True to style, the last conversation I had with Pia didi, as I called her, was late one night about a couple of months ago. “Tell me Pritha, I am confused. Did we fry topshe maach in batter or crumb?” “Pia didi, haven’t you just come through an angioplasty? What are you doing with deep-fried fish?” I had exclaimed in horror. She laughed in the typical full-throated way she had and said: “If they don’t allow me my favourite things, I’d rather not live anymore.” And so she slipped away gently into the night.
Pia Promina Dasgupta Barve was one of a kind. The original home chef, she was a pioneer of the home-chef movement that has taken over the food world today. She had done it all and seen it all even before we had learnt how to fry Topshe maach.
‘Her food exuded warmth and love’
She was undoubtedly the finest multi-cuisine chef in the country, balancing European, Middle Eastern, Indian, South Asian and Pan Asian with equal skill. And her passion to feed surpassed any other I had ever seen. Her food exuded warmth and love.
While her enduring romance with food is known to many, most are unaware of how it all began and the string of accomplishments and accolades she collected on the way. “I started cooking at a very early age,” she had told me once, and her grounding was mainly in her grandmother’s kitchen, where her expertise in Bengali cuisine was honed. We would many a time compare notes on her rich West Bengal style and my lighter-yet-fiery East Bengali genre.
Pia was the daughter of celebrated author and cook Meenakshie (Kewpie) Dasgupta@Pia Promina DasGupta Barve/Facebook
It came as no surprise then when she, the daughter of celebrated author and cook Meenakshie (Kewpie) Dasgupta, had opted for O-level cookery in school and topped the exam. Having excelled again in her Food and Nutrition degree from Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, and having already made a name for herself as a master baker across Kolkata, she opened a small patisserie near the legendary Flury’s and gave them a run for their money. She diversified into professional catering as well during this time even while becoming a major distributor of Fun Foods products to the retail trade in Bombay.
An industry leader
What made me remain in lifelong awe of her though was what I had discovered on a trip to Bombay almost 42 years ago. Pia was the first woman ever in the country’s meat-packaging industry, skilled in food processing, product development, production analysis, factory management and marketing. Very soon she was the industry leader in the development and export of frozen mango pulp and vegetables at MAFCO, and went on to work with premier biscuit giant, Britannia Industries Ltd. It was only natural then for her to found her family’s export business in foods and beverages.
Pia with celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal@Pia Promina DasGupta Barve/Facebook
She trained as a tea taster and was once more at the forefront of the manufacture of tea and tea bags. She was also the COO of the first online shopping mall launched in Kolkata in 2000, NoShutters.com. As if this was not enough, she painstakingly went through all the recipes for her mother’s classic book, Bangla Ranna, setting the standards and later co-founded, along with her father, Kewpie’s, Kolkata’s best known and oldest Bengali restaurant of home-style food. Later, she operated a bakery in Bombay, catering to orders and supplying to high-end outlets such as Nature’s Basket, apart from catering multi-cuisine specialities and holding regular pop-ups at her home in Bandra. Her eclairs were the talk of the town.
‘Her largesse was legendary’
With so much under her belt, one would expect Pia to be hard-nosed and practical. Nah! Her largesse was legendary. An exasperated common friend once complained to me saying it’s impossible to do business with Pia. She goes to the market before a pop-up and if the freshest and most expensive ingredients catch her eye, she excitedly buys them all and adds it to the menu at no extra cost to the guest! Well, I have had experience with this too. Once in Bombay, I had ordered a one-pound birthday cake from her. What arrived was a three-tiered three-pound cake with the most expensive of trimmings. She simply loved what she did and did what she loved, money be damned.
An almond crunch and cream nougat birthday cake by Pia@piapromina/Instagram
Whether it was a pop-up, some festival or simply a whim, Pia was always out there, offering the best. While being most well-known for her Bengali cuisine, she was unparalleled when it came to European and old-world colonial cuisine from Calcutta, brought up as she was in an Anglicised environment. Her Christmas fare of cooked ham, roast turkey and savoury pies was something all of Bombay looked forward to. A typical Pia Christmas lunch would comprise dips, toasts, crackers, meatloafs and chicken liver pate followed by delectable mains such as pickled fish with horseradish sauce; hot, smoked Norwegian salmon fillet; whole leg of ham slow cooked for four hours in a beer sauce and Polish-style roast duck with a stuffing of vodka and apples. For dessert there would be a Christmas pudding with brandy butter and coffee. Her Calcutta Jewish spreads of forgotten dishes such as Anjooli, a cold-fish dish; Murg Makallah or Cheese Sambusak is still talked about among connoisseurs.
A Christmas pork roast by Pia@Pia Promina DasGupta Barve/Facebook
As I write this, I keep thinking that the food world has lost a precious storehouse of knowledge and talent that few among us can boast of today. Yet she remained untouched by any kind of arrogance, continuing to be delightfully eccentric, childlike and ever so curious about anything epicurean. She could be a fiercely loyal friend as was demonstrated once when she downright refused a lucrative assignment because she thought the people concerned had treated me badly. I had to cajole her for days to at least check it out.
With her son and husband@Pia Promina DasGupta Barve/Facebook
The very heart that welcomed one and all to her table let her down in the end. Yet she retained her joie de vivre for life till the end. As she crosses the seven seas and journeys into the other realm leaving behind a loving husband and doting son, I can still hear her voice from the sick bed asking me whether to crumb or batter fry Topshe maach. Go in peace dear Pia didi, you were too large a personality to be ever forgotten.
Pritha Sen is a food historian and consultant.