That the palaces of bonedi Bengal have been crumbling and that you should get a snapshot of colonial Calcutta while you still can has long passed into tourism truism. But, despite persistent urban legends to the contrary, flourishing in the other disdainful (or resentful) metros, that other old-fashioned beauty under siege — the tradition of the bhuri-bhoj, an ‘everyday’ afternoon meal featuring if not 65, certainly 15 different dishes — seems to be enjoying a revival in the capital of culture.
After all, the supposed resurgence of business in Bengal, battling a bandh a day, means double-income citizens have more work, less leisure, so less time to fuss over food — a conundrum given the genteel Bengali’s cultural preoccupations. So the pleasures of a mochar chop with cha or the three-fold preparations of a chitol muitha are consigned to special occasion — if the skill hasn’t been mislaid with the partitioning of the joint family home into ‘manageable’ apartments for independent living.
Which leaves visiting family and friends in a bit of a spot. Once, home-cooked feasts laid out in their honour featured three kinds of fish plus meat, besides seven or so sabzis (though never answering to so plebeian a name). These days, they are far more likely to be served out of foil packets or invited to meet at a restaurant. And that, right there, is the way the kathi-bhaja (potato straw) crumbles.
Once the preserve of the roadside ‘pice hotels’, Bengali cuisine now aspires to the status of fine dining restaurant treats — and not just in hotels. Because this ‘fussy’ food that was once everyday home cooking has attained a mystique requiring a chef’s training to execute, it has become incumbent upon chefs to train in it. The terracotta thala that would seem like trying too hard at a family-style dinner is perfectly at home with the etched-glass chandeliers and bell-metal utensils of a boutique eatery.
Indeed, the oldest of these eateries, Aaheli, began as a hotel restaurant in 1993 — at the Peerless Inn in Chowringhee. But it is the latest in a series of Bengali-accented eateries to have stepped out of its security blanket to add a venue, with a quite literally path-breaking foray into the steel-girdered work-in-progress that is New Town. Its second address is at the Axis Mall. But the bargain of an Aaheli bhoj (non-veg thali) — a couple of different fish dishes and a meat or chicken curry, rounded off with vegetables and dal and fried munchies, to be followed by a ‘homemade’ mishti doi (sweetened curds) and mishti (sweetmeat, typically chhena-based) — draws out the techies from the warren of Nabadiganta-New Town office-plexes all through the weekday lunch hours. When it includes a fat tiger prawn and the seasonal hilsa slice distended with roe along with a delicate topshey (mango fish) fry in addition to luchi (flour puris), mangsho (being your choice of goat or chicken), thick roasted moong dal with coconut, an exceptional sandesh and a doi sans dalda, you don’t look for much more value. You might be even willing to give ambience and accoutrements a miss.
But there are old-fashioned aalpona (rural rice emulsion art) in frames anointed with honest-to-earthiness gobor-jawl (a cowdung suspension to glaze mud walls) for décor; grass-woven tablemats; heavy bell metal platters, bowls and tumblers; and dhoti-clad servers trained in the Bengali tradition of appayan (read: genteel coercion) — and it is evident why Aaheli stands head and shoulders over its younger brethren who resort to franchises in every neighbourhood.
The recipes are not just homey, but selected like the stereotypical blushing bride, from good homes — even rescued from the manuscripts of bonedi bawarchis or Raibahadur’s cookbooks. The aam-poraar sharbat — the bright-green bottled bane of many a Bengali eatery — is the genuine article. Authenticity is the aim; inventive flourishes are few and careful, like the rui maachher patishapta, a vernacular crêpe usually served as a sweetmeat, but here embracing the river fish Bengal most relies on.
