It is customary to describe evenings in Bengaluru as “balmy", but this particular evening was, in fact, not balmy. There was a chill in the air, and those of us who had ventured out without a jacket or a shawl were definitely feeling it. This was probably enhanced by the fact that we were sitting outdoors—in the spacious and charming lawns of the The Courtyard, a heritage house in central Bengaluru recently converted into a community arts and culture space. Around 20 diners, most of them strangers to each other, had gathered to partake of a very special meal—a sit-down dinner that would attempt to bring together food, memory, culture and innovation, organized by The Goya Journal, an online magazine of food and culture, and executed by Lipi, an inventive new restaurant that embraces an ingredient-driven philosophy.

The event, titled Rani O’ Ranna: A Dinner Celebrating the Ordinary, was conceptualized around the work of visual artist Rakshita Mittal, who has been working on a photo-narrative project by the same name for over a year, recording the diversity of home kitchens in Kolkata and the lives of the women who inhabit them. Mittal has published some of the photographs and stories, recorded during multiple interviews with the women who are featured in her photos, in a book called Rani O’ Ranna, published in 2018. The project started as a final dissertation during her master’s programme at Bengaluru’s Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. “It was inspired by the connection between food and memories, by how information is passed from one generation to the next," says Mittal, 24. “There are so many layers to food: economic, political, environmental, gender roles… I kept these layers in my mind even as I spoke to the subjects of my photographs and let them tell their stories. There is no criticism of their views, but there is an invitation to the viewer to engage deeply with these characters and see their stories through an informed lens," she adds.

For instance, one of the stories in the collection is of a young woman, Aparna Laha, who lives with her in-laws and was not fond of the food cooked in their kitchen, and so she started cooking small meals in a makeshift kitchen in the balcony of their small flat, slowly carving out a space for herself and her food.

Lamb Mahashas.
Lamb Mahashas.

Whether it’s the early 20th century novels of Bengali novelist Ashapurna Devi or modern-day TV soaps, the kitchen has always been characterized as a battleground of sorts where the women of the family assert their identity—possibly because of a lack of other avenues of expression—and while Mittal was conscious of the problematic nature of glorifying this association between the woman and the kitchen, she was also acutely aware of the limited, fluid nature of the power. “She is the queen but her kingdom is limited to the kitchen," she says.

How would one even begin to capture all this through a meal, even a seven-course meal? The menu by Lipi’s executive chef Varun Raj was devised keeping in mind the flavours, ingredients and ethos of the home kitchens from Mittal’s work— it even incorporated sounds.

The first course was inspired by Rozeli, a woman whose bangles would make a rasping sound against the shil-nora as she spoke to Mittal while preparing lunch in her kitchen. Varun (how he prefers to be referred to) tried to recreate this sound with two crunchy amuse-bouche items: a Pata-Bhaja (fried amaranth leaf) and a Meethi Muri Tart, made of sweetened puffed rice and micro-greens.

“We didn’t attempt to make ‘authentic Bengali food’. It was more important for me to capture the flavour and soul, and to distil some of the stories and experiences into the dishes," says Varun. Not all the dishes are from Bengali kitchens either—Gongura Quail, for instance, was inspired by the story of Roma Malik, who told Mittal that she didn’t want to cook her favourite dishes anymore because they were associated with painful memories of lost loved ones. This resonated with Varun, who lost his father recently, and he decided to cook his father’s favourite dish—quail cooked with a pungent paste of gongura leaves—to, in a way, defy that impulse. Another dish, Lamb Mahashas, came from the tiny Jewish community in Kolkata. The dish—lamb mince stuffed in cabbage leaves, steamed and served with creamy coconut milk—made its way to the menu from 93-year-old Flower Silliman’s kitchen.

Pata Bhaja and Meethi Muri Tart.
Pata Bhaja and Meethi Muri Tart.

One of Varun’s personal favourites on the menu was the Fena Bhaat course—gobindobhog (fragrant rice) cooked with a bit of masoor dal, ghee and tempered with paanch phoron (Bengali five-spice mix) and served with a side of pumpkin mash. Mittal’s story of the Bhadras, who came to West Bengal after Partition in 1947 and found joy in a bowl of rice, inspired the dish. Fena bhaat is rice cooked with the starch left in to make it stretch and fill more stomachs, and it may seem incongruous to serve a dish that has traditionally been associated with poverty and extreme hunger—“Ma, fen de" (“Ma, give me some starch") is a phrase many of us will forever associate with gut-churning stories of the Bengal Famine, when ragged families would go from door to door begging for a bowl of starch—at a sit-down dinner that costs over 2,000 per person.

When I mention my discomfort to Mittal later, she sounds almost pleased. “I’m so glad you brought this up," she says. “Yes, we went over this question a lot, and ultimately I decided to keep it, because I wanted to raise that bit of discomfort. Food is not just food."

The event was organized by The Goya Journal in association with Lipi and The Courtyard. Lounge paid for this meal