There’s something for everyone in Bengali cuisine, as our latest meet confirmed. A complete feast, starting with the ubiquitous serving of rice and ending with paan, the menu featured a balanced selection of vegetarian and non vegetarian options that seemed to please everyone present. Without exception, and that is something that you don’t see very often at PGC meets!
Designed by Abhijit De of Radhika Restaurant, and executed by his charming wife Nandini, the menu represented all the various influences on Bengali cuisine, which according to Abhijit, are considerable. A fount of interesting information, he regaled a rapt audience with the history of Bengali food, starting from a time when Bengal was an undivided land, and subject to influences ranging from Portuguese and English to Muslim and Armenian.
“The Portuguese introduced the concept of cheese to Bengal,” he revealed, “and that is how all our chenna-based sweets originated.” I think none of us is ever going to look at a rasagolla in the same way again! “Unlike most other Indian food, Bengali food is served in courses, starting with the bitter to get the gastric juices working,” he explained. It can be a challenge to serve food in courses in a buffet but Abhijit and Nandini were at hand to guide us through the food in the right order.
“Start with the rice, Bhaja Moong Dal, and Shukto,” they advised. The bitter component in the mixed vegetable Shukto was the karela, and once the gastric juices had started churning, we turned our attention to the Begun Bhaja, crisp batter fried brinjal slices, and the Posto Bora, poppy seed cakes. “The Armenians introduced the concept of dolma, stuffed vine leaves, and Potol Dolma is our version of that,” added Abhijit. Stuffed with paneer and cooked in a spicy gravy, the potol or parval, a Bengali favourite, was quite a surprise.
“Try not to mix the vegetarian with the fish,” suggested the Des, and we took them at their word. Course-wise eating, remember? The English influence was introduced through the Fish Chop, and the Rui Doi Machh (rohu fish in delicately flavoured yoghurt gravy) was an eye-opener for non-Bengalis who believe fish and milk don’t make good culinary companions. Daab Chingri (prawns in a gravy of tender coconut malai and mustard) was next, served in tender coconut shells.
“The mutton course is traditionally among the last in a Bengali meal,” informed Abhijit. “In fact mutton curry and rice is a popular Sunday meal.” Very apt for a Sunday afternoon, but we were more than happy to eat our way through the rest of the food too. “And a castrated goat is the most expensive,” he added helpfully for the trivia junkies, thankfully not clarifying what type of mutton he was serving us!
The piquant Aam Chatni, supposed to be a palate cleanser before the dessert, was polished off with an enthusiasm to rival that for the main course. And finally, dessert! Dudh Puli, a date jaggery flavoured ras malai, Kheer Kadam, melt-in-the-mouth Sandesh, and Fish (shaped) Sandesh, a must-have at Bengali weddings. No one needs ask if we needed the paan at the end of that meal!
It might seem as if wine took a backseat to all that gastronomic indulgence but there wasn’t a drop left of the Reveilo Chenin Blanc, Turning Point Chenin Blanc, and Sula Riesling! Those that had their wits about them had the opportunity to drink the Riesling in the special glasses provided by Riedel – the rest of us quaffed it down any way we could.
Thank you Mabel and Deepak Patwardhan for opening your home to us, and Abhijit and Nandini De for a much appreciated and truly royal Bengal experience!