From my TOI blog: Freeze Frame
“If you visit Calcutta and you don’t visit Paramount, it is the same as not visiting the Eiffel Tower in Paris”, said the ‘intellectual’ Bengali babu, in an olive green Khadi Kurta, complete with a Shantiniketani jhola bag, holding his glass dangerously close to his brown, parched mouth. “And when in Paramount, you must have this ‘Daaber Sarbat“, he recommended, raising the glass, after he had slurped a mouthful. His companion, the dapper, pot bellied Frenchman was still inspecting the generous scoop of the white, gelatinous ‘tender’ coconut poised in the translucent liquid, the glass sweaty from the summer heat.
We were waiting on the narrow bench next to theirs, for our glasses ofDaaber Sarbat, Grape Crush and Lemon Cream. I ran over a list of places I would have liked to compare to the Eifel, or perhaps not. But it was strangely reassuring to know that I wasn’t the only one prone to such hyperboles. Paramount, the Sarbat shop, with its narrow benches and marble topped tables, a couple of antlered trophies and raftered ceiling (and no air-conditioning) has stayed afloat “since 1918”. One notices the notice boards, strategically placed at the entrance, full of new paper clippings, articles that have ‘talked’ about Paramount over the years and the walls lined with framed pictures of dignitaries, who have drunk the ‘Paramount’ glass. The ‘Sarbat’ shop stands under a patio next to the Mahabodhi Society Hall, at the other end of College Square.
Returning to Nahoum …
As mentioned in my earlier post, when in Calcutta, I embark upon frequent expeditions to Hogg Sahib’s market. Note to the foodie self on those days reads, ‘while browsing the shops in New Market, must eat chicken puff from Nahoum‘. The shop has looked exactly the same from when I have walked around New Market, in a frock, clutching at my mother’s slender fingers, eyes wide with wonder at the colours, the sounds and the smell of the place. The aged yet polished, shiny glass panes proudly show off shelves of cream rolls, rum balls, brownies, cheese samosa and meat puffs. As you walk in a barrage of flavours, cinnamon, vanilla, the fresh lemon tart and at times the warm smell of freshly baked bread hits you. And you are hit by this sudden desire to take home all that lie around you, craftily lined up in wooden trays on the window or carefully placed on the counters.
Christmas, in my days, was never celebrated the way it is now. Christmas was the arrival of the Plum Cake and Mince Pies from Nahoum in white paper boxes, tied up with strings. Nahoum never disappoints me, neither do the crispy, flaky Chicken Puffs. It tasted much the same this time. And we did remember to get some Cream Rolls and Macaroons packed for tea time. A variety of flavoured biscuits accompanied us back to Bombay.
Tryst with Biryani
Calcutta’s tryst with the Biryani evidently goes back to the time when the last nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, was exiled and made Metiaburuj, in Calcutta, his home. Rumour has it that because the Nawab had fallen on bad days, the meat in his ‘Awadhi’ biryani used to be replaced by pieces of potato. The Nawab, in his own way, left his mark on this signature Mughal dish that was later perfected into the present day mildly spiced, aromatic Calcutta Biriyani. Walk into any of Calcutta’s many Mughlai restaurants and you will be served a generous portion of the mildly spiced white and saffron rice, two healthy pieces of meat or chicken and the all important potato. The clever nawabi chef’s ploy to keep the nawab happy ‘Bengalicised’ the Awadhi Biryani. And we, the Bengalis, cannot imagine biryani without the delightful saffron coloured ‘subterranean stem’, fried whole and then slow cooked with the rice layered with meat.
This time, the meal of the Mughals came home from Shiraz, an old favourite restaurant of the Bee. Shiraz, in the last couple of years had been disappointing, the Biryani in particular had tasted spicy and had left furrows of grease on the plate. And we had almost shifted our loyalty to the new Mughlai restaurant in town, Arsalan. But this time we returned like the old faithful to Shiraz and the meal really surprised us. The Biryani was fragrant, mildly spiced, with tender chunks of meat and the ‘Nawabi’ piece of potato, did not leave a trail of grease on the plate and left behind its aroma that hung in the air, long after we had finished lunch.
Badshah, Anadi Cabin, Kalika etc.
A walk through the streets of Calcutta only asserts the fact that we Bengalis ‘live to eat’. An abundance of street-food stalks you from almost every pavement. Phuchka, aalu kabli, jhaal muri, tele bhaja, fish fry, moglai porota, egg rolls, Kobiraji cutlets pounce on unsuspecting pedestrians from dimly lit shops, temporary tin boxes, tin stalls as much from Badshah, Anadi Cabin, Hot Kati Rolls, Kalika, Lakshmi Narayan, Mitra Cafe, Nizam’s, Regent to name a few. While talking about egg rolls, I must mention the chicken rolls we had for dinner this time, from a little known restaurant called Padma on Amherst Street. Crispy, fresh and well stuffed, the rolls were a revelation as were their fish fries, made from ‘Bhetki and nothing less’ as claimed by the manager.
Dida’s Mochar Ghonto and Paratha
Picture Courtesy : PreeOccupied
It was late afternoon, I sat watching her add a few bay leaves to the mustard oil, foaming and smoking in the pan, already spluttering with the jeera(cumin seeds) she had added first. The rest of the ingredients for her ‘mochar ghonto‘ were waiting for their turn to be added, in sequence. The kitchen, the tiny store and the small passage adjoining the store was where I had been initiated into the fine art of finely slicing and browning the onions, roasting the spices, kneading the flour to just the right texture and other things crucial to making a good meal, that I had to know, before I learned how to cook. This was the house where the little girl in me, who was a ‘legendary’ fussy eater, had first learnt to appreciate food, thanks to the culinary expertise of my grandmother. And today, as always, I sat watching her and trying to take mental notes of how she turns finely chopped mocha into an aromatic delight, best enjoyed with her flaky parathas, another art I had promised I had to ask her to teach me. So that afternoon, the dilettante, I, spent a long time, taking lessons in my grandmother’s secret recipes (which should make up another post later) at her house that stands tall on Golap Shashtri Lane, near Lebutala Park.
This food trail is a never ending tale, I know I have only touched the tip of the iceberg called food and may have left out cuisines but I must end it here, before you fall asleep. And it must end at my mother’s kitchen. Every summer when I return to her, her kitchen comes alive with all my childhood favourites – her signature Mishti Pulao, Chingri Machher Malai Curry, Luchi, Alur Dom and of course, her signature Kosha Mangsho, that till date can give Golbari a run for its money. Like all doting mothers, she makes sure that the couple of kilograms that I may have lost throughout the year are returned with interest to boot. And does the foodie in me sound like the kind who will ever complain?
Picture courtesy : PreeOccupied
Picture courtesy : Sukanti Ghosh