Sam Miller on his adopted home, his new book, and the wonder that is Bengali food
Sam Miller knows Delhi. We are sitting in Oh! Calcutta, the go-to choice for Bengali cuisine, the decor soothing and silent, reminiscent of an era gone by. He has chosen it with care, and the place is conducive to a relaxed meal and chat on an early summer afternoon. Before the menus arrive, Miller chats about food in Delhi, confessing that Oh! Calcutta happens to be one of his favourite restaurants. “I'd come here just for the bhapas”, he says, referring to the steamed, banana wrapped delicacies that have won many hearts. Born in London, educated in Cambridge, Miller a journalist and writer, has adopted Delhi, fallen in love with it and explored it in a way that even some of its oldest residents haven’t. “I came to Delhi in the ’90s, and didn’t like it at all. And then, in 2002, I was posted back here by the BBC, and I returned to a completely different Delhi. The city had transformed. It was faster, and much more interesting.” Miller slowly started taking a shine to the Capital, and decided to explore it, in a way that was both unique and highly effective. He decided to walk.
Before I can ask him about his first book, “Delhi: Adventures In A Megacity”, the menus arrive, and Miller enthusiastically peruses it, remembering the dishes he has already tasted and the ones he wants to try. After careful consideration, the kakra chingri bhapa and mochar chop make the cut for starters, and we decide to accompany them with glasses of chilled aam pannas. After the orders are placed and the waiter melts away, we resume the conversation about Miller's book. He talks about discovering Delhi on foot. “I started in Connaught Place, an area I used to frequent a lot. From CP, I started walking a circular path, meeting people, collecting their stories, and exploring the city.” As he walked its streets, lanes and bylanes, Delhi started giving up its many secrets to Miller. He tells me that today, there are several minor but beautiful monuments in the city that lie almost abandoned, unlisted and unknown to the public that frequents the more popular landmarks. “One such place is a minute or two’s walk from the Penguin India office in Panchsheel. I used to visit them very often, and discovered it. I think very few people who live or work there actually know that this wonderful place is right in their backyard.”
The conversation pauses as our food arrives, and we unwrap the delicious bhapas first, tucking into the rich, mustard infused flavour of what is one of Oh! Calcutta’s signature dishes. The mochar chops prove a perfect foil to the former. Soon, our plates are empty and the menus return. We hang over the gorgeous, delicious pictures of the mains and quite happily order the most attractive looking dishes — a portion of daab chingri, with it’s exquisitely arranged prawns in the coconut shell, and the rich, spicey kosha mangsho. Miller vouches for the luchis and we also put a plate of steamed rice on the list. Satisfied with the order, we sit back and hit play.
Miller talks about his new book, “A Strange Kind of Paradise”, published by Penguin India. The book is a look at India through the eyes of the visitors; foreigners who have come to the country since ancient times, carrying with them their ideas and preconceived notions of the country they arrive in. “It is a combination of anecdotes, personal experiences and historical accounts.” With it, Miller provides a closer look at the India that isn’t just one thing, but a thriving mix of many.
As we talk, I realise that Miller is both incredibly versatile in the kind of topics that interest him, and has a strong sense of humour. The conversation ranges from a look at Slumbdog Millionaire's portrait of India, to the very unfitting, risque but hilarious origin of the phrase “Oh! Calcutta”. “What started in France as a pun of a rude phrase is now the name of a respectable Bengali restaurant in Delhi. I think they did have the explanation on the menu, but they've removed it now.”
Once the table is groaning under the steaming dishes, we tuck in, making appreciative noises and polishing off one fluffy, soft luchi after the other. The waiter has kindly advised us to pair the luchis with the mutton and the rice with daab chingri. The result is most gratifying. The meal turns out to be both delicious and hearty, disappearing in record time. We linger over desserts then, and Miller confesses his love for mishti doi. Unfortunately, the waiter informs us that it’s not available just then; probably a good thing, since the food has left us with barely enough space for anything more. The afternoon draws to a close, and we leave the restaurant with memories of a great meal, and an equally satisfying conversation.