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Boatman, Don’t Know Your Name

Food is also memory: a culinary suite conjures up a riverine junction in Old Bengal

Boatman, Don’t Know Your Name
Boatman, Don’t Know Your Name

The Goalando Steamer Pop-up
Next: July 27, Ta’aam Bar & Fine Dining, Calcutta 

At 3.30 am, we were in Porto Alegre, chasing our somnolent goals. Next afternoon, we're beamed across timespace to another kind of port, with the vanishing flavours of an old dream. Pritha Sen's Goalando Steamer Pop-up is a tribute to the food cooked by the boatmen on the Padma, on the overnight ferry ride from Goalando Ghat to Narayanganj, which linked Raj-era Calcutta to Dhaka, and journeys beyond. That signature food has attained the status of legend, touched by literary recallings and the impossible longing left behind by Partition. So much of the memory of Old Bengal is related to food...the superabundance of ilish, the sweetness of tamarind!...that it's no wonder they're seeking to make it tangible all over again now, in a remarkable, ongoing act of collective remembering, in the social-mediated world.

Pritha, who blends a food ethnographer's instinct with a "haather goon" inherited from a family with roots in Dhaka-Bikrampur, works her conjurations in light, wispy watercolours—capturing the essence of a meal on the move. A divine Aampora Shorbot, that Gangetic summer delight, sets up the tonal range, perks up the right taste receptors. Mulor Paturi, radish baked with grated coconut and mustard, adds depth and piquancy. Then, with sticky, native rice, come the courses. A Dhakai Masoor Dal, light as you want, but with the lentils not pulverised out of existence. Then Smoked Bhetki, food for the lords! Yes, it's fish—and, as it evolved, the preparation came to be associated with the mleccha sahibs—but ladled with butter thus and with that hint of woodsmoke, I swear to you, it's as sattvik a creation as any. Next, strictly for the native and the adventurous explorer, Fish Head Chhyanchra, as thorny as it sounds, bursting with flavour and entirely worth the effort. The Prawn in Coconut-Bambooshoot Gravy is a quick nod at the Burmese neighbours. A knowledgeable soul sharing our table has something involved to say about the bambooshoot, but I'm philistine enough not to care.

Then arrives the eponymous Goalando Steamer Fowl Curry. The original was rustled up with just four spices onboard a rustic ferry across eternal waters. It turned out so good that its fame travelled fast—and grew. I have a native informant with me, my wife, who lets out a little counterintuitive nugget: the old upper-caste Bengali rannaghar had a consecrated space for mutton, as everyone would imagine, but chicken was actually taboo and made an appearance in home cuisine only as late as about a generation ago. So the irresistible smell wafting over from the Muslim boatmen's kitchen-on-the-Padma would have likely carried that extra aura of illicit pleasure! Pritha's interested in breaking dietary stereotypes: of the sort that thinks "south Indian: all veg, Bengali: all paanch phoron". Her centrepiece—meant originally to be a serviceable quickie, simplicity being key—fits in with that. The apparition before us wears the weight of legend lightly, with intimations of pungency. The territory is more lilting, rough-hewn folk than classical; its evocation, subtle. Now, a digression. Those days, the connect with the Northeast is not merely through that Chicken's Neck. It hugs all of Bengal on the north. Khasi Pork with Black Sesame Seeds gestures at those uplands. The only possible grouse with it here: it's a bit of a harmonic departure. Taste sequences work within something like a musical system where even the contrasts segue well. But who wants to complain about this exotic entrant in the suite: the pork is succulent. We are soon back in range anyway with Colonel Skinner's Chutney and a delectable Aam Kheer flecked with roasted chidwa.

This isn't a restaurant but a pop-up—by definition, a moveable feast. We meet the caravan at Hachiba, a Tibetan joint in Gurgaon with good ratings on Zomato and a BYOB policy, at an event curated by Mohit Balachandran. But it's playing next in Calcutta at month-end. "Taking coal to Newcastle," smiles Pritha. Bengali food, allegedly, doesn't travel well. Sez who? More distant shores glimmer across the waters.

A shorter, edited version of this appears in print

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