Genesis of foods that we call our own- Pau Roti, to Kanch Kala Kofta

As a child I looked forward to my brownie points visit to Nahoums, Kolkata. Nahoums and Sons, is a confectionery shop now run by David Nahoum.  Since its inception i.e., 1902 and tucked away in Hogg market of New market it offers the city’s best brownies. The facebook page on Nahoums’ has the following description

“Only gentlemen prefer Nahoum’s. This perhaps may sound bit of an exaggeration but there is no second confectionery in India that makes better baclava, cream rolls or fruit cakes. Now run by David Nahoum, the grandson of Nahoum Israel Mordecai, who came to Calcutta from Iraq in 1870, the confectionery takes anyone with a heart back to days when life was simpler, people had time to chitchat”.

This Jewish bakery has also introduced Calcuttans to the taste of Cheese Filled Sambusak and Cholla bread. The culinary scape of Kolkata has benefitted from the migrant communities and for the first time The Calcutta Cookbook: A Treaury of Recipes from Pavement to Palace (1995) by Minakshie Das Gupta, Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha from the Penguin Books brings to the readers “a treasury of recipes from pavement to palace”. The book is useful not only for novice cooks, efficient cooks or experimental cooking but it also traces the culinary history of Kolkata beyond the kitchen which makes it an interesting book for those working on  anthropology of food. 

The book begins with a collection of recipes which people ate before Job Charnock landed in Kolkata.  What I love is that they actually pen down the recipe of Gota Siddho ( Casserole of Whole Moong Beans and Vegetables) which is eaten during Saraswati Puja ( celebrated on the occasion of Basant Panchami) to Anda Halwa.

The book is divided into Eight Chapters. The book holds the reader through a pre-colonial history and philosophy of food (chapter 1) to a genealogy of bengali ranna ( bengali cooking) in chapter 2 and shows the way the way how the palate of Calcutta is enriched by the migrant influences from chapter 3-7 and finally chapter 8 shows how tables turned around the elaborate meal to buffet, brunch and baked beans to cope with post war time food luxuries.

The second chapter is called Bangla Ranna where the authors describe the everyday life of a Bengali in Kolkata- where “fish itself is eaten from top to tail. The head is cooked with dal or rice. The Bengali believes that the Fish head adds to his grey matter. The tail and bones are fried into delectable chachchari with herbs and red pumpkin”. (pp 29) “… Thrift is an integral part of Bengali cooking. In this land of plenty, the good housewife is loth to throw away any part f a fish or vegetable” (pp29). In this preface to the collection of recipes the authors introduces the readers to the kitchen of a bengali household, cooking utensils, methods of cooking and most importantly shows how “eating is a ritual”(pp37).  Next follows a collection of vegetarian and non-vegetarian recipes in a Bengali household. The collection is rich and varied, you can take your pick to cook up a Bengali feast.

The third chapter is called Dastar Khwan which traces the history and recipes of Kebabs, Kalia and Qorma in Kolkata. “Muslim Cooking came to Calcutta’s Chitpur. The air around was redolent with the aromatic mixtures of Amburi and Badashah Pasand tobacco briquettes and kebabs turning on charcoal fires in front of walk-in eating houses on Chitpur road, once the only link between the town and Delhi.”(pp101). Infact the authors indicate that after the fall of Murshidabad, with Nawab of Bengal Zafar Ali’s entry to Kolkata the nawabi food. The abundance of fish and vegetables compelled the nawabi cooks to dish out Jackfruit Korma and Kancha Kala Kofta out of plaintains.  The recipes are user friendly. Best picks are of course Halim and Paya.

The scene now moves to the recipes and treasures that the Firinghees brought from Iberian Peninsula, northern Europe, France, Greece, the British Isles, and Asia Minor. Firstly the Portuguese arrived an settled on the banks of the river building “Catholic churches in the grey quarter of the town adjoining English Tank Square settlement, the pukka white quarter. Many of them came from Goa and Goan cooking added zest to the culinary fare of Calcutta” (pp148).  Apart from introducing Sorpotel, one of the greatest contributions is locally produced cheese popularly called Bandel Cheese. “The small discs of salted smoked Bandel cheese were probably made by the Mog cooks under Portuguese supervision. The cheese is now made in Calcutta and sold as Bandel cheese in two shops in the famous not-so-new New Market”. (pp148) They were followed by the Dutch who settled in Chinsurah and then came the French who again chose Chandernagore. The most important contribution of French till date remains pau roti (loaf of bread). “Pau is said to be the corruption of Pain, the French word for bread. Pau, however, is the Hindi word for feet which leads others to believe that, as with the grapes in the vineyards of France, the huge quantities of dough were kneaded by stamping feet. But in fact Pau is the Portuguese word for loaf of bread” (pp151-152). This chapter also traces the contribution of Armenians, Jews and the British to the city’s social life through culinary ventures.

