Sir Martin told me — and laughed as he noted the look of near horror on my face.

British Airways has ordered a total of twelve A380s for delivery by 2016, starting with three this year and a further five in 2014.

In common with other journalists, I went on board, wandered around and had a chat with the pilots on the flight deck. Lord Swraj Paul is indeed right about something he had told me — aircraft manufacturers are replacing aluminium with carbon fibre composites.

The A380 would initially operate on routes to Los Angeles and to Hong Kong, so I asked Sir Martin whether the Superjumbo would ever fly to India.

His positive response surprised me slightly: "India could be right, it could be worked in quite easily."

We were also shown round a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which was parked nearby. This will be used on services to North America and Canada.

British Airways currently has 46 flights a week into India, which makes it the airline's second most important market after America. The six flights a week to Hyderabad will become seven from winter.

"It's a market we are very excited about," Sir Martin said.

If only British Airways and Air India could be persuaded to resume a direct service between London and Calcutta... perhaps even by A380 one day.

  • Dad's love: Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul with her husband Harry

German affair

Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul's book on her father's life and loves, In The Shadow of Freedom: Three Lives in Hitler's Germany and Gandhi's India, is already out in India but it had a well-attended UK release a few days ago at Asia House in London.

I have just dipped into the book. Even so, Laxmi's account of the love affair between her father, Ayi Tendulkar, and the German filmmaker Thea von Harbour, ex-wife of the director Fritz Lang, in Nazi Germany is utterly fascinating. The couple could not or did not marry but later Thea and Tendulkar's wife, Indumati Gunaji, a Gandhian activist, became good friends. Indumati passed on her recollections and her papers to her daughter, Laxmi, asking her to write her story.

Laxmi had initially offered her book as a work of fiction but was persuaded by Urvashi Butalia, Zubaan's editorial director, to write a straightforward factual account.

It's absolutely the right decision. There is surely a movie in this with someone like Marlene Dietrich cast as Thea.

  • Party people: Tarun Gogoi (5th from left) with Lord Swraj Paul (sixth) and Gordon Brown (right)

Politics aside

Guests at Lord Swraj Paul's "Remembering Ambika" summer party last Sunday in London included Assam's chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, 78, who — like Narendra Modi — has won three consecutive Assembly elections since he took over in 2001.

Even more interesting was the presence of the now rarely spotted former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, whose reputation, surprisingly, has held up better in many respect than Tony Blair's.

Hallowed turf

Dicky Rutnagur would have approved. The funeral of the doyen of cricket reporters at Golders Green crematorium on July 12 is to be followed by a gathering of his friends, relatives and fellow scribes in the Writing Room at Lord's, his favourite ground.

Meanwhile, a group of Tibetan monks from Dharamsala have been to Lord's and blessed the "hallowed turf".

The Gyuto Monks, who have also been to the Glastonbury music festival, are releasing a new album, called Chants: The Spirit of Tibet.

Tittle tattle

A silver gilt dinner service, belonging to Maharaja Sir Bhupinder Singh of Patalia and used only once for a banquet hosted in 1922 for the visiting Prince of Wales, fetched �19,65,875 at Christie's, thereby "setting a new world auction record for an English dinner service".

Christie's experts know pretty much everything about the service but not the menu served that night. My guess is that Chicken Tikka Masala, beloved of the Brits, was not served that night.