Even the simplest Bengali meal has a delicacy and nuance that will linger on…

Dumdum Hindu Hotel, Dumdum Road, Kolkata. It’s so hidden-away and so unpretentious that probably no one has ever bothered to write about it and probably no one even five km away has heard of it. But the lunch there was so good — in fact, perfect — that it reaffirmed my belief that Bengali food is the best. We’re all pretty chauvinistic about our traditional cuisines but no one can deny the delicacy, the nuances, that a Bengali cook brings to the simplest meal.

On a recent trip to Kolkata, when I had woken up at the crack of dawn to reach an all-day meeting at 10 a.m., I was served this meal for lunch. It arrived at the office in buckets covered with roughly torn scraps of newspaper. Didn’t augur well at all. Then we were handed pattals already heaped with rice and little leaf saucers with dal. Next to the rice were handfuls of crisp potato straws. It was just moong dal, so why did it taste so good? For one it was finer, smaller, than the North Indian type, and for another, it didn’t have the dusty smell one usually associates with moong. Then a colleague walked around barefoot, ladling out the vegetables: a labda, I think it was called, of spinach stalks and potatoes. And the other was a mixture of drumsticks and potatoes in a gravy. I know you’re supposed to eat Bong food in courses, but I allowed myself the licence of a foreigner and ate whatever, whenever I felt like. Several times — never refusing seconds and thirds. Then arrived the fish curry and a chutney, in quick succession. The fish was in a homely jhol: slices of fried fish in reddish-brown gravy. The chutney, or ambal, had fat chunks of quartered raw mangos in a thin syrup flavoured with kalonji (black cumin). I know some people love a little sweet with their main dish and others cannot abide it. But this sweet chutney along with the salty dal-chawal would convert the most rigid diner. Afterwards there was mishti doi and two kinds of sandesh — which I had no room for, but it was Kolkata, so could it have been anything but good?

Two weeks later I was in Kolkata again, all set to eat at the highly recommended Bhaja Hari Manna. So, escorted by young Chandan and Rajib, zipped straight from the airport to its Salt Lake branch. The most frightening sight awaited us as we turned the corner: BHM was downing shutters. Chandan and Rajib leapt out to investigate and came back with long faces, resignedly shaking their heads. At which point I decided to show some Delhi muscle. So I stepped out and told the doorman how I had come all the way from Delhi just to eat there, what could I do if the flight was late, and please, please, please. Whereupon he went in and confabulated for ages, then came out and said “Yes”!

Not so good this time

Now why did I get into such a long preamble? Because the food, after all the hype, was just so-so. And they were nice enough to serve us after closing time. I also think we ordered wrong. For one, plain boiled rice was finished and we had to eat pulao. Which really doesn’t set off a curry. And then we ordered what I suspect is “restaurant” food: daab-chingri, a monstrously large prawn — more like a lobster, actually — cooked in a tender green coconut. I don’t know whether it was actually cooked in the coconut or just placed in it, eyes and feelers projecting with friendly curiosity. The gravy was creamy and sweetish — as I said, ok-ok. But the shorshe ilish (hilsa) in a paste of mustard and posto (poppyseed) was delicious. I myself like the sharpness of unadulterated mustard paste, but perhaps this mixing is done for a gentler palate. In fact I think there was even a bit of fresh coconut ground into the shorshe paste. So that was that.

The next day I had an institutional lunch, in a canteen where we were having this huge meeting. Anyone with any sense would agree that the best Indian food is served in homes. But I think a straightforward no-frills kitchen, even a large-scale one like the Dumdum Hindu’s and this canteen, can serve seriously good food. Especially when it’s not catering to “furriners”. Of course, there was rice. And yellow dal. Yes, moong. The bhaja today was slivers of karela and potatoes, fried so that the edges were crisp and brown and the centres not — you could taste the vegetable itself, not just feel the crisp crust. And bhindi (okra) and potatoes in a thick gravy. To me the idea of bhindi in gravy is a strange one — as a good Punj I think bhindi should be crisply fried. Into a bhaja. But this was not bad at all. I had two helpings. “Salad” was green chillies and freshly cut wedges of gandharaj — thick-skinned, fragrant lemon. And there was a sweet mango ambal too — very nice with the rice.

Special treat

By that time I was looking forward to my fish curry, but, as a special treat, the organisers had ordered mutton curry instead. I don’t think I’ve had that kind of mutton curry since childhood summers spent at my grandparents’. It was what I classify in my mind as a “Hindu” curry: it’s thin and reddish, with lots of haldi (turmeric), and apparently no onions or tomatoes. The spices are mellower — no cardamom-cloves-cinnamon — and it’s simmered slowly, so what you eat is tender and permeated with flavour. Dessert was some rasgolla-type thing — but I wanted the taste of that meal to linger, and it did.

The author is a food writer based in Delhi.