The richness of the book lies in the culinary ventures of colonial Calcutta that the authors have traced and collected and brought into the forefront. One of the city’s heritage is the colonial past which continues to reproduce itself in the way city’s postcolonial “dining out” has been shaped.  If one takes a look at the city’s long lost Great Eastern Hotel, Peter Cat, and the series of restaurants that occupy the centre stage in Parkstreet and different pockets of this postcolonial city we cannot deny the influence of the migrants that the city’s palate have had and this is what makes this book an interesting read. Steeped in the social history of Bengal, the book takes you through a journey of the “food” conquests of Bengal. A must read and a must have for all those who share a passion for culinary history of Calcutta and for those who want to re-create and re-live some of the recipes from history.

©itiriti

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Bengali Cookbooks-II

Debi Chaudhurani, Renuka. (March 2007 3rd ed). Rakamari Amish Ranna. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers Private Limited (Ed. Sheela Lahiri Chaudhuri).

Sheela Lahiri Chaudhuri’s brilliant attempt to bring to the forefront the non-vegetarian culinary delights of Renuka Debi Chaudhurani must have been exhausting and she does a commendable job by introducing the readers to the book in the introduction she pens down about her mother-in-law. In the introduction Sheela mentions that Renuka Debi Chaudhurani could not complete the manuscript before her demise in 1985. The editor also apologises for the missing gaps in the cooking methods and procedure in some recipes. Well, the book has been divided across 60 sections. Each section has a minimum of 5 recipes. The book will help you sail through 365 days of cooking non-vegetarian meals. The recipes collected from Renuka Debi Chaudhurani’s cookbooks reveal the galaxy of cooks from whom she had learned to cook. There are three sections which mention that the recipes are inspired and cooked the way Bawarchis usually do. In fact the most interesting section to my mind is the section on Meat Stews. While Stews on one hand had entered the Bengali palette during colonial times, and it was being cooked in Bengali households also indicate that the everyday cooking in Bengali upper middle class households might have colonial influence. This is particularly evident in the variety of non-Bengali Chicken/ Mutton recipes that Renuka Debi Chaudhuri pens down for us.

Her East-Bengali lineage is evident in the Hilsa preparations and other fish preparations particularly the section on Fish Shukto. Infact the editor also draws attention to the culinary delicacies that Renuka Debi Chaudharni must have been drawn to considering she spent a considerable time in the then East Bengal. This collection moves beyond Bengal and actually gives us a glimpse of the recipes from North to South India which makes this an interesting read. Though I did try out some recipes from the section on prawns I am yet to enter my kitchen with this book. What I seriously miss are the cooking tips or the list of tips in kitchen which is there in the former book. Nevertheless the personalised introduction of Sheela Ray Chaudhury makes up for the missing anecdotes,  and wit of our author Renuka Debi Chaudhurani.

As I browse through the pages, and make a list of things to buy for a recipe I will cook for our Sunday meal, you take a pause and dawn on your chef’s act to get your act together.

 Choose from Fish to Mutton to Chicken to anything that catches your fancy and plan for that Sunday meal. Till then a glimpse from the cover page….

Bengali Cookbooks-I

Debi Chaudhurani, Renuka. (Sep 2007 2nd ed). Rakamari Niramish Ranna. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers Private Limited.

When I had started to pen down this blog almost a month back my first post was an ode to  Julia Childe and I had said that its time to salute women who turned the tables around. I had also blogged about Beladi, and the prized possession of her cookbooks that are stacked neatly in my mother’s book shelf. Today I picked up another stalwart of the cookbook genre Renuka Debi Chaudhurani from whom many novices like me can cook without batting an eyelid. 

