Culinary culture

SIMON PARKES

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SEVERAL months ago, by the swimming pool of the Taj Bengal Hotel, I was introduced to a highly enterprising woman named Annamaria Wiseman. An Italian married to a Brit, she had recently moved to Calcutta with an attaché case full of plans and ideas to open a genuine Italian pizzeria in the city that was intended to knock spots off the competition (not that she saw the other producers of pizza as competition – merely pretenders). In her charmingly lilting accent she told me that her mozzarella-cheese-maker would soon be arriving to supervise production. ‘Are you flying him in from Naples?’ I asked naively. ‘No, from Kathmandu,’ she retorted. I subsequently learned that her husband runs the original branch of the empire in the Nepalese capital, where they’ve been successful for over 10 years. ‘So, will the cheese-maker be bringing cheese with him?’ was Stupid Question #2. ‘Of course not,’ she shot back, clearly riled, ‘we’ll be making it here in West Bengal, setting up micro-credit schemes for water buffalo farmers and showing them how to make mozzarella which we’ll then buy off them. Easy. And beneficial for all concerned.’

Annamaria’s pizzeria, Fire & Ice, is now open and, whilst the project certainly strikes me as beneficial, I suspect the going has been anything but easy. Getting farmers to produce an alien product – no matter how familiar they are with its distant cousin, chhana, or cottage cheese – and to get the right density, flavour and elasticity to the exact quality over and over and over again is a tall order. But what Annamaria does have on her side is the fact that she’s chosen to set up operations in possibly one of the most gastronomically curious hinterlands in India. Experience and travel tell us that a fairly large tract of the globe is in love with Italian food and India is no different. I’ve eaten pasta and, come to think of it, pizza in most of the metropolitan centres. But frankly, no one bothers much with the authenticity of the ingredients.

I’ve tasted olive oil that can scarcely have brushed up against even the most shrivelled of olives, cheese the consistency of chewing gum and pizza bases the taste and texture of reconstituted cardboard. In Bombay, at the restaurant called Frangipani, I once ordered Tagliatelle Alfredo and waited ages for the parmesan to arrive. ‘None left’ muttered the waiter. After I screamed and shouted for a good 15-minutes and told him to take the dish away as it wasn’t worth eating without the cheese, he finally bowled up with a half-full ramekin of scrapings and had the temerity to utter the words, ‘Last remaining parmesan in whole of Bombay.’ How my anger turned to laughter. I shrieked.

But Calcutta is different. Calcutta has been asking its sons and daughters to make imported foods and other items for that much longer, as well as asking them to fashion the unusual out of the familiar. Firpo’s. Peletti’s. Both were what today would be referred to as Destination Restaurants in the days of the Raj. Then, take into account a significant tranche of the restaurant workforce of Park Street in its heyday. All were Italian. Or Italian supervised at the very least. If one of the benchmarks of a great city is the range and diversity of its culinary culture, then Calcutta’s place in the overall scheme of things is assured.

 

If we leave the global onslaught of Italian cuisine to one side for a moment, what is so clear-cut in Calcutta is the way that the presence of certain dishes tells you so much about a slice of the city’s history and evolution. Legend has it that the Bengali monsoon favourite of khichuri – a meal of rice and dal which, many variants later, ended up in the anglicised form as kedgeree – was served to Job Charnock after his trip downriver to Sutanuti. Before the British arrived, we know it was the Portuguese who introduced papaya, cashew nut, tomato and, most importantly, chilli into the diet and, by way of Goa (which remained a Portuguese colony until 1961), we get the vindaloo, made from pork traditionally, using good wine vinegar.

The city’s fascination with the mango was established by the Muslim Nawabs of Murshidabad who propagated new fragrant varieties in the orchards of North Bengal. Mughal rulers also brought the pulao and the biryani to the table as well as the velvety-smooth sophisticated shami kebabs and the more prosaic kati roll, the ultimate fast-food delicacy and forever associated with Nizam’s restaurant. In the early days of the British in Calcutta, the wealthy merchants (or nabobs) led lives and ate food heavily influenced by local custom.

As British power grew, so did British tastes and diets. Curries and rice gave way to soups and roasts and puddings. And tucked away in the memsahib’s kitchen, her cook produced hybrid dishes such as countree koptan or, to give its more recognisable title, chicken country captain. Here is also home to the oldest China Town outside China, producing both Hakka and Cantonese cooking, and spawning a huge network of eateries – both cheap and smart – across town. And refugees who have found their way here have all left their mark on the city’s gastronomic landscape – the Burmese khow suey, Tibetan momos, Armenian dolma and the Jewish aloo makallah.

 

When it comes to Bengali cooking, there were periods in the city’s history and certain enclaves, in particular, where you could have been forgiven for ever thinking you were in the Bengali capital at all. Traditionally, Bengali dishes were never much in evidence on Park Street and until recently, it was nigh-on impossible to taste it unless you had the good fortune to be invited to a private home. What an enormous pity! True, it is labour-intensive and, as family networks change, the passing on of skills from one generation to another isn’t happening anymore. But, nonetheless, this is some of the most sophisticated cooking to be found anywhere in India and possesses a subtle range of tints and tastes enhanced by careful spicing.

