My mother wasn’t a great cook – but a competent one. Like other things in life her “practical” nature extended to the kitchen as well. On the other hand, her mother - my Didi-ma - was almost a gourmet chef. This was remarkable because, she became a widow in her early 30s and didn’t have meat, fish or any form of non-vegetarian food the rest of her life. Yet, she would churn out the most amazing specialty European and Bengali fare with effortless ease. (one of her best was Smoked Hilsa – deboned and cooked on a bed of ‘mudki’ spread over charcoal) But, this was true of many Bengali ladies of that era with a western upbringing and, in her case, she came from an hotelier family where she could hone her culinary skills under the tutelage of the ‘Khansamas’.
the simple and ( a wee-bit) sexy
Coming back to my mother, she never spent too much time in the kitchen. On most days – her cooking would be over by 9 in the morning at the latest. One of her favourite pastime – though - was watching cookery shows on TV. My father tells me she has left behind several note books full of recipes – which we would have to discover and explore someday. However, she did like to experiment in the kitchen. In trying out new recipes – she didn’t strive for perfection or go looking for exotic ingredients. She would improvise mostly with whatever was available at home – only sometimes getting some special condiments or fresh herbs from her occasional trips to Calcutta’s New Market. The results were often mixed – but interesting enough for friends and relatives, who – though not exactly connoisseurs - loved the “nouvelle” touch in the dishes that were rather low on spices and oil for the Bengali palate. It was the kind of cooking her favourite niece calls a "Flash in the Pan” in her recently published cookbook of the same name.
...and, meals of substance
Parties were not the order of the day then - but, we had a couple of large feasts in a year. One such ‘big do’ would be post Kali – Puja or Diwali – when she invited her large band of cousins for “Bhai-Phonta”. On these occasions, we called in a professional cook. There was a ‘Mogh’ colony next to Lotus Cinema on Surendra Nath Banerjee Road in Taltala. The Moghs were of Burmese-Buddhist origin from the Cox Bazar region of Bangladesh. They had the generic title of ‘Baruah’ and worked down generations as Bawarchis in the “Box Wallah” companies. There was a Mogh Chef in my Dad’s office. He would moonlight on his off days and come to our house. He was a mean cook. The menu would be simple but substantial. Roast of small spring chickens, mutton collar, fish kebabs or biriyani – rounded off with a mouth watering trifle or bread pudding.
the Sky(room) was the limit
Eating out was not so big with us, as - I guess – it wasn’t in most traditional families. We would look forward to a Chinese meal at “The Waldorf” on Park Street – every time my uncle from Allahabad visited (Crab-meat Asparagus Soup, Sweet and Sour Vegetables, Mandarin Fish and Soya Chilli Chicken) or North-Indian / Punjabi at Ambers or Kwality’s (Chicken Bharta and Mutton Burra kebabs) on someone’s Wedding Anniversary or Birthday. The high point, of course, was Sky Room ( Blue-Fox and Moulin Rouge was out of bounds for the children as those were Cabaret joints) with its Chicken Tetrazinni and Zuccotto cake for dessert. Other than that, it was mainly club food at the CSC – Chow mien, Thukpa or Momos after a swim and the odd Continental Dinner of Chicken Ala-Kiev or Fish Meuniere . Junk food was restricted to the rare binge on Phuckas at Dhakuria Lakes (Southern Avenue) – later Bhel-Puri or Pav Bhaji at Victoria before the ubiquitous Kathi Roll descended onto the streets of Calcutta from Nizam’s on Hogg Street (behind New Market – near Minerva Cinema and Kolkata Municipal Corporation Head-quarters) via Karco and Badshah in the same area.
the price of hunger
It’s no surprise therefore that my culinary sensibilities were honed from these early experiences and memories that still linger on my taste buds. A new journey began when I left home to start my work career. The first realization was – every time you felt hungry it cost you money. The days in “Hotel de Papa” – as the Bengalis would joke – were over for good. You had to pay for food. The second realization to follow soon was – the homely Daal tasted much better than the priciest item on the menu of the fanciest restaurant. Add to that the home-style Mutton or Chicken Curry and it was bliss. Even the humble fish that one had looked down upon all through childhood was like a piece of home.
But, it was not every day, or every week for that matter, that one would find the kind Samaritan calling you over home for a meal with the family. That’s when my courtship with the pots and pans started. It was a pre-marital affair that turned out to be a bigamous relationship almost from the very start with the wife arriving on the scene in close succession. But, the good part was that - we were both equal novices in the kitchen. So, the conjugal arena soon shifted to the open kitchen in our 3rd floor terrace flat on Prabhat Road 5th Lane in Pune and we took to the pitch with shared enthusiasm - she armed with her mother’s copiously compiled recipes and me with the Leela Majumdar primer “Ranna’r Boi” - later graduating to the Calcutta Cookbook. That was before the advent of the internet.
Over the years , of course – as one would expect – Nina has overtaken me by miles, like so many other aspects of life, and I have turned into a consummate ‘concept cook’ – that is I provide the concept and someone else cooks. But, in this of age “gastro-sexual” males my repertoire remains functional rather than fancy, earthy not esoteric - refined even if they not very evolved, which I believe is just age-appropriate.
(amma's photo and food shots courtesy - Joyeeta Ghose)