Yes, Bengalis are the ones who eat fish. That’s the impression of my race all over India, the quintessential ‘Bangali sirf machhli khata hai,’ (Bengalis eat only fish). The idea is as blasphemous as the accusation that we ignore veggies and everything else in the culinary world. I was reading an article the other day on how Bengali vegetarian fare was monopolised by widows forbidden to consume onions/garlic/meat/fish/red lentils. It is still practised fervently all over the state by widows and a few women who choose to remain in the path of animal nutrition are termed ‘liberal’. Given the arguments for this tradition of widows and the sheer number of indigenous recipes that they conjured with scanty ingredients, vegetarian food is entirely their forte. And yet, I wouldn’t like the rest of India to assume that anyone who isn’t a widow in a Bangla household eats only non-vegetarian items in their daily meals.
A typical Bengali lunch is a perfect example of a balanced diet in terms of its elements – a teto (bitter) item as an appetiser to unlock your taste buds, daal (lentils, though not exactly in a healthy soupy form), bhaja (veggies or fish roe fried in a batter) for the gluttons, one or two vegetarian items like labra/chochhori/dalna/ghonto (and the list is endless), finally a non-vegetarian dish and then a chutney/tawk (literally, sweet and sour) to relieve your taste buds of the previous clique of items. I wouldn’t claim all of these are healthy in the way we cook them, but the menu is a testimony that all we eat is not merely ‘maachh-bhaat‘ as termed pseudo-fondly by Bollywood.
Mainland China came into existence in 1994, the first outlet being in erstwhile Bombay. It’s not surprising that this piece of news didn’t reach the majority of middle class people residing in Bengal. Why would they have bothered with accounts of some expensive Chinese restaurant opening in Bombay? I, as a child, was quite happy with our occasional Peping and Chung Wah stints while visits to Calcutta and the ketchup slathered ‘chowmein’ at street stalls. Eating out hadn’t gained popularity, nor had Chinese restaurants popped up like mushrooms all over the city. The China Town or Tangra area in Calcutta still ruled when it came to amazing food and liquor at modest rates. Years passed, Anjan Chatterjee made his mark with Mainland China and Oh! Calcutta, and finally inaugurated the first outlet in Calcutta in the last decade. It was still inaccessible to a student like me with its posh location and exorbitant prices. It was only when I left home ten years ago, the Western concept of eating out slowly imbibed into my being. Mainland China was still beyond my reach with its à-la-carte prices that could slash my wallet brutally. I’m not sure about the year of inception of a buffet or ‘set meal’ (as referred in the China buffets all around US & UK) in Mainland China, but I was over the moon that the bill could fit in my wallet in lieu of some great food. Summing up my experiences of over five years at Mainland China outlets in three Indian cities hitherto.
One of the most attractive features of Mainland China (MC) is the decor. I’ve been to four different MC outlets and the decor is always soothing, oriental, calm and soft to the eyes. The entrance of every outlet has been a mishmash of designer wooden panels as dividers that impart a feeling of passing into a private space. The lights are dim and tables are very strategically placed, so that you don’t overhear conversations, get irritated by inane people nearby or stumble into someone else while filling your plate from the buffet counters. Seats are quite comfortable and tables are adequately spaced to fit in your satchel or purse. The decor at each outlet I’ve visited fetched a big thumbs up, and here’s a glimpse of my favourite piece at any eatery, the ceiling lamp.
There is a lesson that the age old Bangla cuisine teaches us – prudence. One might not easily believe it, given the history and evolution of the elaborate Daab Chingri and the uber rich Sorshe Ilish. But it is not every day that you sacrifice puddles of oil to cook Golda Chingri or grind mounds of mustard seeds on your sheel nora (oh, forget that already, there’s the ubiquitous pungent branded mustard powder). It is the daily fare – the humble Rui and Katla that we so lovingly call Kata Pona, omnipresent in the Bangali kitchen in its various avatars. Shove aside the runny machher jhol with potol or a subtle garlic tomato machher torkari that finds its way in the morning platter of rice before heading for school/college or offices. If you live outside Bengal and crave for something fishy and spicy apart from the jhol or jhaal, you’re in for a treat with just three pieces of fish. If you have a kid at home, or an overgrown one like my better half, this will bring lakes of smile on their faces.
Since my father lived away from home and Bengal for a considerable period, the cooking bug in him became fairly active. I’ve heard stories of him quizzing the cook in his college hostel kitchen for quaint Bangla vegetarian recipes. He reproduced them later, and more importantly, taught my mother most of it after marriage. Stationed in Kanpur for twenty years, baba would crave for the crispy hot aromatic Fish Chop (croquette) among other telebhaja that rule our province. Fish or mutton chops weren’t frequent in every telebhaja shop in Calcutta as the non-vegetarianism in them would make the harmless Aloo or Mochar Chop untouchable to a lot of people.
Calcutta is arguably the culinary heaven of India, with Delhi and Hyderabad as close contenders. The mention of culinary heaven must take you to an olfactory, ocular and gustatory paradigm of experience. It should leave you with a phenomenon, not just an eating experience. Calcutta is pretty much capable of guiding you through an unforgettable culinary tour comprising of unimaginably varied food. You will find almost everything under the sun, especially with nuovo restaurants offering both world and local cuisine. But it is the heritage that still reigns the city’s food map. Allow me to introduce you to, and enlighten about five unique dishes quintessential to what we call ‘Calcutta cuisine.’ While you can still make/cook all of these at home, they are best tasted and tried at restaurants/street corners.
Kabiraji Cutlet – Most of us have been induced to believe that the wonderful, our own Kabiraji Cutlet has been derived from something called the British ‘Coverage Cutlet’. I’ve believed this blindly since time, but as I delved deep into the beloved Kabiraji Cutlet roots, it seemed Coverage Cutlet didn’t exist at all. To know more, read this wonderful article at Presented by P. I’d keep the discussion about the origin and etymology of Kabiraji Cutlet for later, and concentrate on the making and availability.