Our Guest for this special feature is culinary pioneer, entrepreneurial maestro, chef and author Anjan Chatterjee. Owner of Specialty Restaurants that features fine-dining eateries Oh! Calcutta and Mainland China under its umbrella, Chatterjee now has the Indian stock market eating out of his hands with his strategically innovative gastronomical outlets.
You have taken Bengali cuisine beyond the borders of West Bengal and very successfully too. What is your take on the food considering that you’re a foodie?
I live to eat and for me, food is not just for sustaining body and mind. It touches the soul too. Enjoying food is a spiritual experience. A simple and wholesome dish of Litti - Chokha with friends filled me with gratitude for life and its bounty.
Food underlines the highs and lows of life. A hot fish curry with steaming rice can lift the spirit on a hard day. On the other hand, good food makes moments more special. Durga Puja stands out as a time for indulgence and enjoyment with my family. Special flavours frame those colourful moments in my mind. They carry memories of friends, addas, growing up and so much more. I think that food strengthens bonds. The best meals are those we enjoy with loved ones. Making and serving a well-made and wholesome dish is one of the best ways to express love.
Bengali cuisine seems to be evolving with each passing year and yet there are few dishes which are more ‘Bong’ than others. What would you say are the staples in the menu?
The river-fed, fertile soil of rural Bengal produces varieties of rice grains, gourds, leafy greens, sweet water fish, juicy gourds, root vegetables and tubers throughout the year. All of these staples make the daily Bengali meal colourful, flavourful and many textured. Rice with a mélange of vegetables in a tarkari, some vegetable fries, fish curries and a pure milk product like sondesh or payesh rounds off a typical meal.
We have heard cooking Bengali food can be quite long drawn, given that vegetables in different kinds of subzis need to be chopped, sliced and diced differently, as well as complicated as there is such an array of flavours. Yet Oh! Calcutta has never failed to make its patrons happy. What is that secret ingredient?
Food is an intimate joy, a first-hand experience of life’s richness received on the taste-buds. I believe that the balance of ingredients and blend of flavours should be such that it helps a single, well-rounded character of the dish to be revealed. A careful control over ingredients, spices, temperature and time of cooking, all leads the different flavours to dance in a beautiful rhythm on our taste-buds. Even simple dishes with very few ingredients bloom on the palate with many layers of pleasure.
Gondhoraj Machh uses the fragrance of the king of lime, not to subdue the flavour of the fish but to lift it to another level. Inspired by the Thai equivalent of Kafir Lime used in sea food dishes, Gandharaj Fish reveals another secret of the fresh sweet water fish, not found in any another fish recipe.
In Alu Posto, the posto or khus khus is roasted till it releases a warm toasted aroma that makes the simple dish heavenly. In the dish of Shukto, Radhuni (celery seed) underlies the many flavours and gives Shukto a distinct character of its own.
West Bengal has played an important role in Indian history. Do you think we can trace the influence of the various phases in its cuisine?
The food from the state has embraced the best of other cultures, which have come into close contact with West Bengal. The British left the flavour of Dimer Devil and Fish Fries, cutlets and the Nawab still lives in the Dhakai Porota and Alur Dom. We have inherited our niramish (vegetarian) recipes without garlic or onion from our grandmothers and aunts who returned from their pilgrimages in Vrindavan with new treasures in vegetarian cooking. They creatively adapted dishes with garden ingredients and created delicacies like Dhokar Dalna. But the Tagore family can be said to have introduced the first global touches by creating many new steamed or roasted recipes.
Bengalis’ fascination with food has now become legendary. Do you agree with this?
The food habit of the natives is one of the most popular topics of humour. ‘Kobji Dubiye Khaoa’ is a rather graphic description that applies to the Bengali foodie even today. We love to live up to the image of digging our fists into the food and attacking it with gusto. ‘Sorbobhuk’, which literally means omnivore, is another endearment that Bengalis have lovingly given themselves.
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