This Puja, give that oily chowmein-chilli chicken combo a miss. Savour, instead, the wasabi, the Bibimbap or the Khao Soi as the city immerses itself in a plethora of pan-Asian tastes, textures and flavours
Asian food talks to us through many tongues. It talks of vision and temper, of the balance of flavours – the sweet offset by the sour, the salty by the piquant – and of the harmony in this world, the mythical equilibrium of yin and yang. Which is also why Asian cuisine is as much about food as about philosophy.
Kolkata had its first taste of this through Chinese cuisine. But as the spices and sauces were Indianized and chowmein became Kolkata’s favourite street-corner snack, it lost much of its mystique. But the city has finally started looking eastwards afresh, with Malayan, Burmese,Japanese and Korean cuisines ready to make an imprint on our palate.
Here’s what we found cooking in the kitchens…
Zen and the art of eating
Once you get rid of the misconception that Japanese cuisine is all about eating raw fish, you’d notice that there’s something almost arty about the food. Says Sushanta Sengupta, executive chef of The Wall that, among other oriental cuisines, specializes in Japanese grub, “Japanese food is very modern in it’s presentation. Chinese food changes flavour as it travels across the world, but the basic flavour of Japanese food remains the same.” The secret, Sushanta says, is the ingredients. “Japanese Kikkoman soya sauce is different from the commercially-made soya that we use randomly. It can only be made in Japan or, if not in Japan, then by a Japanese company.
Then there are sushi rice, the nori or seaweed and the dashi spice used for flavouring seafood. These are the elemental flavours of Japanese cuisine.” On the palate, Japanese food has a consistent seafood flavour. “The Japanese love their fish and thus seafood stock forms the base for most dishes,” says Sushanta. The wasabi, or horseradish sauce, evens out the salty aftertaste with its pungent taste. “I believe Kolkatans have crossed that barrier which equated Japanese food to raw or uncooked, therefore smelly meat. The sashimi platter, which is assorted sea food (pink salmon, squids, octopus and prawns) in its purest (read raw!) form, is in very high demand,” he adds.
Master of spices
Like Bengalis, Koreans enjoy their rice, which they call ‘bap’. But the similarities with the Bengalipalate end right there, says Ju Yeon, who hails from Seoul and has made Kolkata her hometown and runs Family Chicken. The restaurant serves authentic Korean cuisine, “Unlike Bengali food, Korean grub is largely unsweetened. While most Chinese dishes are deep-batter-fried, Korean food is mostly eaten raw or boiled, except, of course, the meat,” she adds.
With outlets in Salt Lake, Rajarhat and Santoshpur, Ju Yeon’s eatery is climbing the popularity charts. “I’ve had customers coming back for more. Some have become regulars here despite other food options.”
But don’t write off Korean food as a blander version of Chinese. We tried out the chicken deopbap or rice with spicy chicken – and got a jolt! “We use a lot of red chilli powder, fermented soybeans and salt in our mixture of spices”, says Ju Yeon, adding, “Some of our most popular spices are gochugaru or red chilli powder, gochujang or a mix of red chilli powder, salt, glutinous rice and fermented soybeans, kanjang or Korean soy sauce and doenjang, a Korean bean paste,” said Ju Yeon.
Popular Korean dishes include the bibimbap, where a bowl of hot rice is served with sauteed vegetables and sliced chicken. The kimchi (as popular as the Japanese sushi is to the rest of the world) involves slow cooking of the baechu or Korean cabbage along with radish, green onions and cucumber.
Think Thai and you see the image of Thai red or green curry. But Chef Ram Kumar of Benjarong contends that there’s more to Thai food. “It is cooked with fresh herbs and has no added MSG, which makes it healthier than most deep-fried Chinese food. Earlier, the coconut milk that’s used as base for most Thai main dishes didn’t find too many takers in the city. But times have changed and people have become more adventurous now,” says Ram. Thai food incorporates the flavours of herbs more than relying on spices alone and is incomplete without seafood. “Kolkatans are used to eating fresh water fishes. But we now have a separate menu that consists of sea fishes like the red snapper, sea bass, the catfish, the searfish, a variety of prawns, squids and crabs. The city is slowly taking to it,” Ram adds. Typical ingredients in a Thai food include lemongrass and galangal.
Mad about Malay
You’ll either love Malaysian food or hate it, says Kumal Govindasamy, executive chef of Straits, Kolkata’s only stand-alone restaurant serving Malay grub. “It’s a lot like Cantonese Chinese food except for the infusion of Malay spices that imparts a typical flavour,” says Kumal.
The mother of all Malay spices is called sambal and is used to prepare most Malay dishes. It gives the dishes a spicy and slightly sour taste. “The specialty of Malay cuisine is in the way the dishes look – every ingredient is visible after cooking, including the veggies, meat and sometimes, even the spices. Malaysian fare also has a typical burnt flavour. You would notice this in the way Malay fried rice is cooked, intentionally burnt. Chinese fried rice is simply tossed in the wok before serving.” There is nothing hundred percent vegetarian about Malaysian food, says Kumal. “Original sambal contains shrimp paste, a popular ingredient in oriental sauces. We use this to prepare even vegetarian dishes. Vegetarian dishes from the straits of Malacca have chicken liver, shrimps etc, so there never really is anything like vegetarian food in Malaysia.”
Hungry? Khao Soi
At Lemongrass, an upmarket restaurant, we were served some piping hot Burmese Khao Soi. The similarity with Thai food was unmistakably conspicuous. “Like Thai food, coconut milk and lemongrass are two basic ingredients of the Burmese Khao Soi, which is a soup made with flat rice noodles, chopped meat, tomatoes, soybeans, chillies, shallots and chopped cilantros”, said Birju Singh, manager of Lemongrass. The smooth creamy texture of the soup reminded us of the Thai curries at the first scoop itself. Khao Soi comes in two varieties, the red and the yellow, the latter being the spicier version.
Oriental delights: Know your herbs, spices and sauces
Used to bring out the original flavour of dishes.
Provides the spiciness and a dash of colour to the otherwise bland sushi or sashimi
Healthier substitute of salt and provides a salty taste to Japanese dishes
Korean red chilli pepper powder that provides spiciness and colour
Imparts a spicy-sweet taste
Korean soy sauce
Galangal roots that taste almost like ginger but a little more delicate in flavour
Thai sweet basil that tastes like anise and used in most Thai stir-fries, soups and salads
A typically Thai ingredient, the kaffir lime is essential to all Thai dishes
Thai food is incomplete without the aroma of lemongrass
The mother of all Malay condiments is a mixture of dry chilli, fresh red chilli, lemongrass, galangal and shrimp paste
From the menu card
The poster-boy of Japanese grub, sea-food sushi with rice is a must-have
Japanese soupy noodles flavoured with soy or miso and topped with sliced pork, sea weed, green onions and prawn
A mixed-rice meal that would take care of all your nutritional requirements – fresh veggies, eggs and chicken
A Korean dish made of baechhu or the Korean cabbage
Crab and coconut cakes served with plum sauce
Crispy fried cat-fish over raw mango salad
Baked shrimp in clear noodles
Whole pomfret in ginger and soya sauce
Fritters of prawn in sambal soya that we randomly pour
First published in The Times of India, September 25, 2011