Indeed, to its credit, the new Bengal renaissance of restaurants serving the state’s cuisine (or arguably, cuisines) has largely avoided bowdlerising the fish to bonelessness and punishing the vegetables for their peels. So much so that at Tero Parbon, a South Calcutta eatery dressed up to resemble a North Calcutta ‘hall-ghawr’, the crabs and lobsters come with the shells uncracked and barely jointed — a gaffe at a fine dining joint, though it doesn’t deter the throng of recreational diners seeking more variety than home can afford. The menu, entirely à la carte and served up in glass and white china, would do any catering team proud. It begins with a dozen chops, cutlets, kabiraji, fry and orly ‘appetisers’ of mocha (banana flower) and chhena, chicken and mutton and fish. It weaves through luchi-porota-ruti-rice-khichuri-radhaballabhi to the preludes of shukto, and ghanto, bhajas and dal to the main events of jhal (spicy thick curries), jhol (milder soupy curries), dolma (stuffed vegetable curries) and bhapa (steamed fish or vegetables), dalna (thicker, fragrant gravies) and kalia (sweeter aromatic gravies). Along the way, it has glottal stops of paturis (banana leaf-wrapped steamed or baked delicacies) and dhokas (steamed cakes refried in a curry). There’s a chutney for every day of the week, it would seem.
Mind you, this is still homey fare, the kind you can imagine in your kitchen — at least in an ideal world. The fish extend to seasonal aam-koi (climbing perch with mangoes), shol (murrel) and its bony cousin mourala, the robust boal (Wallago catfish) and firm-fleshed aar, the labour-intensive chitol muitha (the bony, fatty clown knifefish, deboned and shaped into dumplings)—more variety than local bazaars boast most days of the year. Seasonal delicacies that were once the pride of family kitchens — the aloo-piyajkalir torkari (onion shoots with potatoes), pur-bhora kakrol (stuffed bitter melons), postor boraar jhal (spicy curry of poppyseed fritters) and koraishutir kochuri (pea-stuffed puris) — are supplemented by on-trend novelties such as the ilish polao (a hilsa biryani of sorts, with a sweet edge), Mohonbagan chingri (a lobster with two gravies in the local football club’s colours, sweet onion-rich crimson and devilishly hot chilli-coriander green) and aam doi (mango-flavoured mishti doi). Tero Parbon succeeds best when it sticks to the low-key familiar festivities its name invokes, not straying too far from home-grown flavours. Which explains the success of its nawabi dal (with prawns) and jugalbandi (prawn-stuffed crab in spicy gravy).
Down the road, its cosier competitor, Sholo Ana Bangali — this is the Triangular Park branch of a four-outlet chain that originated further south on Anwar Shah Road in 2005 and opened its third Kolkata outlet this April in Garia — is an antithesis in terms of ambience. With more of a mom-and-pop vibe, its décor is eclectic — here a woven dorma mat, there a print of Ray behind the camera, cane furniture and a random collocation of topor (shola pith conical hat for the Bengali groom), hawl (ploughshare), a dolly of rice stalks, an old-fashioned gentleman’s walking stick and black umbrella, and a terracotta deer’s head punctuate the windowless walls. The colour scheme involves punchy shots of red, orange, ochre, brown and green — the shades of the rural Bengal we recall from childhood train journeys. But there’s a reason that I wait an hour under the summer sun to be seated at this self-proclaimed “spice hotel with full air condition”. The heavy opar Bangla (east Bengal, i.e. Bangladeshi) influence makes this the place par excellence for genteel over-the-Border wading.
The printed menu at Sholo Ana is extensive and indicative. It is the handwritten one at the juncture of its two little rooms you want. You can’t miss it any way — forget swinging a cat, even a catfish or the legendary pankal (swamp eel) couldn’t slither between the close-packed tables. We were lucky to get a huge dollop of kochu saag (colocasia greens) cooked with fleshy-bony bits of fish-head, an unctuous and hearty delicacy; a fatty, gelatinous chital peti measuring a whole handspan; and a well-executed Barishaler ilish (hilsa in pungent mustard sauce, moderated with a tangy hint of yogurt). Alas, they had run out of the very intriguing daaber payesh. But on the strength of the three we ate alone, we’d certainly be happy to fly in for the sheem shorshe (flatbeans in mustard paste), begun kofta, phoolkopi malaicurry (cauliflower in coconut milk), doodh koi (climbing perch in milk), whole bhetki paturi, kajuri machh bhaja (fried houndshark), kanchki machher paturi (leaf-wrapped Commerson’s glassfish), shol mulo (snakehead murrel with daikon radish), posto rui (rohu in poppyseed paste) or magur kalia (catfish), if they’d like to drop us a line.
