Oct 11 2013
And who better to collect and collate them than Anjan Chatterjee, the man behind the restaurant of the same name which is a byword in Bengali cuisine today. The book is all about the rarer and authentic recipes of both East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and West Bengal, the search for which “has taken us all around rural regions on both sides of the border,” says Chatterjee. For an authentic recipe for rosho malai, he and his team visited Comilla in south-eastern Bangladesh. “We met a 72-year-old grandmother who was so intrigued by our love for food that she shared her mother-in-law’s recipes with us.”
Something Chatterjee could totally connect with, for his own most trusted cookbook is his mother-in-law’s handwritten diary from pre-Independence days in Sylhet, “falling apart at the centre and held together somehow by a thread. It is a treasure trove of recipes.” It is these and many other treasures that Chatterjee shares with eaters and readers both at the tables of Oh! Calcutta and in the pages of his book. The restaurateur, who considers it his responsibility “to recreate authentic Bengali recipes and bring the cuisine into the mainstream of fine dining”, shared his thoughts in a long-distance interview.
Oh! Calcutta refers to Bengalis as great assimilators and innovators. So is fusion food taking over purely traditional recipes? Traditional cuisines founded on a deep understanding of local ingredients and exquisite spice blends can never be overwhelmed by foreign flavours, feels Chatterjee. “I’m wary of the word ‘fusion’ as it does not capture the internalisation of new flavours by our cuisines.” He would rather call it ‘evolution’. “Our cuisines have become richer with every wave of new flavours from other shores, which can happen only when the roots reach down to a rich, creatively fertile culture.”
The book talks of historical influences on Bengali cuisine. Given that geography too has a role in developing food habits, how popular is a sorshay ilish (hilsa fish with mustard) preparation among South Indians visiting Oh! Calcutta at say Begumpet, Hyderabad? Shorshay ilish is an iconic dish, says Chatterjee. “While the paste of spices clinging to the fish reminds of many South Indian fish preparations, the similarity ends there.” But guests are willing to venture into a new journey. “Most diners begin with shorshay ilish or daab chingri (prawns cooked in coconut cream) and then progress to rarer preparations like lau pata diye ilish paturi (hilsa wrapped in gourd leaf and steamed).”
While all of the aforementioned find pride of place in the book, Oh! Calcutta also plates up some recipes from Kolkata’s other traditional kitchens. as well. So, Mary Memsahib’s fish fingers and the Indian Railway mutton curry come alive straight from the annals of Anglo-India Calcutta, a time when Bow Bazar reverberated with love songs and trains chugged in and out of railway stations like clockwork. In the railway refreshment rooms, the lightly spiced mutton curry was a staple of tired engineers yearning for a taste of home.”
Thanks to Chatterjee, many non-Bengalis have become passionate crusaders of particular recipes. Sachin Tendulkar is one such. “Daab chingri and kosha mangsho (pot roasted mutton with traditional spices) are his favourites.” During a test series in Hyderabad, Tendulkar had led young cricketers of the Indian team into Oh! Calcutta and given them “first hand guidance about Bengali flavours,” recalls Chatterjee.
Incidentally, Chatterjee’s company, Speciality Restaurants Ltd, also has an outdoor catering arm, Mobifeast, which is the hospitality partner for Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). For an IPL tournament, Mobifeast was provided a diet chart (listing soups, roasted chicken, stew, steamed fish) for KKR players, drawn up by the coach and the dietician, and was told “to strictly adhere to it without any deviations.”
However, after the first few matches, Chatterjee says, “we started receiving regular requests from players to get some items from our restaurant menu, like shorsheybata maachh or kosha mangsho, discreetly in a container.” The team would “freak out” on these, “of course, without the knowledge of the coach/dietician!”
Retail outlets in Kolkata now sell ready-to-cook portions of chopped vegetables for a typical Bengali dish like shukto, packaged with required spices. With nuclear families and high-pressure jobs for both spouses, does traditional Indian cuisine totally depend on such innovative marketing? “Our lively traditions are heartily adapting themselves to modern needs,” says Chatterjee, welcoming such moves to keep “our lives as colourful, and flavourful as ever.” Earlier, grandmas would pass on traditional recipes, now its the internet. “Not only has our love for traditional recipes not waned, it has found a fresh lease with modern marketing and technology.”
Asked to look at his own life as a Bengali meal, Chatterjee defines his daily work as machher jhol. “I love my work as much as I love this curry. It is an everyday dish, and yet a delicacy. I simply love the simplicity of it. Like machher jhol, my working style is also rather simple. Kashundi (mustard dip) is an interesting extension of the cuisine, it adds piquancy to select starters and fries. My travels and trips to understand world cuisines are like the kashundi. They add vital zest and sharpness to my day-to-day work. But you can’t have kashundi with everything, and travelling is not good all the time either!”
Then the moment Oh! Calcutta won the Chefs’ Choice Award at Asia’s Best 50 Restaurants was kosha mangsho. As in the dish, where special, tender meat is stewed with the best spices for hours to achieve the right juiciness and aroma, “awards come only after hours and years of hard work, and like kosha mangsho, their aroma spreads far and wide to tell people who we are.”
Born into a Bengali middle-class family, Chatterjee was taught sound values of hospitality. “Once, my father made me serve a glass of water to a guest twice. The first time I had served the water in a little haste. He quietly explained to me how to respect parents, teachers and guests like you would treat God if he ever came by, and how even small gestures revealed a lack of grace and warmth. I still remember the moment, which fills my life like a fragrance even today. Gandharaj lebu (a lime named the king of fragrances) would probably be this moment.”