Bengal on the menu

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By Bengali food seems all set to capture the Indian foodie's imagination. Shrabonti Bagchi reports ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SAMITA BHATIA, AARTI DUA AND SREERADHA D. BASU
  • Published 8.10.05
(From top): Diners tuck into Bengali fare at Mumbai’s Howrah; chef Sushanto Sengupta of Bangalore’s 6, Ballygunge Place with some of the restaurant’s signature dishes; Ratnadeep Rudra of Shonar Baangla; the exterior of Mumbai’s Oh! Calcutta; the interiors of the same restaurant and proprietor Anjan Chatterjee

Do Chicken Butter Masala and Gobi Manchurian finally have competition? The answer’s yes. And guess what’s slipping onto the menu and giving them a run for their money? Dishes that are familiar in any Bengali home like ilish paturi and shukto. And, while we are at it, don’t forget the daab chingri, mochar ghonto and doi maach, which are looking to oust Tandoori Chicken and Chicken Chettinad from the positions they have held till now.

Bengali food, long confined to grandmother’s kitchen, is breaking out of the home-food mould in cities across India. New Bengali restaurants are opening their doors to patrons in all the metros, be it Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore. Even Calcutta, which has long been firmly in the grip of Chinese and Continental fare, is taking to it like never before. No less than four new Bengali restaurants have opened in Calcutta in the last year and some are expanding to the other metros.

Take a look at Anjan Chatterjee, considered by some as the doyenne of Bengali cuisine. Chatterjee began his career as a restaurateur with the landmark Only Fish in Mumbai. But he soon became convinced that Indians were prepared to eat out Bengali style and opened the highly successful Oh! Calcutta. Now, he has big plans for Oh! Calcutta. The restaurant will make its debut in Delhi by year end, and in the next year, he wants to open outlets in Chennai and Bangalore. What’s more, he’s in talks to open an Oh! Calcutta in Wimbledon, England. Says Chatterjee, “We have already scouted for locations in these cities, and since they, especially Bangalore, have large Bengali populations plus a cosmopolitan crowd that is willing to experiment with food, we have great hopes from them.”

Or, look at the 6, Ballygunge Place chain of restaurants which has just added Bangalore to its food map and which, one month after opening, is cooking up a storm. The restaurant serves typical Bengali fare, from the homely shukto and jhinge posto to the more complicated chingrir malaikari, rui machher roast, daab chingri and chitol machher muitha. Says partner Subhankar Dhar gleefully, “We are being forced to turn away close to 250 people on Saturdays and Sundays. We are booked through the day on weekends, and even on weekdays the turn-out is pretty impressive.”

“In Bangalore, we had a ready and captive audience. With so many IT companies where a huge number of young Bengalis work, and with a Bengali population that’s close to 400,000 we had no doubts about Bangalore,” says Dhar. “See, most young Bengalis living here have neither the time nor the expertise required to cook some of the complicated dishes like ilish paturi and chitol machher muitha,” explains chef Sushanto Sengupta, who is also one of the partners in this venture, “but if all this is available, they would come for it again and again.”

It’s the same logic that appealed to Delhi’s Pallavi Thakur Bose when she decided to open her Bengali speciality restaurant Chowringhee in Delhi’s Bong-heavy eastern fringe this year. “I felt there was very little being done to promote Bengal’s cuisine, when it has so much scope and variety,” she says. “It is as rich as the culture of Bengal. It’s also subtle and balanced and is growing in popularity by the passing day,” says the food critic-turned-restaurateur-cum-head cook. “All it needs is some promotion and intelligent marketing. There is already a ready audience in the form of non-residents Bengalis in the metros, who in turn will bring in the non-Bengali clientele.” At Chowringhee, which offers an extensive menu encompassing Tangra Chinese, Bengali dishes and a bit of Mughlai, it’s the fish dishes and rolls that are most in demand.

Some older, established restaurants are looking at newer, quicker options. Take Delhi’s oldest Bengali restaurant Babumoshai for example. It has recently tied up with biryani chain Deez Biriyani to open outlets that are called Deez Babumoshai selling everything from luchi and chingrir malaikari to pick--move items such as rolls and fish fries at food courts in malls such as the Metropolitan Mall in Gurgaon. Nearby, in a plush Gurgaon colony, Babumoshai has opened a sit-down restaurant with a more extensive Bengali menu.

There are others who are bullish about fast food. Dhar of 6, Ballygunge Place feels malls and food-courts are the ideal places to push Bengali snacks. The company has its eyes on several Bangalore malls and is contemplating opening counters, which will be an economical way to spread the brand name.

The popularity of Bengali snacks and sweets is something old hand K C Das discovered ages ago. They opened their first sit-down outlet in Bangalore more than two decades ago and now have around 10 outlets in the city, though most are takeaways. Along with typical Bengali sweets such as roshomalai, chomchom, pantua and kheerkodom, they also serve luchi with chholar daal and alu dom, Bengali-style samosas and cutlets at their sit-down outlets. “Our Bangalore outlets have shown tremendous popularity. The Kannadigas have forgotten their own sweets and lap up our roshogollas and ledikenis, and our luchi combos give idli-vadas stiff competition,” chuckles Manjulika Das of the K C Das family. So much so, that the company has opened a factory-cum-laboratory on the outskirts of the IT city and is going to repeat the experiment in Mumbai very soon.

