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How the potato changed the Kolkata biryani, and other stories

In her new book, journalist-writer Nina Mukerjee Furstenau looks at ingredients and dishes that are markers of shifts in the culinary story of Bengal 

‘Chillies, Chhana & Rasa’ has been authored by journalist-writer Nina Mukerjee Furstenau, and published by the Aleph Book Company
‘Chillies, Chhana & Rasa’ has been authored by journalist-writer Nina Mukerjee Furstenau, and published by the Aleph Book Company

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As a nine-year-old child, growing up in the US, Nina Mukerjee Furstenau's most prized possession was a large globe. She would spend large swathes of time spinning it around, memorising names of mountains, rivers, deserts and continents. As a teenager at Lakeside Junior, she was perplexed at how little of those expanses were mentioned in class, with focus more on a Western European and American perspective of the world. 

There seemed to be a disconnect between the life at home, a Bengali household in America, with its aromas of khichuri and cardamom, and that outside of that threshold. As a product of two cultures, Furstenau tried to  decode food connections between her world in Kansas and her homeland of Bengal—what linked them and set them apart. This book, Chillies, Chhana & Rasa, published by Aleph Book Company is a continuing attempt at exactly that. It moves between familial memories, of dishes cooked by her grandmother Rani, to broader food histories of how ingredients were transplanted from one region to another across the globe. 

In the book, she covers a vast geographical and historical expanse, moving between countries and time frames to arrive at possibilities of why an ingredient became an integral part of cooking in Bengal. The first chapter sees Furstenau, who has authored books such as Biting Through The Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America's Heartland in the past, trace the recipe of her grandmother's green mango chutney. At her farm in Missouri, she combs through a newly-acquired copy of Minakshie Das Gupta's Bangla Ranna, in which she comes across a recipe for green mango chutney, which doesn't seem quite like her grandma's. However, the one for mango murabba in the book seems to be closer. Using the two recipes, she tries to find a combination that seems to resemble Rani's version. And that recipe finds a place in Chillies, Chhana & Rasa. 

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From then on, the book becomes a vivid documentary of sorts of people and events that have informed the foodscape of Bengal for centuries. She takes one through the hustle-bustle of trains carrying hundreds of kilograms of chhana to Kolkata on a daily basis. One meets Tumpa Ghosh of the Ghosh family from Bhandarhati, which has been sending cheese to Kolkata for 60 years and more. There are well-researched sections on tea, including an extensive set of steps to make tea by Isabella Beeton, who wrote Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management in 1861, the food of the Armenian and the Chinese community in the city, the emergence of hybrid cuisines, and the functioning of the kitchen at Belur Math. 

The book criss-crosses continents, often at a dizzying space, moving from scenes of her trips to Kolkata to home in Missouri, where Furstenau tries out the recipes gleaned from her research, or heads for market recce to see if the same ingredients are available there and in what form. The narrative moves from the personal to a wider perspective on food politics, sustainable agriculture, cultural connotations and more. Often, one has to slow down to assimilate all the information mentioned in a chapter. 

Some of the most delightful chapters are on limes, potatoes and chillies, and their place in Bengali cuisine. She places the gondhoraj lebu within the global journey of the lemon, and mentions how the western lemonade appeared in Europe after a drop in price of West Indian sugar in 1630. Lemonade first came to Rome and then to Paris, where it was served on the sidewalks and might have played a role in foiling the bubonic plague in the city.  There are other nuggets in this chapter about how citrus fruits are grown in more than 140 countries and that Indian surpasses them all in the production of limes and lemons. However, in her opinion (and mine), it would be doing the gondhoraj a disservice to bunch it up with the other varietals, given its tropical complexity and magical flavour.  

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In the chapter on potatoes, one reads about the role of the East India Company in promoting the crop among Indian peasants till it became an obsession. After tracing its contentious history in Bengal, Furstenau comes to the oft-discussed topic of how the potato made its way to the Kolkata biryani, and attributes this to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah's influence on the city's cuisine. 

During a trip to the city, the author meets Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta, daughter of Minakshie Das Gupta, and owner of Kewpie's. The latter explains that potato was assimilated into Bengali dishes as it was cheap, easy to grow and was filling. “And as my mother would say when, say three more guests would drop by—she would tell the cook, add two more potatoes. Potatoes have always been a stretcher,” Dasgupta is quoted in the book. 

The book also features recipes contributed by chefs, home cooks, authors that Furstenau meets in the course of her research. So you have one for chicken biryani by Dasgupta, a delightful one for sandesh and nolen gur cheesecake by Chef Auroni Mookherjee of Salt House and a recipe for Radha Tilok rice with yam theeyal, moong dal and green peas, fried aubergine and crisp papad by Chef Anumitra Ghosh-Dastidar of Edible Archives, Goa. As Mookherjee puts it, “That connection between your palate and your memory bank is a library you can keep accessing.” And this book surely prompts the readers to delve into their memories of flavours and aromas to understand how certain foods made it to their family table and others did not.  

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