Renuka Debi Chaudhurani’s book “Rakamari Niramish Ranna” was first published by Surbarnarekha in 1988 and later it was taken over by Ananda Publishers Private Limited. Till date it remains one of my personal favourite reads and guidebook as far as Bengali vegetarian cooking is concerned.

About Renuka Debi Chaudhurani : From what we know from this second edition is that she was born on 31 July 1909 in Baghber, Maymansingh ( present day Bangladesh ). She was married in 1921 and moved to her in-laws house in Muktagachcha. Her husband was Dhirendranath Lahiri Chaudhuri who was the elected representative of undivided Bengal at the Central Legislative Assembly.

The introduction to the volume of Rakamari Niramish Ranna is a social history of Bengal, and it moves between home and the world. She gives us a glimpse of her life under “purdah”, she gives us a glimpse of the political scenario and her wit is explicit in the way she narrates an incident about the famous cook Rudrada from whom our legendary author has learnt many a recipes. On one occasion when Sarojini Naidu and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru visited her husband’s house in Delhi, Rudrada was the head cook of the Delhi household. Overwhelmed by the presence of two political leaders Rudrada made his way and told Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, “Apnar Leg e Sir Amake Dibo. Desher Kaaje Amake Nen”. (If we literally translate, I am willing to work under your feet. I want to work for the country). Such anecdotes are a refreshing to the book. The richness of the book lies in the simplicity of the recipes and elegance of the cooking in itself.  

The book is divided into 35 sections and  each section has almost close to minimum twenty recipes. The range of choices it offers to new generation cooks like me is as varied from “Poda” ( Roasts) to Poush – Parbone Pithe puli (Sweet dishes cooked during harvest festival in December ) to Jalkhabar ( Snacks). My all time favourite sections of this book remain Ghanta- Sukta- Jhol, Ghanta and Jhol.  These three sections are dedicated to all of those who stare at the vegetable basket and rake their brains for hours to come up with an authentic Bengali vegetable dish. Cooking vegetarian food in Bengali through Renuka Debi Chaudhani’s senses seems like an easy task. Moment one hears Ghanta, one feels like running away from kitchen to hide as it reminds one of the dollops of ghee, garam masala that might go onto people’s palates but it is not quite so as the recipes indicate.

 What we learn from here is that “Ghanta” ( a should be pronounced as o) can be both spicy and non-spicy. And this is what makes it simple, easy to cook and something you can reproduce without venturing out into the market.In my house there is a close affinity towards raw papaya. Whenever I see that green vegetable popping from the vegetable basket in the refrigerator I try to keep it aside and wait for my stack of prawns.

 Today Renuka Debi Chaudhurani came to my rescue to produce a simple dish by the name Peper Ghanta ( Papaya Ghanta). For this recipe you would need:Grated Raw Green Papaya (500gms), grated coconut (about half-cup),Soaked Moon Dal (50gms)2 table spoon mustard oil, 2 bay leaf, 1 dry red –chilli, a pinch of Kalo jeera (three names for this black caraway seed/ black sesame/ onion seed)*, 2 green chilli,1/2 cup milk, 1 tea spoon flour. Salt and sugar ( as per your taste).

Take a kadai( wok) and add mustard oil. Let it bubble for some time and add dry red chilli, Kalo jeera*, and bay leaf .  Once the aroma these ingredients hits your nose add the grated  papaya and stir well. After that add salt and sugar and keep stirring nicely till it is semi-cooked.  After that add soaked moong dal , add water and let it cook till the dal and papaya are cooked.  There should be no excess water. To this add the mixture of half cup milk and flour and finish it off with grated coconut, 2-3 slit green chillies and ghee for that aroma. Serve piping hot with roti / parantha/ rice.

*According to Chitrita Banerjee “the seed referred to as kalojeera in Bengal has produced endless confusion in translation. It neither resembles cumin (jeera) in taste nor are thetwo botanically related. Some people also translate it as black caraway or black sesame. Native to the countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean, black cumin is small wedge shaped and naturally black. But when added to oil it releases a pungent odour very similar to that of onion. Hence another misnomer- onion seed! ( Source : Banerjee, Chitrita. 2001. The Hour of the Goddess. Memories of Women, Food and Ritual in Bengal. Calcutta: Seagull Books.)

 
 Tempering the oil

Peper Ghanta (Papaya Ghanta)

©itiriti