“What is a weekend?” is a phrase made famous by the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey. If you live in Kolkata, and happy hours to you mean extra cheese and a special cake, there’s an easy answer to this. The weekend is when Sienna Café releases their special menu using local elements like seasonal fruit, provincial veggies such as dheki shaak, “choto maach”, the likes of Kachki and of course tender desi chicken . More often than not, the menu boasts intriguing combinations. To name a few:
— Baked Brie with Lavash and Tomato & Aamshotto Chutney
— Kachkimaach er Chorchori Congee Bowl
— Murgi Lal Jhol Buns
My Kolkata caught up with Chef Auroni Mookerjee of Sienna Café, to chew the fat on local produce.
Auroni, who has grown up in Delhi and worked in Mumbai, traced his roots back to Kolkata some years ago and found his heart in Sienna Cafe. The shared ethos which brings the two together is the desire to promote all things home-grown and Bengali. While the Sienna Store houses offerings from artisans from Santiniketan, Auroni likes to add quintessentially Bengali ingredients to exotic dishes This allows him to “make the food more accessible and procure local ingredients”. And he’ll look to replace asparagus with dheki shaak (fiddlehead ferns), serve risotto with a local variant of black rice, or a Japanese rice bowl will be reminiscent of that old Kolkata favourite – egg fried rice – made with local country chicken eggs.
“We like to source our produce from within a 50-100km radius of Kolkata. Of course, a 100 per cent local original menu doesn't have to be limited to only Bengal. It could also cover a lot of the Eastern region of India, and we hope to get there some day.”
There is so much produce in Bengal which is worthy of the GI (Geographical Indication) tag, apart from the well-known ilish or Darjeeling tea. But it’s important to understand the cultural aspect of it, and not just treat it objectively as produce.”
‘Fresh. Local. Organic. Free range.’
These are more than just words to Auroni; they have been a way of life since he can remember. When he spent summer holidays visiting relatives in Ranikhet, surrounded by apricot and peach trees, nibbling on bayberries and collecting pine nuts which had fallen to the ground, long before pesto became a household condiment.
Later, life at Rishi Valley Education Centre set his palate up to appreciate all kinds of cuisine as well as soak into a life of farm-to-mouth. “Everything was grown on campus – there were orchards, vegetable gardens, and even dairies. We went cycling and plucked guava from trees and we would have passion fruit juice, instead of lemonade, when it was in season.”
He knows it sounds idyllic now, almost from an Enid Blyton storybook, but he ruefully admits he didn’t appreciate it then, when he was forced to drink a glass of milk at breakfast and dinner, and yogurt during lunch. “Milk has become such a standardised product; broken up into light milk, heavy milk, heavy cream, butter. I wish we had access to that quality of milk now, for our daily operations.”
The recent obsession with curd takes him back to his schooldays, which is where he really learnt to discern what constitutes “good dahi” – an immensely useful skill in the land of mishti doi. “It should be made with full-fat milk, which means 8 to 10 per cent fat, and the texture should be like butter or mascarpone, with two distinct layers.”
Mango & Rabri mille-feuille@sienna_store/Instagram
Despite his early forays into food (at the age of five, he was able to break a chicken down from the joints by watching the local butchers in Mayur Vihar, New Delhi carefully), Auroni was first a copywriter in Mumbai before the chef bug bit him. He went from adding Bengali food to a friend’s dabba-service menu to handling the weekend orders at Cafe Zoe in Lower Parel, where the adrenaline of a professional kitchen is all he needed to experience, to know where his passions really lay. Auroni admits that, in Kolkata, while he might have an outsider’s edge in the kitchen, he’s still feeling his own way around the culture of the city. “If I want to work with the local produce, I also have to understand its roots.” Not that he’s a complete stranger to the cultural culinary landscape. As a child, Auroni found himself in Kolkata every alternate summer, accompanying his grandmother to Gariahat market, and perhaps sniffing out the good kakra. “But it was a bubble and I was never really immersed into the way of life here.”
Essence of the city
He’s not surprised he’s found his way back to the city of his roots, where he knows he’ll find something unexpected at the local bazaar in the morning. “I don’t think we’re doing enough to celebrate how much this region has to offer. We don’t do a good job of putting it out there.” He’s afraid that with every boneless chicken dish that creeps in, Kolkata is losing a little of itself. But it’s in Kolkata where his heart, belly and cooking hand really lies, and so the essence of the city is what he attempts to retain on the Sienna weekend menus.
“It allows us to tell a new story every week, keeping things fresh and seasonal. Even if there's ramen every month, there’ll be a different component, which makes it enjoyable for both the customer and the kitchen. We enjoy cooking our food and it’s not mechanical. It keeps the team inspired and at the end of the day, good food should nourish not just the body, but the heart and soul as well.”