Bengali food truly is a missed opportunity that could, with the right handling, make many people rethink their ideas about food in the subcontinent. With its inexhaustible roll-call of fish and vegetables, its pungency derived from the widespread use of mustard (both seeds and oil), its tempering with a blend of five spices known as panch phoron and the clear order in which dishes are consumed – all these factors make it a cuisine with haute aspirations but one that few have tasted outside its natural geographic boundaries. That’s not to say that things aren’t starting to happen. Calcutta’s five-star joints all now seem to offer a smattering of local dishes, at times, rather begrudgingly so. I must say I’m rather addicted to the smoked hilsa with the rather muted mustard sauce that they serve during the season at the Oberoi Grand. And then, there are restaurants such as 6, Ballygunge Place and Oh! Calcutta, Johnny-Come-Lately’s in my book but, nonetheless, still a clear sign that native cuisine is definitely making a marked shift out of the home and into the public domain.

 

Tucked away in a quiet cul-de-sac off Elgin Road is possibly one of the most unusual catalysts to be found anywhere in terms of stoking up a restaurant culture where one didn’t previously exist. Kewpie’s Kitchen is etched in bold lettering on the gastronomic map of the city, yet it has neither flashing neon nor elaborate logo: the signs are discreet and the building’s frontage looks more like a private house. Which, in essence, it still is. It’s the home of Rakhi DasGupta and her family, the restaurant having been started by her father (Mitu) and sister (Pia) in recognition of their mother (Minakshie, but universally known as ‘Kewpie’) who was a magnificent cook and well-known food writer. Both parents have now passed away.

Kewpie’s Kitchen began humbly: just four tables in what was once the garage. I doubt an interior designer has ever set foot in the place. Gradually, over recent years, it has grown due to its influence, authenticity and increasing popularity, engulfing the family sitting room and private dining room. The intention, right from the start, was to go back to the rich traditions of Bengali cooking. And at its very heart is a panoramic canvas of vegetarian dishes that are drawn from a Bengali heartland but appeal to a much wider constituency. Calcutta’s long-established Marwari community for example, are strictly vegetarian and come flocking in large numbers (or as large a number as the seating levels will allow).

 

But what sets Kewpie’s apart from its nearest rivals is the incredibly fine line it treads with economy and deftness of touch. There’s no doubt Rakhi has rifled through many of her mother’s recipes but has somehow managed to refashion them for 21st century Calcutta dining without losing anything of their essence. Meals maintain the Bengali ritual of dishes consumed separately before the next one is commenced (in marked contrast to, say, the Punjab where people freely mix what is on the table). The thala or plate of terracotta lined with banana leaf has a series of small bowls ranged around the outer edge like a series of orbiting planets. On the plate are rice and a trinity of salt, lime wedge and green chilli. Ghee (clarified butter) is served first, followed then by the contents of the first side dish, a shukto or bitter vegetable preparation. Then comes dal followed by other vegetable and potato items. After that, fish with the mildest spices and gravies first and the fuller ones next. Then, chicken or mutton if there’s any meat at all, followed by chutney with fried papar (poppadoms). Finally, to round things off, a sweet milk-based dessert such as mishti doi or sweetened yoghurt.

Why this particular order? Somewhere, I’m sure ancient texts have hinted at auspicious and balanced links between food, character and well-being but there is very much a natural progression of tastes to this way of eating, taking in bitter, astringent, sour, salty and pungent and then winding up with sweet. Clean tastes are established before complex ones, light tastes before richer ones. Food here remains firmly locked into a seasonal cycle and ingredients are measured in terms of their health-giving as well as culinary value.

Without doubt, the aesthetics of food are paramount – colours, textures, shapes, the interplay of certain spices, all these are important. I remember being utterly baffled (and ill-prepared) the first time I ate nutty-tasting dal, carp smeared with mustard, prawns with pumpkin, bitter-tasting gourds and so on. Such things were elements of cookery light years away from anything that purported to be Indian food served as I was growing up in provincial England. These were complex and haunting flavours on the one hand, yet with none of the over-bearing fiery richness and oiliness so often associated with food from the subcontinent.

 

But it’s not just at the exalted end of the spectrum where Calcutta impresses. Loitering by the red-brick frontage of Writers’ Building in the middle of the day is hardly the stuff of which a gentle interlude is made. The air’s filthy, the traffic’s vile, the smart people are in their air-conditioned cars with their drivers and the pavements are crammed with the hoards that make up Clerical Calcutta. But watch how they survey the food hawkers and street vendors.

