The people of Bengal are mostly avowed gastronomes. Let us firststart with the people of Bengal. Who are they? Here, when we talk of the people of Bengal, we are not limiting ourselves to Bengalis alone but are gladly and wholeheartedly including all those people who have made Bengal their home for generations but may not be Bengalis by the strict measure of ethnicity. So the people of Bengal, as we were saying earlier, are avowed gastronomes and have over a period contributed to the immense culinary heritage of the region. Before you proceed any further, a cavaet. This page is meant for people with a keen interest on culinary heritage or those inclined similarly. For all others, do not blame me if you find it "ho hum".

 

Lets begin with the Raj Era food of Kolkata.

For the sake for clarity we take Raj Era food as that which we had till our independence from the British Raj. Some are still available in plenty.

Kolkata, or Calcutta if you will, was slowly evolved from a milieu of settlers among which are, apart from the British and native Bengali, a host of races and nationalities like the Chinese, Armenians, Bagdadee Jews, Portugese, Marwari, Sindhi, Punjabi, Gujrati, Bihari, Nepali and every Indian and neighbouring national that you could imagine. All these settlers earnestly tried to preserve / follow their cuisines although over a period of time, there came about irreversible changes of local influence to account for palate change and ingredient availibility, economics, etc. Locally cuisines varied from religious influences like Hindu and Muslim cuisine types and yet some entirely new cuisines were  born, married subaltern from the Anglo and Indian races who came together over time in the form of Anglo Indian Food.

Those were heady days for the well heeled and any food from the world was available. Shining restaurants in Firpo’s and Great Eastern Hotel could give a run for their money to many English and French Restaurants in the “Continent”. The newly recruited Rajahs had expensive taste and imported the very best Brandy and wine from Europe. So much so that Nobel Laureate Rabindranath had to write ” deshe onno joler holo ghor onoton…khao whiskey soda aar murgi moton”. Incidentally, I am told that drinking Soda with one’s tipple was a completely Indian  custom by the Europeans as they were not sure of the quality of water to be had here.

The Bengalis  were not left behind and nurtured, evolved and refined their own cuisine. These were done to not only suit the palate but also to give a complete diet of essentials to the body as thought apt by the Kabiraji system of healthcare. The growing occidental influence can also be seen here.”Tahkur barir ranna” by Purnima Thakur (pub Ananda) can be a good insight. The menus are still available for you to try.

One of the major changes brought into the Raj Era food was by the Dutch who were masters of Milk based products. They, purportedly, introduced cottage cheese or Chhena, to our households. It may be noted that earlier, Sandesh given to Goddess Durga, used to be rough blocks of sugar lumps or mondas. Chhana based sandesh was not offered as it was “mlechha” or non hindu food. It took its own time to be an inevitable part of Pujo and proshad. In that sense Rosogolla, invented by Nabin Chandra Das (God bless him) was a very distinct Raj Era Food as are all the lovely Sondesh that you have at Nakur or Bhim Ch Nag or any of the great inventors of Channa based desserts that have made us proud (and egged our Diabetes). These are Raj Era food that are still available.

Then there are those Raj  Era food that are fighting a brave battle over pizzas and pastas. Two names that come to mind are 1) Breast cutlet and 2) Kabiraji Cutlet apart from the regular Fowl Cutlet ( Raj era name was Fowl and not chicken!) and Moton (mutton) Cutlet. A favourite of the Bengali Babu during adda, as a fuel after office or as a romantic add on behind closed curtains in Sanguvalleys of Kolkata for amorous souls. Breast Cutlet should not inspire in you either any erotic or horrible visage. It is just a case of phonetical morphing by the Bengali Ear and tongue. Just as the British tongue was loathe to say “Thakur” and could only manage Tagore, we on our part said “Breast” instead o “Braised” cutlet. To save it self from  the ignominy of crust ensconced deep  frying the braised cut of mutton renamed itself a Breast Cutlet for bangalies. Similarly, Kabiraji Cutlet is certainly not what the usual brhami shaag entrenched vegetarian Kabiraj Moshai would prescribe. The cutlet came with a covering of Egg batter and that Coverage cutlet became Kabiraji Cutlet. Raj Era food that are still available.

We invented other sweet desserts to honor our rulers. A sweet in honour of Lady Canning became Ledikeni.Raj Era food that is still available.

When, during the Raj Era, the great, versatile and colourful Nawab of Lucknow ; Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was interned in Calcutta he brought in a lot more than dance, theatre and clothes. He brought in great food and the Calcutta food scene was never the same again. The famous Calcutta biryani started taking shape along with a lot of other food that are cooked on slow flame and have copious ingredients that give nirvana to the tongue and nightmare to the arteries.Raj Era Mughlai food that are still available.

The Chinese brought their own cuisine. The morning food bazaar in Italian Eduardo Tiretta ‘s erstwhile domain near Podder Court still bears testimony to that although the Cantonese eatery Nanking has closed decades ago. The Hakka community came , excelled in leather trade and also gave us the famous Chinese food which has seen many evolutions since the Raj era. Still available.

The Jewish bakery of Nahoums is still around with a lot of Raj Era relics, in New Market.

Flury’s is surely not its old Raj Era avatar but still gives some sudden glimpses of the Era through the patisserie products. Some people still  like the rum balls. The Continental food at Mocambos partially feels like a Raj Era left over, unlike much continental food you would find in Europe, I am told. Some swear by it and some at it.Raj Era food that are still available.

The indigenous sherbets at Paradise (near College Street) are definite Raj Era drinks and a lot of people still come down for the Dab Sharbat and Cocoa malai. The North Kolkata telebhaja evoloved during this time and young Bile (Vivekananda later) used to have a few. You can have it even now.

The Anglo Indian community invented many a tasty dish ranging from the lentil based Mulligatwaney Soup, kedgeree to the Dak Bungalow Mutton Curry (which the rest house chowkidars excelled in). Raj Era food that are still available.

The above content is not complete and only a glimpse of the Raj Era food scenario that can still be had today. Many a point must have been missed by us and we would love to hear from you in case you can add value to this. Some points may be debatable as with every occurrence without an exhaustive documented past.

 

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