Book Review: The Calcutta Kitchen By Dr Susmita Dutta
We Bengalis may not be No 1 in many fields, but as is universally known, there are 3 things we delight ourselves in- food, education, reading. What can be better when it comes to reading about food?
When you talk about food and creativity, I can think of 2 kinds of creations: one where you cook food and create a culinary delight and the other which I am expert at is to read of and about food and in my mind conjure, concoct, experiment and almost taste the visual delight. Thus, in order to be interesting, a cook book must cater to both these types of clientele. Further in today’s world of culinary explosions, both on TV as well as restaurants inclusive of all kinds of world cuisine, the reader of cook books needs cosmopolitan recipes, rather than sticking to regional delicacies only(not that I am against them).
Taylors University teaches Hospitality and its library has a wide range of food related books, right from choosing wines to world cuisine. However, I was quite surprised to find a book on Kolkata and its cuisine peeking through amongst Italian, French, Moroccan and other food lover’s favorite’s. When I flicked through the pages, I was interested to find not only typical bangla ranna, but the diversity and unprovincial nature of the dishes which truly describes Kolkata. The book I would like to talk about is The Calcutta Kitchen ( rannabanna, Kolkatar khabar) as it left a deep impact on my culinary senses both by reviving old memories as well as by instructing me.
The food scene in Kolkata is not only about cholar dal, kosha mangsho and ghugni which truly represent Bengali cuisine but is also influenced by foods and flavours from around India and the world, not to forget our own unique ‘Kolkata Chinese’. The Nawabs, the British, Portuguese and the Baghdadi Jews left their food prints all over the city in either forms of the original recipes or their Indianised versions. There are several sections in this book which relates to different categories of food; for example several Anglo-Indian dishes described are so steeped in the region’s history that I am sure they are still served in many old clubs and restaurants. The original cooks of these clubs were supposedly Mogs from the Chittagong Hill tracts who cooked English food no doubt, but added the zing and the zest by mixing in spices or other techniques. I was particularly impressed by a few photographs which reflect the true spirit of these clubs- their menu cards and recipes and the bearers in their uniforms. A recipe from the Raj called egg curry with gram dal is a unique concept and I had never heard of something like this and I always thought that fish moilee was an original Kerela recipe and was not aware of the Portuguese influence.
Though accustomed to Bengali food and its various regional nuances, the murgi malai curry seems to be a new and nice variation of our typical chingri macher malai curry. One useful trick that this book taught me was that banana leaves (used for macach paturi) become very pliant and are easy to fold when you microwave them. Again there is a lovely picture of the early morning fish catching scene. Renowned for the abundance of fish, from freshwater catches including varieties of carp from the region’s fertile rivers, lakes and ponds of the Ganges Delta, to prawn now artificially cultivated, the Bengali comfort food remains mach and bhat. Though most of the fish recipes are well known, I had a brief spell of nostalgia when I was reminded of my mother’s recipe of frying the heads of large prawns with its yellow gooey stuff inside in pungent mustard oil. I have never tasted it again in the last 40 years.
The vegetarian recipes though unexceptional also taught me to add a spoon full of chick pea flour to the yoghurt when making doi begun ( yoghurt and aubergine) to give a nice creamy body to the gravy.
Though Nahoums seems to be the only Jewish surviving bakery, there are Jewish recipes like the aloo makalah, a variant of our own alu bhaja, which can be a nice appetizer replacing the frozen potato sticks and chicken nuggets which seem to be the easy (but very boring) way out for most family home snacking.
Does Badamtala ring a bell? Well it is good old Park Street which is the street of restaurants and eateries galore right from regular roll shops for the office goers to the neon signed big wigs and hot house of Continental food delights. Again there are recipes and recipes, a few of them you would like to try and others too confusing and cumbersome yet appear to be worth a try. Though I had heard of dimer devil, devilled crab appears to be a recipe I have never tried, would never attempt to make, but would definitely eat if somebody told me where in Park Street it is sold. The béchamel sauce in the recipe seems to have been bedeviled by a truant cook who possibly again did not like the bland French sauce and added chilli and garlic. Though a good mix of continental cuisine catering to Calcuttans, I did miss the chelo kabab of Peter Cat in the Park Street menus.
A Kolkata cookbook is incomplete without its typical street food and though there are innumerable delights, a few of them are not to be found anywhere else. Take for example our own shingara or mochar chop with their sweet and spicy flavours inclusive of peanuts and coconut pieces. Again there is the ubiquitous roll popularized by Nizam’s, but sold in every nook and cranny of Kolkata.
And then to end it all in a sweet note, there are millions of choices for sweets if you are in Kolkata. But what about the ones in far off regions of the world who salivate at the thought of misti doi and Sandesh? I found some online sweet stores, and there are people who praise the misti doi delivered to their doorsteps in Mumbai. I am however skeptical about these online stores for Bengali sweets. As a typical arrogant Bengali, I would either have them fresh from the shop or even attempt to make some. The other day I turned some milk into kachagolla at a moment’s notice, and I think if there is will there is a way. I loved the pantua and malpoa recipes and would like to give them a try sometime.
Written by Simon Parkes and Udit Sarkhel the book is a readers delight as it is not only about recipes, it is also an introduction to the culture of Kolkata. All sections as well as the recipes have interesting preambles, both historical and otherwise which breaks the monotony of only reading recipes. The photographs by Jason Lowe speak about everything that is Calcutta and is one of the highlights of the book.
What the book lacks I feel is the Mughlai cuisine, derived from Persian-influenced food served in the imperial kitchens of the Mughal Empire which was traditionally centered in the north Indian cities of Delhi and Hyderabad but also has its unique presence in Kolkata. Though there is a recipe of phirni in the book, I missed the biryani and chicken rezala of Kolkata. Though satiated, but my culinary experience of Kolkata remained incomplete.