It is believed that a baby starts developing a sense of taste in the mother’s womb. I think that’s where my love for mustard must have begun. But it was only in my grandmother’s kitchen that I have my earliest memory of this ingredient, so essential in Kolkata households.
It was a typical hot summer afternoon in Kolkata. I sat on my usual spot on the marble slab of the kitchen counter post lunch and saw my grandmother carefully wash plums. She washed each plum and then dried them. What gave the simple Java plums a dash of flavour was when she added stone-ground white mustard to them. This was her kitchen secret only a few were privy to. She then added rock salt, mixed the ingredients well and covered the bowl with a lid.
I was curious to taste these three elements together. I asked my dida (grandmother in Bengali) and she asked me to be patient. She told me that the mixture needed to rest in the refrigerator for about two hours. By then the plums would macerate nicely with the mustard and salt. But I couldn’t obviously wait for that long and about half an hour later, snuck into the kitchen, opened the fridge door and stole a couple of the plums.
I still remember the taste of it on my tongue. The pungency and acidity of the mustard, the sweetness of the plum and the saltiness of the rock salt that kicked in right at the end. The combination tantalized every taste bud I had. I had never eaten anything like it before and that it was made with only three ingredients, baffled and mesmerised me.
I think that point changed my life, it steered me towards the culinary arts. I learnt culinary skills and went on to work in New York, but a part of me always wanted to re-invent dishes with mustard, to make the world relish it just as much as I do.
I got an opportunity to curate the menu for InterContinental Chennai, Mahabalipuram. I had to use my memories. I added a java plum tart filled with mustard mascarpone cremeaux, with red plum sorbet, Dijon mascarpone sauce and plum curls. It was my childhood memories on a plate but plated to give the dish an international look.
I also used broccoli with my grandmother’s stone-ground white mustard, Greek yoghurt and little rock salt. I grilled the broccoli on a low flame and served it with coriander and mint chutney. The tang from the yoghurt, acidity and sharpness of the mustard and the saltiness creates an unforgettable experience.
I think it is a constant feeling of nostalgia that makes me want to re-invent dishes. A part of me feels I’m honouring my grandmother’s legacy. I find comfort, elegance and surprise every time I taste something that reminds me of her.
The writer is the sous chef at InterContinental Chennai Mahabalipuram