As I wax lyrical every week about gourmet food and fancy foreign dishes, I realize how blind I have been to some extraordinary dishes in India itself. I have recently been travelling to Kolkata on work, and have rediscovered Bengali food.
Bengali cuisine is considered elaborate and refined, and the state is the only place in India where food is served in separate courses, the chronology based on ancient beliefs, to aid the digestive process. Bitter leaves and gourd are always served first, followed by rice, dal, chutney and fish. Bengali food is one of the few Indian cuisines I can eat at any time of the day, even in restaurants. This simply isn’t so of other Indian cuisines, where the restaurant versions tend to be too spiced, laced with unnecessary amounts of oil, and generally overcooked.
There are also ingredients particular to this region, which are very special. The Hilsa fish, a type of shad which is a member of the herring family, has numerous small bones. But deboned and smoked, it is superior to even the best smoked salmon. Smothered in a paste of mustard and green chilli and steamed, it is ecstasy.
There’s also nolen gud or palm jaggery, which is used in sandesh and rosogullas in winter and stored in cakes in Bengali kitchens for the rest of the year. For taste, there’s panch phoren, an aromatic spice blend; mustard, ground into a paste or as a liquid; and kasundhi (mustard sauce).
In fact, what is so remarkable about Bengali food is the subtlety and balance, the use of spices but less of chillies and the obsession with quality and detail. The typical Bengali meal is almost spiritual in its simplicity. This does not mean, however, that the dishes are either easy to prepare or that they have been thrown together in some ad hoc fashion. Many of them require a deft hand, are time-consuming, and take years of experience to master.
Unfortunately, there are only a handful of authentic Bengali restaurants in Kolkata, and fewer still in other parts of the country. Oh! Calcutta (in New Delhi and Mumbai) is one of those rare exceptions of fine regional Indian food which is rooted in tradition but which has contemporized the whole dining experience. I don’t need any excuse to dine there and meet with its executive chef, Joy Banerjee, a true gourmet and dedicated chef in both the academic and culinary sense. Banerjee serves some specialities on his menu at Oh! Calcutta in Kolkata which simply can’t be done in either of the other cities.
He takes a few dices of what is known as Kolkata bekti (this a much sweeter, fine textured fish from the sea than its ugly sister, the Mumbai bhetki), and smothers them with a mixture of home-made curd and the rind of Gonduraj lemon. This is a fantastic green lemon (as opposed to lime or nimboo), which fills the air with a heady lemon fragrance. The nearest to it would be the Thai magrut, from which we also get the kaffir lime leaf. It is a pity that in India today, it is often much easier to find Thai ingredients than our own.
Banerjee then steams the fish and serves it on a banana leaf. He doesn’t wrap it in the banana leaf, since the aroma and flavour of the leaf shouldn’t interfere with that of the fish—a sublime touch that works every time. This is probably the most exquisite Indian steamed fish I have ever eaten. Delicately flavoured with the rind and juice of the highly aromatic Gonduraj lemon, available only in Kolkata.
Chef Joy Banerjee’s Bekti Gonduraj—Steamed Fish with Lemon
500g bekti or rawas, cut into 2x1x¾-inch pieces
1 tsp salt
2 Gonduraj lemons’ rind and juice
¾ cup fresh yogurt, whisked
1 tsp sugar
1½ tsp green chillies, made into a paste
1 tsp oil
Wash and pat dry the fish. Add salt and lime juice. Keep aside for 15 minutes. Drain any excess liquid. Mix the rest of the ingredients in a bowl and marinate the fish in this mixture for 20 minutes. Set up a steamer or large utensil with a well-fitting sieve and lid. Place fish on a plate, cover loosely with a banana leaf and place in the steamer. Steam for 5-7 minutes. You will have to do this in batches.
Tip: If you cannot lay your hands on Gonduraj lemon, replace with any other kind of lemon or the magrut. It is better to use home-made curd than ready-made, packaged ones.
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