One reason for this overwhelming popularity, believes Das, is that people are becoming more health conscious by the day and Bengali sweets, made fresh from milk products such as kheer and chhana, are healthier than the oily north and south Indian sweetmeats that are not made from fresh milk products. The health factor is something food consultant and owner of the Babumoshai brand, Ashim Gupta also takes into consideration while explaining the recent popularity of Bengali cuisine. “Bengali food is very healthy as it is largely based on fish preparations and the use of spices is toned-down compared to north-Indian specialities,” says Gupta. Bengali vegetarian items, for instance, make use of a number of green vegetables, which are not deep fried or doused in an all-enveloping gravy but are steamed or cooked in low oil, retaining their essential nutritional qualities.

There are other Calcutta restaurants that are putting together their ingredients and making preparations to move to different Indian cities. With four outlets running to packed houses in the city, in Ekdalia, Hazra, Salt Lake and Hindusthan Road, Bhojohori Manna is going great guns. And quite naturally, the five partners behind this venture would love to take their restaurant to other cities as well. “We’re thinking not just in terms of India, but also abroad,” says Siddhartha Bose, one of the partners in this labour of love. “We are studying the market and infrastructure in other metros before taking our business there.”

Good quality raw materials are very important in Bengali cooking, and this is something that eateries spreading their wings outside West Bengal have to keep in mind, especially the availability of sweet water fish. For Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta of Kewpie’s, the decision to open a branch in another city would depend largely on the availability of raw materials and other goods like the earthernware she serves her food in. “I want to stay true to the USP of Kewpie’s ? no spanking modern interiors for me, neither will I serve my food on bone china. And where will I get fresh fish and matir bashon in another city?” she queries.

Pallavi Thakur Bose serves up a big spread at her Delhi restaurant, Chowringhee

That’s why she has been forced to turn down offers from New York and Boston to open Kewpie’s outlets there, she says, though she’s open to starting branches of her restaurants in other cities provided the infrastructure can be organised.

Others, such as Chatterjee, Dhar, believe better flights and services have made acquiring ingredients easier than ever before. Similarly, Munib Biria and Chetan Sethi of Howrah, a Bengali restaurant at Crawford market in Mumbai fly in the hilsa all the way from Bangladesh or Calcutta. Other ingredients like Jharna ghee too are flown in from Calcutta. And of course, the cooks are all from Bengal.

Howrah not only draws in Bengalis ? especially executives from the banking and advertising sectors during lunch hours and even others like Chef Joydeep Bhattacharya of the Oberoi ? but it also has a lot of walk-ins, especially from foreigners visiting the heritage precinct of Crawford Market. The youthful duo who run Howrah is also planning to open a second Bengali restaurant in Vashi which has a growing Bengali population. “We want to stick to the areas where there are a large number of Bengalis,” says Biria. They are also looking at opening a sweetmeats outlet offering Bengali and other Indian sweets and pastries. Howrah currently makes sandesh to order, so this will be an extension of this segment in a sense.

Some restaurateurs believe that greater forces are at work, propelling Bengali food to the forefront. Ratnadeep Rudra of Shonar Baangla in south Delhi feels no less than a second Bengal Renaissance is on its way. Says Rudra, “The growing interest of Indians in everything Bengali is probably a testimony to this claim. Devdas, Parineeta, Bipasha, Koena and TV soaps are also contributing to this. In this scenario, we feel it’s the right time for Bengali cuisine to establish itself firmly as an interesting option.”

Even Dasgupta acknowledges that the timing couldn’t be better for Bengali food to reach out, for the popularity of this cuisine is at an all-time high. “Non-Bengalis are getting familiar with Bengali food, they’ve read on the subject, and their interest in this unique cuisine has grown. How long can people have the same Dal Makhni and Tandoori Chicken? Plus, people have more money to spend, as a result of which they experiment more,” says Dasgupta.

Getting the non-Bengali clientele in is something most Bengali eateries emphasise. After all, outside Calcutta it’s not possible to sustain a restaurant on the patronage of Bengali foodies only. Which is why, along with the typical Bengali fare, most of them also serve what they call ‘Calcutta cuisine’, which includes rolls and Continental dishes. Most are happy with the ratio of Bengalis and non-Bengalis coming in, which hovers around 70-30 on an average.

“Bengali food is more evolved and scientific than a number of Indian cuisines. It has a course-by-course structure and appeals to a sophisticated palate. As eating out becomes more of a social event, it is bound to go places and become a pan-Indian cuisine. Who knows, it may even overthrow Tandoori Chicken one day!” sums up food critic and Graphiti columnist Rahul Verma optimistically.

Let’s raise our aam porar shorbots to that!

Photographs by Jagan Negi, Prem Singh, Gajanan Dudhalkar and T. Vinod Kumar