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An explosion of flavours

A paradise for epicureans, Kolkata’s rich cultural dynamism lends it the distinction of being home to a riot of flavours, tastes and innovative recipes

Aamshotto dudhey pheli, tahatey kodoli doli,

Shondesh makhia dia tatey

Hapush-hupush shobdo, charidik nistobdho,

Pipra kandia jae paate…

(Aamshotto or sun-dried ripe mango mixed in milk, along with banana and shondesh (sweet). The sound of slurping echoes in the silence, making even ants (pipra) return, shedding tears into the empty plate because there's nothing left for them).

Ages ago, this was the quintessential Bengali breakfast. It was also quite popular at the Jorasanko residence of Rabindranath Tagore, who incidentally penned these lines that reflect his keen interest towards food even as a child. Over the years, the Tagore kitchen saw a perfect blend of Indian and Western influences; not only in recipes but also in the manner in which food was served – lunch was eaten with bare hands while seated on the floor and for dinner, food was served at the dining table, British style.

The Tagores, all compulsive globetrotters, picked up recipes from far and wide. Dishes like British pie and Turkish kebab were as conventional in the Thakurbari as bhapa ilish (steamed hilsa) or roasted mutton cooked with pineapples. A most well-known delicacy was cauliflower sweetmeat, a deflection from the traditional chhana (unripe curd cheese) sweets or shondesh. Innovative Tagore dishes such as jackfruit yoghurt fish curry (without any fish), mutton cooked with mustard paste, parwal and prawn raita, cauliflower shondesh, jimikand (elephant yam) jalebi and dahi malpua were born. The Tagores are credited with having introduced the rampant use of sugar in Bengal cuisine.

Today, fusion is the essence of creativity and the very word generates an ocean of emotions. And, it was not only popular in Thakurbari. It also holds good for a poor agrarian Bengali household. Ideally, the whole experience may be drawn to traditional times when people had to mix cuisines – sometimes by accident or otherwise by necessity or even more to substitute unavailable exotic ingredients with local options.

In India, you may savour the Japanese-Peruvian cuisine, French patisserie, coronation chicken and kedgeree; you will even find Chinese (Indian style) made of spicy gravies, saucy noodles and the legendary chicken or vegetable Manchurian in chilli garlic sauce – all bearing very little resemblance to the actual Chinese food prevalent there.

The parts of India closer to the borders of China and Mongolia – states such as Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur – have a greater influence of Mongolian and Chinese cooking. The Mongolians introduced the use of hot pots and stews, also giving us new ingredients like mustard oil, sugar and the finger-licking dumplings.

Recipes of the famous Mughlai cuisine that evolved during the medieval era have been widely influenced by cuisines of Central Asia. These are spicy, rich and exude a unique aroma of exquisite spices. Kebabs, biryani, Mughlai paranthas, pasandas, rezalas, sheer kormas and shahi tukras are relished across India.

The first Europeans to arrive in India were the Portuguese in 1498. They brought with them ingredients like chillies, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and cashew nuts which are widely used in Indian cuisine even today. British colonialists introduced cabbages and runner and broad beans into Indian cooking along with the technique to marinate meat portions in spices and chillies. Soups such as mulligatawny and salads also became a part of the Indian menu. English snacks including sponge cakes, lemon-curd tartlets and cucumber sandwiches are other common British legacies.

The Parsis introduced bhakras (fried biscuits), kumas (fruit cakes); the Japanese got sushi (vinegar-flavoured rice rolled with cooked seafood, vegetables and egg in the centre), Udon (thick wheat noodles), the flavourful Yakitori (barbequed meat) and Tempura (batter-coated, deep-fried pieces of seafood, vegetables, mushrooms or meat), while the Greeks brought the delicate saffron, the melitzanosalata (grilled or smoked eggplant, with olive oil, onions, tomatoes, garlic and herbs which is very similar to our baingan bharta) along with spices like fenugreek and fennel.

India has been a cuisine cauldron for ages and the food we eat today is a delicate balance of not only varied tastes and spices but also of different cultures which have lent a unique identity.

"For proper fusion in food, it is important to ensure that taste is not distorted and that flavour is enjoyable. There's nothing called authentic food. For example, the Chinese we make in India is totally different from what it actually is in China. The pasta we make here is quite different from that in Italy. People who dine two-three times a week would want to try something different every time they go out and hence, we need to keep experimenting to serve something new. And thus, fusion is important," says Madhumita Mohanta, Executive chef, The Lalit, Kolkata.

Invading communities have vastly influenced the food we eat, lending us the richness of our blended heritage. And, a walk along Kolkata will offer all you can perceive as the fragrance switches from cappuccino to cardamom, from the kebab to the korma, from the dim sum and the commonplace chowmein to the Himsagar mangoes and warm, freshly made rotis – making the experience more intriguing, more tempting.

Executive chef Vikas Kumar of Flurys says: "Many chefs do not believe in fusion. It is important to balance the flavours properly. Mostly, fusion happens in bakery and confectionary items. In Flurys, we have the kosha mangsho puff which is very popular. We also have the bhetki paturi puff which is usually prepared during special festivities. Then sushi with mango and rice, misti doi and tiramisu are other fusion attractions. With mocktails, chefs try to incorporate seasonal fruits, even exotic ones sometimes. We have a premium range of chocolates known as 'Mr & Mrs Flury' which has apricot and candied olives mixed with white chocolate." Not to mention, their dark marzipan filled chocolates are simply unparalleled.

Kolkata still "bears the genes of colonialism's shrewd father and sybaritic mother". And food, for that matter, is "every Calcuttan's rite of passage". Here, the royal gourmet lives on the taste of one's youth, steeped in a legacy of its own, while marked by an innate synthesis of the East and West, more precisely in matters of the mind and gastronomy.

(The author is Associate Editor, Millennium Post)

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