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.
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.
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.
“Ab to zamana badal chuka hai,” says Pashang Tamang with a wry smile when over a cup of chai, I ask him if the kids these days prefer to pick their own partners. Times have changed but even in the last decade, the Lepchas were part of a close-knit community in which marriages were arranged strictly between families with the same surname i.e. within the same sub-caste. The formal consent of the families was the first impetus behind starting a conversation between a man and his wife-to-be but tourism has sunk deeper into the social fabric of the Lepchas than can be gleaned from a night at one of the numerous homestays in Lepchajagat. As the Lepcha teenagers of today text each other about their dreams and desires, Pashang still looks somewhat unsettled at the thought of a Tamang marrying a Gurung.
দার্জিলিঙের সাথে আমার প্রথম পরিচয় গানে গানে। স্কুল জীবনের শেষের দিকে যখন বাংলা ব্যান্ডের গান গুলো সবার মনে ঘাঁটি গাড়ছে, তখন আমাকে দায়িত্ব নিয়ে বিগড়ে দিয়েছিলেন অঞ্জন দত্ত। তার কথাতেই প্রথম খাদের ধারের রেলিংটা, তার কথাতেই প্রথম মেঘ করলেই ইচ্ছে করে ট্রেন টা ধরে ফেলি। তার আগে একটা পোশাকি পরিচয় হয়েছিল, অবনীন্দ্রনাথের বুড়ো আংলা পড়ার সময়। টুং, সোনাদা, ঘুমের কথা পড়তে পড়তে বাবার কাছ থেকে শুনেছিলাম দার্জিলিঙের গল্প। বয়েস বেড়েছে, অভিজ্ঞতা বেড়েছে, তার সাথে পাল্লা দিয়ে বেড়েছে পাহাড়ে যাওয়ার নেশা।
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.