Friday, March 16, 2007

Oh! Calcutta

Oh! Calcutta

Nehru Place

ICC Building, next to the Intercontinental Hotel

New Delhi

When I think about Delhi restaurants I dwell back to the early seventies when, as a child, we went to Nirula’s for a “tutti-frutti” ice cream. My mother went there as a student at Miranda House, and now visited as a young mother. Delhi has changed a lot since. Here we were, a group of mostly scientists in Delhi for a conference, cruising through Nehru Place in two cars to “Oh! Calcutta”. Bengali cuisine is taking off in India, in upscale restaurant settings, starting out from that city several years ago. Restaurants like Grain of Salt and Oh! Calcutta are popular in Kolkata and that popularity has translated to Bengali restaurants in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore . “Oh Calcutta” is in a businesslike highrise that could be in any metropolis in the world and is located on the ground floor. Walking in we were greeted by Mr. Biswas and to my relief the entire staff was from Bengal. For days now I had been carrying out in broken hindi, and the opportunity to let go in Bengali was godsent. I was soon to realise that I would also be letting go of any ingestive restraints shortly. The table for Mr. Biswas is where we sat and I put our collective faith in his hands to feed us. The food was superb, like fine, filligree work. Bengalis pride themselves on their fish and we ordered some. Gandharaj Bhetki—steamed Bhetki fish with a lemon aroma wrapped in banana leaves, Hilsa fish that tastes only like Hilsa can, cooked in mustard. Similar to Shad, it is bony and this is the levy you pay for the complex taste of its flesh. Then there was Daab Chingri, succulent shrimp inserted into green coconuts and slowly cooked. It is a pleasure to go to an Indian restaurant for food that was not oily. Railway mutton curry, the name evocative of the food served in Railway restaurants did not quite taste like that (it was better) went well with the luchis. These are dishes that, with the demise of Babu in Greenwich Village, I cannot find in the States. We had a meal that was sumptuous and, given the company of scientists who consumed it, I will describe the spread of food as a comprehensive body of work, thoughtfully cooked, precisely articulated, analytically conceived, and placed in a contextual framework that befits its popularity.

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