Speaking of communication lines, an across-the-board gripe for these Bengali eateries is the near-absence of their web presence — not a problem for locals, perhaps, but a strong deterrent for tourists new to this determinedly chaotic city.
Case in point: finding the original 6 Ballygunge Place, next to impossible without a phone call unless you are familiar with the neighbourhood. Tucked away as it is in the bylanes of Ballygunge, a map would have gone a long way with this one. The newer branch in Salt Lake has the more contemporary fine-dining décor of wood and glass. However, it may be worth searching out the original heritage bungalow, the home of an aunt of one of its three proprietors, for the old-world mood to match its prices. It may not be in the same league as an Aaheli for either economy or execution, but it is still very good value.
Sharing a plate each of mourala maachher peyaji (fritters of banded gourami and onions), loochi, moog mohan (moong dal with coconut), mochar ghonto (a side of banana blossoms), galda chingri chiney kabab (baked diced lobster in its shell), kankra gal pethechi (stuffed crab, recipe from a Raibahadur’s kitchens), and kasturi mangsho (purportedly mutton in lemon leaves and coconut milk, but with scant evidence of either and lots of kasoori methi) left us struggling to finish. Surprisingly, this was one joint where the vegetarian offerings were miles ahead of the non-veg. We may have caught them on a bad day, though, as the mourala was competent enough and the goat quite nice if you discounted its departure from the descriptor. The cuisine is typical Calcutta club fare, both colonial leavings and the Anglo-Indian and slightly gentrified vernacular ends of it. The thick brick walls of the interconnecting ground floor rooms, with their Tiffany-style pendant lamps, has a charm that the eatery can justifiably lean on — and lean hard it does, its furnishings already a tad tired.
The only other boutique eatery that runs out of an actual home, Kewpie’s, does a way better job of keeping it current. Opening as a single room with four tables in 1998, this family-run eatery keeps up its lovely old-fashioned presentation on disposable terracotta thalis lined with a banana leaf. Named for matron Minakshie Dasgupta, nicknamed Kewpie and an author of the popular Bengali cookbook Bangla Ranna, Kewpie’s Kitchen was established in this converted garage in memory of its namesake by Prateep Dasgupta, her husband, and her daughters Rakhi Purnima and Pia Promina. Today, the whitewashed air-conditioned eatery has taken over the entire ground floor, seating 55. It still dishes up the exact same family recipes — murgi goalondo (chicken curry), tel koi (climbing perch in mustard oil gravy), belaar manghso (sweet-sour mutton curry) — and the various thalas (set meals) remain a firm favourite as an introduction to Bengali cuisine. The menu reflects the seasons and the monsoon special of khichuri thalas (with traditional accompaniments, plus meat or prawns if you like) sets it apart from the other eateries, which don’t take much notice of this rainy-day platter of treats.
At the opposite extreme from this family-style cuisine is the standardised, tastefully presented fine dining ideal of Oh! Calcutta. Indeed, this multi-city chain is in a sense the exact opposite of a boutique eatery. There are no quirky corners, no home-grown rusticity to apologise for. The beautifully decorated space of its year-old Private Dining edition at Silver Arcade offers the ambience of a five-star hotel restaurant at a standalone address.
