The city’s food mile: Park street in Kolkata. (HT Photo)
The city’s food mile: Park street in Kolkata. (HT Photo)

Review: A Taste of Time by Mohona Kanjilal

Kolkata’s cuisine is a melting pot of cultural influences that includes within it not only the European but also the Anglo-Indian, Jewish, Armenian, Moghul and Chinese
By Indranee Ghosh
PUBLISHED ON JUL 30, 2021 06:11 PM IST
488pp, ₹899; Speaking Tiger
488pp, ₹899; Speaking Tiger

They say that among all living creatures we are the only ones who eat without being hungry and drink without being thirsty. It is true that hunger can drive us to eat anything but we will not necessarily relish what we eat. To prepare food in order to enjoy it is a special gift given only to humans. It is no surprise that one of our ancient folk deities was the incarnation of the stomach (peit), duly worshipped (peit pujo). The actual ritual may have passed into oblivion but the term has remained in the Bengali vocabulary and it is put to good use! An indulgence in food is peit pujo and this can happen in the imagination, too. Mohona Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time on the culinary history of Kolkata is peit pujo through the written word, aptly depicted on the cover. However, although food is the primary focus of the book it is also a motif that knits together the diverse cultures and moments in history that have given Kolkata its present shape and form.

The exchange of cultures really did happen with cabbages and kings. The chefs in colonial kitchens - ‘Mog, Bihari, Muslim and Dhaka Christian khansamas dominated not only the kitchens of British households but also of the clubs’ – learnt Western cuisine as required by their masters but their own ingredients and spices also made inroads into theirs, much in the same way that African cuisine contributed to American cuisine. The manufacture of cottage cheese in Bandel for instance, which the Mogs learnt from the Portuguese, brought in chhana, which revolutionized the sweetmeat industry in Bengal.

The book is a veritable proof of the melting pot of cultural influences on Kolkata’s cuisine for it includes within it not only the European such as British, Italian and French, but also the Anglo-Indian, Jewish, Armenian, Moghul and Chinese. North eastern cuisine is a recent addition. Bengali cuisine, vegetarian and non-vegetarian, as the book reveals, is not a homogeneous one: there is a clear though barely perceptible divide between the west and the east (epar Bangla and opar Bangla) in spite of a certain amount of mingling between the two. This has become starker over the years, and it is reflected in the cooking. Take for example, a specialty of Sylhet and Chittagong, recorded here: dried fish. Traditional cooks would baulk at the use of ginger, cumin and coriander. Moreover, nona ilish (salted hilsa) is not the preferred fish, but others like Bombay duck, mourala, shrimp and puti, available at government outlets in the city, are consumed by ‘ghotis’ (a term for those native to West Bengal) as well.

Snippets of information on Kolkata’s food culture are interesting, both for those familiar with its history and those who are not. Most will not recall that the Duchess of Bedford feeling peckish in the afternoon is the origin of tea at 4p.m. with snacks because tea with shingara and telebhaja is an intrinsic part of the Bengali adda. (One might note as an aside how the concoction of chai with milk and spices, a very Indian drink that gained popularity among the local populace but not the British then, has now found quite a large clientele in Britain, while Bengalis here have taken to drinking black tea, mainly for digestive reasons given that they drink several cups of tea in a day.) As with tea so with coffee and other beverages: each is dealt with in great detail from inception to popular acceptance.

The establishment of boarding houses for the white population, which gave way to hotels serving continental food and confectionery, is an interesting point in the history of white settlers in Calcutta. They found the quality of beef in Calcutta excellent (it still is) and most of what they ate at home readily available, and this ensured the success of the great hotels and restaurants in Chowringhee and later, Park Street.

Reading the list of popular restaurants in Park Street, I was somewhat disappointed to note that Olympia (now Olypub), famous for its own particular culture, has not been included. It was not as posh as the rest, but it attracted a motley clientele because the peg measures overflowed and it served the best Chateaubriand, pork chops and Chicken-a-la-Kiev. The memory of the mustard still stings the eye!

Mohona Kanjilal (Courtesy the publisher)
Mohona Kanjilal (Courtesy the publisher)

One aspect of the development of Calcutta’s cuisine is credited to the linguistic divide between Bengalis and the foreign settlers: The ‘chop’ is a misunderstood term because it does not refer to a cut of meat but to the English croquette. However, by this lucky mistake the Bengali chop with various kinds of stuffing, vegetarian and non-vegetarian came into being, apart from the cutlet, which owes its origin to schnitzel. Tracing the cutlet will lead the reader to the legendary local cafes, Allen Kitchen, Basanta Cabin, Anadi Cabin and Mitra Cafe, specializing in prawn, brain and other kinds of cutlets, like the kabiraji and the Afghani cutlet, the latter’s name itself a metamorphosis of disparate cuisines. Elderly Bengalis who used to frequent these cafes in their youth still drool over the memory of their foods. The cafes were famous for other reasons too: they were frequented by students and the intelligentsia alike, many of whom were freedom fighters. The Favourite Cabin’s owner even acted as a lookout, and could boast, ‘not a single freedom fighter was ever caught in Favourite Cabin’.

A diligent listing of the spices and ingredients chefs use today reveal the gay abandon with which they have mixed tradition with experiment in ‘fusion food’. This has had happy results most of the time. Nolen gur works well with puddings and ice cream, but a mango soufflé with panchphoron I once was not to my taste. What is heartening to find, however, is that the adventurous attitude towards food survives.

A detailed bibliography bears witness to Kanjilal’s spectrum of research. There are references to well-known books and journals on the history of Kolkata and its culture, but what makes her book particularly absorbing is the way she has collated her information and organized this copious output into a comprehensive and cohesive narrative.

Indranee Ghosh is the author of Spiced, Smoked, Pickled, Preserved; Recipes and Reminiscences from India’s Eastern Hills.

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