“I woke up at the crack of dawn to fry all these delicious kochuris for you hungry children,” Dolly Pishi would declare cheerily whenever she dropped in on the Mitra household, placing large containers crammed with the savoury on the dining table. “Have them hot with the alu dum,” she would suggest (as if she had to), unpacking bowls of small, boiled potatoes cooked in spices. For decades, Dolly Pishi’s routine went unchanged. Though she’s still sticking with tradition, her husband let out a dark secret recently—for a while now the kachoris come from a local eatery. “She’s getting old and no longer has the energy to rustle up complicated meals,” he told the Mitras with a conspiratorial smile. But thanks to the sudden eruption of new restaurants in Calcutta serving ‘barir khabar’ (homemade food), Dolly Pishis throughout the city wouldn’t have to darken a loved one’s door empty-handed.
Starting in the last few years, eateries serving Bangali ranna (cooking) now generously speckle the city. Their ubiquity is noteworthy—from quiet residential blocks to busy business districts, all with catchy names straight out of everyday Bengali confab, aiming at embodying the homely cosiness of its cuisine and ambience. They stand out from the older restaurants, which go by exotic, even arcane, names such as Oasis, Mocambo or Peter Cat, inspired by the cuisine they serve—Mughlai, Chinese, Continental, Lebanese....
In comparison, sample the casually quotidian nature of some of the new foody monikers: Khai Khai (an informal word conveying that constant, moreish pang that so afflicts us, and the title of an iconic Sukumar Ray poem); Fish Fish (phonetically, the Bengali word for ‘whispering’); then there is Sholo Ana Bangali (one hundred per cent Bengali—both a compliment, and an age-old, mock-serious defence when accused of being ‘Anglicised’). There is also Jholey Jhaley Omboley (a Bengali idiom signifying omnipresence); Tero Parbon (the phrase for the nth number of festivals in the Bengali calendar); and Bhuri Bhoj and Pet Pujo (both Bengali terms for a grand feast). The list goes on.
Most interestingly, the rash of restaurants zeroing in on the marketability of Bengali cuisine in Calcutta has been attributed less to tourists and ‘non-Bengalis’ out to sample local food—the craving for authentic Bengali ranna seems to stem from Bengalis themselves.
From the unique needs of those like Aunt Dolly, who want hands-free access to traditional Bengali dishes (some of them fiendishly complicated and time-consuming to prepare) for an occasion, to those large numbers of working, middle-class Bengalis, especially women, who no longer have the time or inclination to cook, yet drool at the very thought of bhapa ilish, mochar ghonto, bhetki paturi and muri ghonto with fish head. Rajeev Neogi, director of the restaurant chain Bhojohori Manna—a trendsetter of sorts in serving traditional delicacies when it started in 2003—explains: “It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why a trend catches on. It could be the catchy name (culled from a hit Manna De Bengali song from the ’60s, where the eponymous ‘Sree Sree Bhojohori Manna’ brags and sings of his adventures and achievements as a chef in various lands). It could be the fetching ambience, the quality of the food or the affordable pricing too. But the fact that today few people have the time, not to mention the expertise and help, that our mothers and grandmothers have always had to prepare elaborate meals plays into it.”
“There are so many choices today that it’s mind-boggling, but I’m not cribbing,” laughs 39-year-old Dipali Mukherjee, who quit her job as a sales executive in a multinational when her son was born ten years ago. “It was a nightmare in those days. I was working. Returning home at night, I would have to cook and clean up. My husband and I both love Bengali food and so do my in-laws.” So, it was a relief when the eateries started appearing. “We not only got into the habit of eating out, but whenever my in-laws or even friends visited we would order in. I have become a housewife but I have completely stopped cooking,” she chuckles.
The new places have priced themselves for the middle segment of the market, below the existing upper end restaurants, but much above the ‘pice hotel’ or street kiosks—for long the only places one could get basic Bengali fare. The ‘pice hotel’ has been very popular for decades in Calcutta, with some 2,000 cheap, hole-in-the-wall joints all over the city, usually catering to the lower segment. But in these new eateries that offer home-cooked food, you can have a hearty meal for, say, a reasonable five hundred rupees.
So, for those like Dipali, today it’s less about what to cook than where to drop in for the next meal. Will it be ‘kola pata’ (banana leaf) for lunch? And for dinner, can she gorge at Podda Parer Ranna Ghar (the kitchen on the banks of river Padma)?
The report on the resurgence of Bengali cuisine restaurants in Calcutta was fun reading (And Chew the Head Too, Apr 14). Readymade food will become an essential part of our lives as more women join the workforce. Also, the new generation doesn't know how to cook, and are not really interested in learning either.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Fish for the Bengalis is not just food, it is almost religion.
Readymade food will become an essential part as more women go to work. Also the new generation girls do not know how to cook and are not interested in cooking.
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