Claiming to be not so much a Bengali restaurant as a celebration of Kolkata’s culinary heritage, the menu is as comfortable with pantaras (stuffed pancake fritter) as with paturi, and divides up its menu not by the traditional order of Indian service but the Western ideal of starters, entrées and desserts. The Oh! Calcutta Private Dining sub-brand is also unique in serving elegantly pre-plated portions of Bengali-inspired starters and desserts in a further refinement of the mothership. The much-emulated but never quite duplicated gondhoraj bhekti (yogurt-coated bekti fillets fragrant with lime zest) comes in a little square case of folded banana leaf. The kankra bhapa (mustard-laced crabmeat steamed in banana-leaf parcels) comes with a tamarind chutney, taking the traditional pairings of a horo-gouri fish dish (with its dual gravies of sharp golden mustard and dusky sweet-sour tamarind), and remakes them in haute cuisine mould. The nolen gurer ice cream here, arriving scooped into goblets, tastes like a smooth, rich purée of fudgy, milky payesh; and the bhapa sandesh manages to surprise with its tender coconut heart and lighter, mousse-like consistency.
Perhaps its restaurant-business pedigree (with sister brands such as Mainland China and Sweet Bengal) is why these experiments are more successful than most. There are such surprises as the vodka-marinated matal chingri, a very successful variation on drunken prawns. The flavouring, style and ingredients of a sheem palong paturi (flatbeans and spinach in banana leaf) or aloo-bori bhapa (steamed potatoes with dried lentil cakes, flavoured with asafoetida and Bengali five-spice mix), both elegant vegetarian options, may be local, but the dishes are a contemporary chef’s creation rather than culled from an ancient cookbook.
Here, execution is aimed to impress rather than merely endear. You may return for the same reason that the hordes that descend daily on the pice hotels along the highway do — for the taste you love over any other. But the difference between Oh! Calcutta and the other Bengali eateries is that between a homestay strong on character and an exceptionally well-run boutique property backed by big-brand hospitality.
Ultimately it is a matter of matching your taste to your mood and pocket, it would seem. In either category, you are now spoilt for choice.
6 Ballygunge Place: Surprisingly good value for money, lightning service. But avoid the mocktails, evocative as names like 24 Ashwini Dutta Road may be. Ask instead for their aam poraar shorbot, not on the menu. 6 Ballygunge Place (033-24603922); DD 31A, Sector I, Salt Lake (23372120).
Aaheli: Though Aaheli also does à la carte and there is almost always a delectable festival on, the thalis are hard to beat for execution, economy and all-round excellence. The Peerless Inn, 12 JL Nehru Road, Chowringhee (44003900); Axis Mall, Action Area 1C, Newtown, Rajarhat (23242411).
Kewpie’s Kitchen: Home-style food in an actual family home, made with actual family recipes. Choose one of the thalas for a comprehensive overview of Bengali eating or a first-timer’s feast. 2 Elgin Lane, Lala Lajpat Rai Sarani (24869929).
Oh! Calcutta: The true-bleu fine dining destination for Bengal-style food, you can’t go wrong with their steamed (bhapa) specialities. Save space for the stellar desserts, and expect the unexpected. Forum Mall, 10/3, Elgin Road (22837161); Silver Arcade, 5 J.B.S. Haldane Avenue, T-1, T-2, EM Bypass (22517036).
Sholo Ana Bangali: Read off the day’s menu from the restaurant’s whiteboard and then check with the waiter — they have been known to run out of specials fast. The huge variety of fish, including Bangal favourites, is the USP — they don’t make every dish every day, but there’s usually at least one dish of every finny species featured. 37 Purna Das Road, Triangular Park (24197532); 14C/114B Prince Anwar Shah Road, Lake Gardens (24294460); 28/2 Kendua Main Road, Garia (9674222111).
Tero Parbon: No competition for a good home cook, but home kitchens rarely churn out this much variety daily. Feed your cravings for the labour-intensive and seasonal specials; avoid the overly new-fangled. 49C Purna Das Road (24632016).
Other places to eat à la Bengal: Any of the eight Bhojohori Manna eateries in the city (www.bhojohorimanna.com); the unpretentious, charity-run Suruchi on Elliot Road (22291763) which only does lunch, and has been doing so since 1969; and the batch of Bangladeshi eateries on Mirza Ghalib Street (Kasturi, 22523493; Prince, 22521432; Radhuni, 22176465) for bhuna and bharta dishes, including the redoubtable bhuni khichuri.