Late in the summer of 2014, I found myself some 1600 kilometres away from home in a service apartment in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, all pumped up and excited to start my first job. In the three months that I lived in the apartment on Sargassan Cross Road, I learnt how relentlessly Gujarat tries to make a vegetarian out of an omnivore. Let’s get this clear, I come from Bengal and fish is my staple protein and in this part of the country, even Pizza Hut strives to have a suddha-shakahari identity. We eat quite a lot of vegetables in the Bengali household and I love a good shukto and aloo posto but this was a totally a different world in which you were not expected to have a choice. Needless to say, it was a struggle. Forget meat, I was famished for the scent of garlic. Less than a fortnight into strict vegetarianism and food-depression started to get the better of me.
Chaotic is the operative word to go by if you ever find yourself lost in the lanes and bylanes of Colootola during Iftar. An unfailing melting pot, Calcutta has always been a place where differences in cultural narratives are not only embraced and celebrated but also shared, often over food. Thus, it comes as no surprise when thousands throng the Ramadan celebrations around Nakhoda Mosque, sharing tables and opinions as they wait for the siren to mark the end of the day’s fasting. Nobody asks you your religious or ethnic identity. Nobody asks if you are a believer or not. You join the locals around rickety makeshift tables, perspiring and praying for a cool draught of wind while sipping on glasses of milky kesari chai. All around you, in brightly lit shops people holler for the best bargain and owners of street food stalls hang skewers of marinated meat from hooks, arrange delicate rolls of lachha, stir cauldrons of haleem in preparation for the evening. Nobody can tell at what point this chaotic come-together floods the confines of a religious ritual to become a carnival, a celebration of life, under the summer skies of Calcutta.
The only true downside of eating everything under the sun is that sometimes even renowned institutions can leave you in a state of tepid dissatisfaction. Heavy blows, if you have not only spent countless nights pondering on what to eat in Darjeeling but also obsessing on menus to figure out what to order and then fantasised about the flavour profiles of individual dishes. My first foray into taking a bite out off the high street of Darjeeling cuisine turned out to be one such misadventure. Debanjan, my co-traveller on this trip who puts up with my questionable dining choices was pretty pleased with Ara by Bellevue when we walked in on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Chic with upholstery that can be described as urban hip, Ara is the newest gastropub to open its doors to the people of Darjeeling.
Of course, this world and its people will impart a lot of education to you. But have you ever, on an evening stroll, wondered what to do about that sondhyebela’r khide? Have you ever felt that pressure of impressing your Bangali premika with a thesaurus like knowledge of chop, cutlet, and peyanjis? Has the Herculean responsibility of arranging the finger food for a murimakha and adda session ever been bestowed upon you and you have no clue what to do? But no more worries! You, dear seeker, have come to the right place. Read on to find out how you can be a chop expert too and be ready for the next renaissance, the industrial revolution that is chop shilpo!
Note: Much has been spoken about the singara, the Bengali cousin of the samosa, and though we love it immensely, we are giving it a break from this article.
My love affair with traditional Bangali food had a long incubation period. During the rather impressionable growing up years, my daily diet was a strictly home cooked North Calcutta affair. The repetitiveness of the dishes meant that they soon lost their appeal and unsurprisingly, I found my little self craving, more often than not, a kathi roll with extra lime or a Moghlai porota dripping with oil. But every story contains a story of coming of age in which the prodigal son returns to take up the mantle of the King. In the story of my life, this story revolved around returning to my roots, to the food habits of my ancestors and ethnic clan. As I grew older and began to explore the city’s gastronomic secrets, I learned about the nuances that differentiated what I call gharanas within a cuisine. The more I learned the more I found the reverence for the simple home-cooked dupurer khabar making a comeback. Where else would you get something like panchmishali torkari in which the vegetables despite being tempered with spices as pungent as mustard still retain their delicate flavours? The thought of swapping the robibarer mutton for a creamy and nutty alu posto no longer gave me nightmares. In the cultural mingling that occurred during muktijuddho, ingredients and techniques used in the East Bengal or Bangal style of cooking seeped into kitchens of West Bengal to create a unique profile. Now we, the children of a later generation, have an important responsibility: To dive into archives (and kitchens) and re-discover shaabeki recipes that are slowly vanishing from both ghoti and bangal rannaghors.
When you live in cold, wet Oregon some thousands of miles away from your boyf, you regularly experience what I called “foodpangs” or busts of painful craving for a dish you have enjoyed with someone you love. This list started off as a random conversation with Aninda on a night my taste-buds were aching for some Calcutta-style Chili Chicken. I ended up making a dish that my father often makes and talking to Aninda about chicken dishes we had enjoyed on our weekend eating sprees since December 2014 when we started dating. It was an interesting list-making that drew very different reactions from both of us; while Aninda was oohh-ing and aaah-ing and planning the next trip to the eateries, I was sinking deeper into a chasm of helpless hunger and making loud slurping sounds in the air. It was weird, alright, but my roommates were out that night and I ultimately ended up making some extra-spiced Chana Masala. So here you go, in no particular order:
1. Chicken Shapta at The Blue Poppy, Middleton St.
Blue poppy shines when you join them in embracing their fiery ambitions. It is somewhat ironic that a dish tracing its roots to the snowy landscapes of Tibet can be this lip-smackingly hot. Thin slices of chicken fried till golden are generously paired with shredded chilli peppers and onions, and presented in a light sauce that is the perfect balance of sour, sweet, and umami. No turmeric means the dish has a rather pale colour but what it lacks in looks, it makes up in taste by unfurling fireworks as you place a spoonful in your mouth. Pair it with their burnt garlic fried rice. Fair warning though, not for the fainthearted!
It is no secret that the Bangali loves to eat but more often than not we see our brethren meticulously searching for eateries that serve Bangali food in the most non-Bangali of places, say for example, in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. Far from Bengal and its redolent plains, we found by the Baspa a tiny establishment with a board that announced “এখানে বাঙালি খাবার পাওয়া যায় |” A group of delighted Bengali tourists marched forth towards this miracle while their children, visibly depressed at the prospect of being fed more bhaat dal, tried hard to make their voices heard to their parents who oblivious to the delicious local food they were missing shut them with the ubiquitous chup kor!
To encourage fellow Bangalis to embrace the world of foreign foods, we have devised the complete guide to navigating the menu at a Goan eatery. Enjoy a laugh and a glass of feni while deciding your order!
Ambot-tik: For the one that loves onomatopoeia. Ambot-tik is how your tongue clicks against your palate when you put something tart in your mouth. Balance it with sweetness and let out a sigh before biting into a chunk of seafood.
Balchão: Pickled shrimp relish that’s fiery and finger-licking delicious. Though it might sound like a goon from Uttar Pradesh, it is originally from Macao.