Monday, August 16, 2010


Lala Lajpat Rai Sarani (Elgin Road), Kolkata

In a formal Bengali meal fit for an traditional household with a professional cook in the kitchen, you get an elaborate multi-course meal containing several vegetable preparations, at least three fish dishes, a couple of meat dishes, followed by dessert. You would sit with a metal dining plate surrounded by a constellation of small bowls containing a small amount of each dish, with the sweets making their entry at the end. If you were traditionally from West Bengal, then the mistress of the household ensured that the curry dishes had at least a tablespoon of sugar in it, and if you were from East Bengal, you generally scorned upon this practice.

In Kolkata, we wanted to take a visiting colleague out to a restaurant serving authentic Bengali food, and I asked two sets of close friends for recommendations. Both endorsed Kewpies--a small, homey, restaurant near the Forum Mall on Elgin Road, in a little bylane for foot travel that abuts a wall of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s yellow colored mansion. If you ever wanted to know how the backstreets of Chowringhee and Park Street, that are now clogged with traffic, felt in the seventies and early eighties, then take a walk along this ten foot wide bylane. It is afternoon, it is quiet, the sun is filtered through big trees, and you can take a pleasant walk and converse to the sounds of automobiles from middling distances. This the the quality of the afternoon, the light, and the sound that you could get, at that time, on Little Russell Road, on Camac Street, and on Elgin Road.

Kewpies has been the closest that I have come to authentic home cooked traditional Bengali food that is found in a restaurant. I say home-cooked, because it lacks the ostentation that many restaurants have, relying instead upon authenticity. This is not adventurous food, nor is it any different or particularly better than the food that my mother, or mother-in-law prepares, except that you get an array of such dishes at one sitting. It is a dapper little restaurant in what appears to be a converted residence. The room is tastefully done with a traditional red stone floor and freshly painted walls and ceilings, the bathroom could have been a bit cleaner.

We ordered what is called a “thala” or a platter that consists of an entire, multi-course meal, and M was our navigator with tips on the preparation and ingredients. Food is served in earthenware dishes that are disposed after use, and the meal plate is covered with a fresh banana leaf. It starts with rice, a couple of luchis, and a traditional shukto (a slightly bitter vegetable mush with green plantain, bitter gourd, potatoes, eggplant, and ridged gourd, with a small amount of milk added at the end), dal and a fried potol (snake gourd). Following this opening gambit, arrives an onslaught of meat and vegetable dishes. There is fried bhecti (a type of fish) with a batter of breadcrumbs, an Anglo-Indian legacy; fried and curried hilsa, a shadlike fish with a dense bone structure, the seduction of the flesh between those relentless bones giving it a cult following. Then there are two types of goat meat (what is called mutton), one watery and one dry (kosa mangso). There is daab chingri, where shrimp is cooked inside a green coconut; alu-jhinge-posto, a triumvirate of potatoes, ridged gourd and poppy; dhokar dalna, fried lentil cakes in a gravy; mocha ghonto, a hash made with banana flowers; chital muthia, dumplings of the chital fish set in a gravy, and with a meat-like texture, popular at one time during marriage feasts. And all through this ecstasy, the plate periodically refilled with white rice, the high glycemic index, high energy carb staple that Bengalis consumed by the heap to generate the energy to toil the fields, except that the urban Bengali has now left the physical effort out of this equation. Dessert followed. It was a mishti doi—a unique sweet Bengali yogurt, a small portion of sweet and sour chutney to clarify the palate, and paan, the traditional betel leaf based meal closer.

This was a formidable lineup, truly unique in the way that it is cooked. This food is almost completely unknown in the States outside of places like the Bangladeshi enclave in Queens, New York, but part of a growing trend in upscale places in other Indian metropolises. Wholeheartedly recommended.


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