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.
Back in 2014, I had to leave Calcutta to make Ahmedabad my temporary home. The initial mon kemon (a sense of longing that is hard to describe) mutated into an ennui that had me cursing my luck as I missed familiarity: the scent of home and the winding alleys, the street food of Calcutta. Around half a month into the stay, I discovered, in the alleys of old Ahmedabad, a little eatery named La Bella. In the land of no fish, no chicken, and no beer, La Bella promised beef and pork, fiery red Goan curries that you pour over a plate of steaming rice. I discovered a sense of belonging, a touch of familiarity in a land that was not mine. This was the first time I had found a home away from home. Far from the cacophony of North Calcutta, in this dim-lit eatery run by Mrs Mary Lobo.
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.
5/146, RUA 31 DE JANEIRO, PANJIM, GOA
It is too early when we arrive by a Kadamba Transport bus from Madgaon* and swaddled in rain clouds, Fontainhas is sleepy. At Old Quarter, the night guard is brushing his teeth. Check-in is at 2:00 pm. We ditch our bags in a closet whose archaic lock mechanism makes me smile and we drag our tired feet in the lilting rain, determined to stay awake and play explorers but more about that later.
Old Quarter’s main building houses four dormitories, a café and a spacious sitting area; single and double privates are located in a restored heritage property 5 min down the street. All The Hostel Crowd hostels, and there are four in Goa, have a girls only dorm. The lower level of the main building houses two dorms, the reception and a lounge. The cozy sitting area is painted bright white and matte black. It is on the upper level and is accessible by a staircase above which, strung from the ceiling, is an installation of a cascade of books. Handsome wooden desks and benches, comfortable chairs with plump cushions and plenty of natural light make the sitting area welcoming.