The Bong Palate
I am quite the hypocrite. I preach that one must not judge, but I, myself, continuously indulge in it. I judge when someone claims golgappa is a better alternative to phuchka (although better them than those who can’t judge the difference). I judge when someone orders noodles when the better accompaniment of a certain dish is definitely rice. I judge when someone can utter even the “m” of “mmmm” when their biriyani has curry leaves and no aloo. I guess that’s what I do. I sit, cringing internally, and judge while politely refusing the food and placing my own order.
As I write this, I think these judgements stem from a combination of specific factors. First, I am a Bengali. You know it, I know it- we take our food more seriously than our afternoon siestas or our PhD’s. I take this moment to familiarize everyone with the term “Bong chauvinism”. It is not uncommon to come across Bengalis who believe that their culinary experience is unmatched. To be fair, Bengali cuisine is nothing short of alchemy.
Secondly, in my case, my mother is a woman who can cure fever with chicken. Most people don’t believe me, but it is actually true; she is magic. Her slow cooked chicken/lamb in aromatic spices, onion and garlic will activate all of your five senses and more. Cooking, for her, seems effortless. She can cook five dishes under one hour with two flames and simultaneously, put together a dessert. I have probably inherited my ability to create a dish with whatever ingredients presented to me from her. I swear that in all of my 21 years, I have not chanced upon a single dish cooked by my mother that can pass off as “average”. When my sister broke the news of getting married to a vegetarian, the first of my mother’s worry was, “What will he eat for Jamai Shoshti?” (It is a social custom involving the son-in-law being fed with everything that can possibly be cooked.) Thankfully, cooking for our many visiting Marwaadi friends has given my mother enough practice with the greens and lack of proteins.
Having spent most of my years growing up in Calcutta, I had the luxury of discovering Park Street. Still groggy from the Colonial hangover, Park Street is all things fine. Finest rolls at Kusum, finest dim red ambience at Mocambo and Peter Cat, finest chandeliers at Flurys, finest turkey for Christmas, finest fish and chips at Marco Polo. Even the first outlet of McDonald’s in the city located here has the interiors of dark wood and green marble! It isn’t an overstatement when people talk of nostalgia lingering in this part of the city. You dwell over the “what if’s” of your past and your future. Your first failed attempt at getting beer will have been experienced here (of course, at Oly Pub). Be it birthdays, family get-togethers, a celebration, you name it, Park Street is every Calcuttan’s go-to place. For years, any restaurant located in this street has been a saving grace for every student desiring to woo their date with their old restaurants and static prices. Our grandparents probably took their dates to the same places for the same prices back in the day.
Let’s now stop at the lesser talked of places. Fairlawns, where you can talk to travellers from all over, over Fish Orly and beer or go to Raj’s Spanish café at the end of the month and eat tortillas for only fifty rupees while you admire the graffiti on the wall for free.
It required my moving to a land locked city in the north to appreciate the Calcutta I have taken for granted. Yes, there is mutton burrah kebab that I adore and there’s chicken 65 too, amongst many. But in my fairly limited experience, there is no dish that made my heart warm and my stomach happy at the same time. Is it bias? Probably. But, no, the mustard in the traditional Bengali mustard fish can never be excess unlike the tomato in butter chicken. And the coconut in the prawn malai curry can never be overpowering like the fermentation in Idly. You can never put in excess and ruin a Bengali dish because it is all about excess- excess love, passion, care and soul. Call me a food snob, but oh well, I come from the land of Kookie Jar.