A bite of history

The book is as much a deep-dive into the breathtaking smorgasbord of Calcutta’s cuisine.

Published : Feb 09, 2023 10:25 IST

That food is an essential part of the cultural landscape of Calcutta (now Kolkata) is indubitable. But perhaps that goes for any major city in the world. What made Calcutta the gastronomic El Dorado it went on to be was a happy confluence of factors: historical, political, and social. The indigenous food habits were overlaid and blended with culinary influences brought in by the European colonialists—mainly the British, but also the Portuguese, the French, and the Dutch—who set up camp in various parts of south Bengal from the late 16th century onwards.

Calcutta on Your Plate
By Nilosree Biswas
Pages: 208
Price: Rs.395

Other influences trickled in. In 1856, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Oudh, dethroned by the British, settled in Calcutta along with his entourage and a large band of cooks and bawarchis. They carried with them the rich heritage of Awadhi cuisine, awakening the locals to new flavours and techniques such as cooking on dum, cooking meats with yoghurt, and so on. While an emergent Bengali moneyed class, hobnobbing with the British rulers, was eager to ape their ways and include foreign dishes into their own lavish tables, they also began to develop a taste for the gourmet fare of the Nawabi (loosely referred to as “Mughlai”) kitchen, such as biryani, rezala, and a wide variety of kebabs and quormas.

The result was an astonishingly eclectic foodscape, continuously broadened and enriched by talented cooks and entrepreneurs who set up eateries and sweet shops, and also by the newly enlightened Bengali women who experimented with the exciting array of dishes that they were being exposed to and came up with their own innovations and amalgamations. Many of these women wrote about the food they cooked—from curries to kebabs, from pulao to prawn cutlet, from mohanbhog (a type of sweet) to Madeira cake—publishing compilations of recipes and thereby facilitating their dissemination and popularity in almost every strata of Bengali society.

Calcutta on Your Plate by Nilosree Biswas is an admirable effort to throw light on the city’s hybrid and vibrant food tradition and the way myriad cultural cross-pollinations helped it evolve into one of the richest in the country. The book bears testimony to the author’s exhaustive research on the subject—almost every page has excerpts from the works of historians and chroniclers—and is as much a deep dive into the breathtaking smorgasbord of Calcutta’s cuisine as it is a retelling of the city’s social and political history from the standpoint of food.

Set up in 1690 by the East India Company’s agent Job Charnock on the banks of the river Hooghly, Calcutta became the fulcrum of the burgeoning power of the Company, which, even as it made phenomenal profits from trade, would soon wrest political control over much of the Indian landmass.

It was inevitable that the British colonial masters who lived and worked here would leave their imprint on the food culture of the city, which was fast becoming a thriving, prosperous metropolis. Before long, wealthy, elite Bengalis, or Baboos, as they were called, were vying with one another to live the good life à la mode, and western foods such as roasts, grills, cutlets, cakes, puddings, along with vast quantities of foreign wines, became must-haves at their gala dinners and extravagant entertainments.

The same inclusivity became evident in the city’s snacking habit. Biswas dwells extensively on this and draws attention to the many references to Calcutta’s love affair with delicious savouries and small bites in literature and popular culture. Cutlets, fries, scotch eggs (“dimer devil” in the local lingo), and croquettes rubbed shoulders with luchi (puffed bread made with flour), kochuri (puffed bread with a savoury stuffing), shingara (samosa), and teley bhaja (fritters made with vegetables). They were, and continue to be, “anytime foods” that you dip into whenever you feel peckish, and they are usually accompanied with a steaming cup of tea, a beverage that was gaining in popularity by the later years of the 19th century.

But it was not just the British who catalysed the evolution of Calcutta’s uniquely hybrid gastronomic culture. The European colonisers introduced a host of new foodstuffs, expanding the spectrum of local produce and encouraging their use in cooking. These included potatoes, tomatoes, green chillies, papaya, okra, coriander, guava, chicken, and eggs.

Indian Rasgulla or dry Roshogulla dessert served in a bowl.

Indian Rasgulla or dry Roshogulla dessert served in a bowl. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Biswas flags the art of making cottage cheese, brought in by the Portuguese, as a major influence in the city’s culinary history. (The esoteric Bandel cheese, cherished by many even today, is of Portuguese origin.) It was this technique of making fresh cottage cheese (chhana in Bangla) that sparked a terrific efflorescence of innovation in the making of sweets in Calcutta in the 19th century.

Bengal already had a rich tradition of sweets, writes Biswas. But these were made mainly with milk or kheer (reduced milk). Sixteenth century texts such as the Mangal Kavyas (written in praise of various deities) mention such confections as paramanna or payesh (rice pudding), shorbhaja (a delicacy made with the creamy skin of milk), malpua, khaja, and so on. But in what must be regarded as a landmark event in the history of Calcutta’s food, in 1868, a confectioner named Nobin Chandra Das cracked the conundrum of binding chhana so that it would not disintegrate when fashioned into a sweet.

Thus was born the roshogolla (literally, syrup-soaked ball), Das’ blockbuster invention. And from thereon, he, along with his fellow confectioners Nakur Chandra Nandy, Girish Chandra Dey, Bhim Chandra Nag, and others, pioneered a huge number of delectable sweets made with chhana, including a dazzling variety of sandesh such as kanchagolla, karapaak, jolbhora taalshaansh, aabar khabo, and the utterly scrumptious, deep-fried ledikeni (named after Lady Canning, the wife of Governor General Lord Canning). Calcutta’s reputation as the “Mecca of Sweets” was now well and truly in place.

Role of women

A noteworthy aspect of Calcutta on Your Plate is the importance it accords to the role of women in taking the city’s syncretic food culture forward. Profiting from the benefit of education, the ladies of affluent houses started writing of their lives and the different foods they cooked in their kitchens.

And then there were the cookbooks. Ironically, Pakrajeshwar (1831), India’s first cookbook, was written by a man, Bipradas Mukhopadhyay. It was followed by many more, written by women of the day, including the seminal Amish O Niramish Ahar (1902) by Pragyasundari Devi, a niece of Rabindranath Tagore. The book, which sells even today, is a compendium of 1,500 recipes, many of them startlingly innovative, melding as they do cross-cultural ingredients and flavours. Pragyasundari also edited a women’s periodical called Punya which featured many recipes.

Filled with a wealth of interesting information, this book will appeal to not just Calcuttans but to anyone who is passionate about food.

However, much of the experience of reading it is marred by glaring editorial blunders: misspelt words, inconsistently spelt names, grammatical errors, words that mean exactly the opposite of the sense that is intended to be conveyed, and so on. And why, oh why, are the food photographs in the book so dull when they could easily have been a treat for the eyes?

Shuma Raha is a journalist and author.

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