Thursday, 14 June 2012

A Half Century

I spent the better part of the last few weeks in Mumbai. In my short time in the city, I managed to sample some excellent food. Mostly regional Indian cuisine. Whilst I’m fairly familiar with many non-Indian cuisines, I cannot say the same about regional Indian food. Despite many resolutions to the effect, I had never actually been to a Bengali restaurant, until this latest trip to Mumbai. What a shame! I know next to nothing about the food of North-East India. And Bihar. My Bihari room mate at college raved about litti all through our five years in college, but I am sorry to say that I have yet to have the pleasure of biting into one (what she did introduce me to is the singsong Bihari accented Hindi that she lapsed into whenever a fellow Bihari presented him/herself. I lost no time in teasing her for it, and continue to be able to imitate the Bihari accent with a fair degree of precision).

As I think of missed opportunities, Orissa also comes to mind. As does Gujarat, which reminds me of my last birthday, when I went for brunch at the delightful Bombay Brasserie on Gloucester Road. One of the dishes that we encountered on their never ending buffet menu was the fajeto. This was so delicious a concoction that I ended up breaking my cardinal rule of buffet eating – never eat more than one serving of the same dish. I had to find out a little bit more about this mystery dish that I’d never heard about. So off I went to the friendly waiter at the fajeto counter to ask him.

“Oh fajeto, this is a Malayali dish. Very popular there”, he said nodding his head vigorously. Being a Malayali, I spent a few seconds submerged in self-doubt. I have had some anti-social elements among my friends question my Mallu identity because I have spent most of my life outside of Kerala. But this was too much for me to stomach (yes, all sad little puns on this blog are wholly intentional). “Fajeto? Malayali? Really?”, I asked him. I swiftly proclaimed my Malayali identity and my encyclopaedic knowledge of all Mallu food, and told him that I’d never come across this fajeto thing in all my Mallu life. Which is when he sheepishly said “Oh, Malayali aannalle?” (Oh, so you are a Malayali?) and explained how the dish was in fact invented by a Bombay Brasserie chef, who named it “fajeto” because it uses lots of tomato (tomaTO, fajeTO, get it?). I looked down at my plate. The fajeto was a comely shade of yellow without any tell-tale red tomato bits. Back home, I decided to submit my doubts to Google, which informed me that fajeto is actually a yoghurt and mango based Gujarati dish. What a liar that wiry Malayali waiter turned out to be! But I was impressed by his extempore serial lying. Especially the tomato-fajeto bit. I certainly couldn't have come up with something as imaginative as that if faced with a pesky and inquisitive customer investigating the regional origins of her meal.

After that long detour, coming back to the theme of this post, why is it that there aren’t enough good restaurants dedicated to regional Indian cuisine? Have you ever been to a restaurant focussed on Bihari food? Or Oriya food? The problem, I think is that the Indian restaurant landscape in our bigger cities and outside of the country, is so dominated by universally popular Punjabi/Mughlai food, that there hasn't been enough of an impulse for restaurateurs to start ventures focussed on the joys of regional Indian food. It’s a bit like Bollywood formula movies. Why experiment when you know that you can churn out a formula movie and make a fair return at the box office? Just throw in a half-decent item number or two (or in our frame of reference, a good dal makhni or butter chicken), and you have the popular vote. Anecdotally speaking, I’d say things have changed somewhat in recent times. I’ve definitely come across a few Malayali restaurants in Delhi and in London. There are other region-specific ventures that I have heard good things about. But other than these rare spots of light, by and large, it is a dark world out there.

Which is why Oh! Calcutta deserves special praise. As the name suggests, the restaurant is focussed on Bengali food. I cannot rave enough about the food. We had a complimentary bowl of bori bhaja, a crunchy starter of fried dal, which came with what looked and tasted like a Bengali take on salsa. Oily, but yummy.

Bori Bhaja

For starters, we tried roshun bhapa maach (“steamed bekti in chilli and garlic marinade”). The fish was top notch, and although chilli and garlic can both be sharp, dominant flavours, they were subtle influences in this dish. The end product was elegant. How they managed to make steamed fish taste so delicious remains a mystery to me. We also tried a mutton dish (kosha mangsho “meat cooked in its own juices” is the Bengali nomenclature, my Bengali expert Mr Aditya Sarkar tells me) which was phenomenal, especially when paired with freshly fried luchis. We also tried the traditional Bengali fish in mustard gravy which met with mixed reviews at our table. I loved it, whereas my brother felt that it was at least a few notches below the rest of the food.

The dessert menu was so varied that it was difficult for us to choose. So we simply decided not to. We rounded up the meal with date and jaggery ice cream, mishti doi and malpua. The date and jaggery ice cream was exemplary and stood out from its peers.

Date and jaggery icecream

I am back in India in a few weeks time. Delhi this time. Google tells me that Oh! Calcutta has a Delhi branch. I will be sure to revisit roshun bhapa maach and kosha mangsho as soon as I get the chance.
Special thanks to Aditya Sarkar, who shared his vast knowledge of Bengali food in helping me recollect our meal and to my brother, Donnie, who with great (and uncharacteristic) patience forwarded to me in the middle of a busy working day, all the photos that I clicked of our meal at Oh! Calcutta on his phone. As usual, most of them were so bad that they died a quiet death on my editing table and didn't make their way into the blog. And this my friends, happens to be my 50th post. Yay! Here’s to many more.

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