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Home > Food> Discover > Fish and rice and all that's nice about Bengali food

Fish and rice and all that's nice about Bengali food

Mohona Kanjilal’s excellent food history of Kolkata reminds us why there's nothing puritanical about the Bengali kitchen at all

Patishapta is a sweet crepe made with rice-flour and filling. (Istockphoto)
Patishapta is a sweet crepe made with rice-flour and filling. (Istockphoto)

Anyone who has ever cracked the tired old joke about “maachh-bhaat” (fish and rice) being the staple of a typical Bengali’s daily diet should erase that jibe forever from their repertoire. At last, journalist Mohona Kanjilal’s fine book, A Taste Of Time: A Food History Of Calcutta, is here with much needed rebuttals to such silly presumptions—and also ripostes to ignoramuses who try to troll Bengali Hindus for feasting on their beloved egg rolls and meaty biryanis during Durga Puja every year.

Running close to 500 pages and bolstered by her extensive research, Kanjilal’s book shows that there is nothing puritanical about the culinary history of Calcutta (now Kolkata) —not in the authenticity nor the origins of its ever-expanding menu. The food of Bengal—a land once ruled by the Mughals, then colonised by the British and other European imperialists, and later divided into two countries—is at its core a harmonious amalgamation of influences from far and near. If Bengali food doesn’t lack an array of original home-grown recipes—from beet bata (mash) or jemon temon (a hodgepodge sweet dish) from the adventurous test kitchen of the Tagore family to the delicious sattvic food of Bengali Hindu widows to the resurgence of restaurants serving classic Bengali dishes in the last decade—it is also intrepid in its desire to experiment with foreign influences.

Take the case of the precious rosogolla (usually called rasgulla outside Bengal), for instance. It is claimed by both Bengal and Odisha as its own with equal fervour, which led to a headline-making conflict over the Geographical Indication (GI) tag some years ago. Yet, as Kanjilal points out, without Portuguese merchants introducing the art of making chhana (cottage cheese)—chhena in Odia—in undivided Bengal, this iconic sweet wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Nor would Bengal have had a bevy of korapak (firm-textured) and norompak (soft-textured) sandesh. The “Bengali kitchen”, if there’s such a thing at all, was always inherently “cosmopolitan”, long before the term came into vogue.

Kanjilal begins her history with Job Charnock, an official of the East India Company who is believed to have founded the city of Calcutta in 1690. It’s a reasonable starting point for a book about the food of Calcutta, since the earliest recorded history of the metropolis dates to this period. Crucially, Charnock’s arrival ushered in a raft of British influences, from freshly pressed fruit juices to desserts such as “Tipsy pudding” (the name is self-explanatory) to tea and coffee, along with the chops (croquettes of various kinds), cutlets and manifold savoury snacks deep fried in piping hot oil, collectively called telebhaja (fritters) in Bengali, that accompany these beverages at breakfast, during afternoon tea, and other intermittent mini-meals Bengalis partake of before their usually late dinners.

Colonial cuisine led to a mushrooming of establishments selling similar fare to the white and brown sahibs, or home-grown modifications of it, to suit a more plebeian palate. Kanjilal profiles a selection of these best-loved eateries—from Paradise in north Calcutta, still thronged by customers for its range of sherbets, to Dilkhusha Cabin, famous for its kabiraji cutlet (the name, Kanjilal writes, most likely has no connection to any kabiraj, or doctor, but is rather a corruption of the English word “coverage”, as the cutlets in question are “wrapped in a crispy ‘egg cover’”).

A Taste Of Time—A Food History Of Calcutta: By Mohona Kanjilal, Speaking Tiger 512 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>899.
A Taste Of Time—A Food History Of Calcutta: By Mohona Kanjilal, Speaking Tiger 512 pages, 899.

What makes Kanjilal’s research uniquely valuable is the trouble she takes to set up historical contexts, often by way of long but riveting digressions into threads that tie up her larger story. The section on the evolution of the ritual of drinking tea, for instance, is prefaced with an overview of pan-Asian trading routes for tea. Growing coffee, as we learn, was a carefully guarded secret in a few corners of the world, till the Indian Sufi saint Baba Budan became one of a lucky few to successfully smuggle the grains out of Yemen. He sowed it in Chikmagalur, Karnataka, which became synonymous with the finest coffee in India.

Yet another fascinating vignette comes in a passage on dolma, a Bengali delicacy made by stuffing potol (pointed gourd, or parwal in Hindi), usually with minced fish and meat (though vegetarian versions also exist). As Kanjilal writes, the dish was influenced by the dolma (traditionally made with ground lamb stuffed into grape leaves) cooked by the city’s Armenian settlers, whose numbers are dwindling (the legendary singer Gauhar Jaan was of Armenian descent, Kanjilal points out in one of her many arresting asides).

It is through these delightful anecdotes and apocryphal tales—from the foundational story behind the iconic Flurys on Park Street to naming the deep-friend khoya-based sweet langcha after “Langcha” Dutta, who walked with a limp—that the exhaustive food history of Calcutta assumes a human face.

From Anglo-Indians and Jews to Gujaratis and Tamilians, Calcutta has always been home to a diverse population, especially during the years it was the capital of British India, till 1911, and one of the most prosperous cities in the world. In the last century, it may have lost some of that sheen but its heterogeneity remains alive and unparalleled in its food.

Be it European, British, Chinese, Tibetan, Parsi, Awadhi, even the distinctive fare of Bangladesh (some of which is also cooked in bangal families who moved to West Bengal from the eastern part after Bengal was partitioned by the British in 1905 and 1947), Calcutta has every food you can think of in its alleys and gullies, glitzy shopping malls, colonial clubs and numberless restaurants, small or big. Apart from visitors and tourists, seasoned Bengalis and long-term residents of the city, especially the younger generation, will find Kanjilal’s culinary treasure map priceless.

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