One man makes eggtoast which he sells for five rupees a portion. His stove is fired by kerosene. He brought his eggs with him in from the country where he stays. There’s a flat omelette pan of about seven inches in diameter into which he pours nut oil and lets it smoke. In goes a beaten egg, some salt, chopped onion, green chilli, chopped coriander leaves and – like some sort of tape-loop over which he has no control – he keeps shouting eggtoast-fiverupees but it merely gets lost in the din. In goes a slice of white bread that looks partly toasted already. He presses it into the egg then turns it over and presses again. He tips it onto a wooden block, cuts it in half, quarters it, throws on pepper and coarse rock salt. And that’s it. Delicious. Like a masala omelette with a bread filling. And maybe he might sell a hundred or so egg toasts in a day.

 

This single micro-production line is repeated in and around all these streets thousands upon thousands of times each working day. And if it isn’t eggtoast, then it’s biryani, rumali roti (paper-thin handkerchief breads) served with achar (pickle), shingara (Bengali breakfast samosas), muglai paratha (crispy bread stuffed with mince and fried), chow mein, chilli chicken, sweetmeats and, of course, chai (tea).

The first time I ever went to Calcutta in the early 1990s, I took a taxi from my hotel to an address in Mandeville Gardens in the smart suburb of Ballygunge. The driver of the battered black and yellow Ambassador cab pulled up underneath the building and I was taken in the lift to the 8th floor, to the apartment of R.P. Gupta. All roads, it seemed, led to R.P. I was confronted by an unstoppable, rather eccentric figure clad in crumpled kurta pyjamas. His conversation ricocheted off the walls, subjects bubbling to the surface, then swiftly overtaken by others: favourite fish preparations, the perils of Calcutta’s society hostesses, the joys of the mango season, reminiscences about his friend, the film-maker, Satyajit Ray.

R.P. was re-reading Don Quixote with relish. He could recall great cathedral cities visited in Europe with his wife Moni, and being astonished by ‘the tintinnabulation of the bells’. Once, he’d eaten at Le Grand Véfour in Paris and could recite the dishes he’d chosen without hesitation. The year before he died, in reply to a postcard I’d sent from Liguria in Italy, he asked whether I’d visited Rapallo and Max Beerbohm’s house. This former P.R. executive-turned-writer-and-chronicler wrote a book about Bengalis and fish, he was an expert on Kalighat painting and he just kept throwing out juicy titbits – gossip, recherché facts as well as useful contacts. He packed me off to the sweetmeat factory of K.C. Das (who make the famous and oft-carried-abroad rosogolla) and another time, arranged for me to go round Gariahat fish market. He couldn’t accompany me so sent along Biswanath, the lift boy of the building.

 

In his essay Mercy, the writer Colm Toibin described Satyajit Ray and the Nobel Prize-winner Rabindranath Tagore as having ‘an equal sense of ownership of their own culture and that of Britain.’ So did R.P. He was at home in the world and possessed the ability to switch from one culture to another with consummate ease. On top of that, he never lost his keen sense of curiosity about anything. Such characteristics were particular not just to him or to the two intellectual greats of 20th century Bengali civilization. They are widespread traits, common to many Bengalis, who seem able to flit effortlessly between their own world and other ones that may have been visited or merely glimpsed through images or, as is more likely, absorbed through words.

Once, a good friend told me, ‘What you’ve got to remember about us Bengalis is that we’re only really interested in three things – educating our children, reading books and food.’ And in some ways, that’s it in a nutshell. Here, there’s a distinct attitude to food – both in terms of the pleasures of the table, the authenticity of the spicing and freshness of ingredients as well as the social distinctions that are brought into play. Calcuttans know and adore their fish, their vegetables and their sweets in particular. They revel in the subtlety of the flavours that have been built up over centuries with diligence and precision. Like Italians, meals eaten and meals yet to be eaten are discussed in detail and with great relish. New and sometimes unfamiliar recipes are noted and filed away. The latest restaurants warrant endless debate. There is, quite simply, an inquisitiveness that never fades. And that is what will make people search out and taste and analyse Annamaria’s pizzas. They’ll be curious (and, I hope, delighted) to learn that Bengali sons of soil have learned to make a new product to the desired satisfaction of the Italian memsahib and that she too is delighted.

 

What irks me is the sad fact that Calcuttans have never been much good at promoting themselves and always appear to be at the mercy of events. It’s as though somewhere deep in the bowels of the Writers’ Building, there’s a public relations machine cranked permanently into reverse gear. Subjects such as the Black Hole, economic collapse, the Bengal famine of 1943, and the work of Mother Teresa with the sick and the dying are all ones that both shape and spring from the image of the city we keep in our popular subconscious. The intellectual rigour and flirtations of people such as R.P., the cultural awareness of the broad sweep of the population and the rich culinary strands of the city square less easily with that view. From now on, know that Bengali cooking is enjoying resurgence, know that the dining out culture of the city is once again in the ascendancy and know too that the best pizzas on the subcontinent are to be found here. Ciao!

 

* The author lived in Calcutta in 1999-2000. His book, The Calcutta Kitchen, will be published later this year.

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