Bangali khabar is globe-trotting, thanks to a host of food entrepreneurs across the country
Once upon a time, there was the rannaghar in every Bengali home. Magic wafted in its confines — the jars and bottles like the ingredients of acareful alchemist. And the magicians? The ma-mashi-pishis, who toiled all day over the bubbling pots, emerging faithfully at lunch and dinner with the most delectable of dishes — Enchorer Kofta, Chitol Maachher Muitha, Tel Koi… you name it, they cooked it.
But then times changed. The rannaghar became the kitchen, electric chimneys were fitted and the delicacies of the Bengali table became a dying breed — till the point when a gang of entrepreneurs with imagination on their mind and fire in the bellies resurrected traditional Bengali cuisine and took it beyond our borders. Today, there’s 6 Ballygunge Place and Bhojohori Manna in Bangalore, Hangla’s is dishing out kati rolls across Mumbai and Oh! Calcutta has a branch in Dhaka. Kosha Mangsho, Chingri Maachher Malai Curry, Mochar Chop… you name it, they’ll serve it.
It’s not just tandoori
“The world clearly doesn’t begin and end with the tandooris and the tikkas,” says restaurateur Anjan Chatterjee, whose food chain, Speciality Restaurants, owns and manages Oh! Calcutta, which has a footprint in Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai and Pune apart from Dhaka. There are plans to set up shop in Singapore. “Our saga with Bengali cuisine started in 1992, when we opened Only Fish in Mumbai. Back then, people would be a bit hesitant about newer cuisines. Nowadays, consumers have turned adventurous and are game to experiment with food, flavours, palates and cuisines.”
There’s a sociological angle to the boom in Bangali food. S Ramani, director of 6 Ballygunge Place, feels that the changing job scenario has been a trigger for this. “Thanks to the burgeoning number of Bengalis opting for IT as a profession, suddenly there’s a growing population of Bengalis in every city now,” he says, adding that he plans to soon spread wings to London, Paris and New York.
“The exodus of Bengalis from Kolkata has created a market for Bengali food outside the city. In fact, this is true of any regional cuisine travelling outside its birthplace,” says Siddhartha Bose of Bhojohori Manna, that has a branch in Bangalore’s posh Koramangala area.
Owner and executive chef of The Restaurant on the First Floor, Sanchayita Bhattacharya Alam, popularly known as Chef Sunshine, has her own take on this. “The speciality of Bengali food is that cooks don’t require any special training. Recipes are usually handed down from generation to generation, managed mostly by the thakurs and the radhunis in the kitchens of yore. Bengali cuisine took a light-year leap when it started being documented. Recipes then became easy to follow and share. Secondly, as is with cuisines across the earth, it’s the natives who are carriers of the cuisine to every corner of the globe. That’s how Mexican, Italian and even Chinese cuisine spread to all parts of the world.”
“I’m a Tamilian and a vegetarian, brought up in Jamshedpur. But when I tasted Bengali food for the first time, trust me, I was blown away,” says Ramani. Chefs, foodies and restaurateurs agree that the USP of Bengali cuisine is its taste. “It’s never too strong and never too mild — just about right without being OTT,” adds Ramani.
The fact that Bengali food does not have a signature taste is its greatest strength, feels Chef Sunshine. “Punjabi food is characterized by its buttery, gravy textures whereas south Indian food has a strong coconut base. Bengali food though cannot be classified according to the palate. On the one hand, there’s the strong pungentness of shorshe bata, but there’s also the sweetness of the shukto and lau ghanto.” Cooking styles play a major role here too. “In Bengali cuisine, most of the dishes are thoroughly cooked. This helps to preserve the items better. Thus, be it hot and dry north India or humid south India, Bengali food will always survive as the cooking style is retrofitted to suit the soggy clime of Bengal.”
Anjan Chatterjee, Oh! Calcutta: The Mochar Ghonto, though an underrated dish, is the Bangali bhoj’s vegetarian poster boy! Literally, curried banana blossoms, this dish combines the sweetness and spiciness with a hint of coconut, mixed in delicate proportions. This is what certain customers keep coming back for
Chef Sunshine, The Restaurant: No other fish can retain the mustard base as well as the hilsa can. Both Maharashtra and South India have fish eaters but it’s the signature taste of the hilsa that makes it top the most-wanted Bengali dish outside Kolkata. The Shorshe Ilish goes best with steamed rice
S Ramani, 6 Ballygunge Place: I have customers outside Kolkata coming back for the Kosha Mangsho. This is Bengal’s iconic meat dish, characterized by its thick, brown gravy. It requires slow cooking and tastes best when had with luchi, steamed rice or chapatis
Soumitra Ghosh, Hangla’s: The chicken roll, which is very popular in Kolkata, has many takers outside the city as well. At Hangla’s, we serve the roll with kebabs that are larger in size that the kind one gets in Kolkata — much like what you get at the tandoori eateries of Delhi
Siddhartha Bose, Bhojohori Manna: The Ilish Borshali may sound folklorish but is a delight for non-resident Bengalis from opaar Bangla. It is one of the most-asked-for preparations at our outlet. Its USP? The soft, creamy gravy made of coconut and mustard.