Jewel in the Rang Mahal crown
If there is a heaven, I was there on the 21st. Ishita Saha, blogger, foodie, fellow Bengali (and now a friend), hosted a Bengali Pop-up at Atul Kochchar's Rang Mahal on 20 and 21 December and I was invited by her on the 21st to taste the product of this collaboration. What a privilege. She is one of my favourite bloggers and I "adore" Atul Kochchar, the man and the chef, and his food in Rang Mahal is quite sublime, headed very ably by Chef Amrish, quite a talent in his own right. As Ishita put it quite well when I was chatting with her, its a daunting task to put together a pop up for a cuisine that is relatively unknown for the average Indian food fan (not just foreigners but other Indians too) but also ensure that the palates of a discerning Bengali is pleased as well. And they can be critical, if my memories of many weddings and family gatherings serve me. The resulting meal was the culmination of hours of collaboration, several cooking and instructions sessions, demonstrations, and, of course, the many tastings sessions.
I know that food is what brings people together but no one community puts it (alongside football and politics) quite so front and centre as the Bengalis. As soon as one meal is done in a Bengali household, the next is planned with as much detail as is possible with lengthy consultations (and contributions by many). From a very early age, I remember the rituals in both our own house as well as those of my grandmother's. She had this amazing cook (originally Oriya, if I am not mistaken) that she had worked and trained in the art of Bangla cooking, focusing on some of the dishes that originate in what is now Bangladesh since most of her family (if not all) originate from there. The cook would go to the market every morning and bring the spoils to my grandmother for menu instructions. There is a ritual on the progression of a meal, especially a feast and Rang Mahal's "Noborotno" meal was no exception. Sitting down to the meal, hosted by Ishita, felt like I was in her house and she was serving the meal.
The pop-up, entitled "Noborotno" meaning nine jewels, started with a representation of Kolkata street food, more of an amuse bouche of sorts, with jhal moori (puffed rice based savoury snack served in a paper cone), aloo dum (potatoes slow roasted in spices) served on a bed of ghooghni (bean cassoulet) and what was called a masala soda: essentially Thums up (Google it) adulterated with a roasted jeera (cumin) powder, lime and rock salt. The accompanying drink was a vodka-spiked jal jeera with mint. Because of a mix-up, the jal jeera came later and I'm glad it did because it might have clashed or undermined the enjoyment of the masala soda. I'm not a soda drinker but I quite enjoyed the spiked (there is no better word) Thums up.
This course was followed by Potoler Dolma (stuffed gourd - this vegetable only exists in East and North India), Beetroot chop and Dhokar Dalna (this is lentils, made into a paste, steamed and then cooked in a gravy that was quite sublime. While I have not had a "potol" in a long time and though it is my favourite when stuffed (traditionally) with fish or mince, I am a sucker for anything with beetroot. And these were good. The next course has to be a favourite: Scallops Kalia. Kalia is a special type of gravy usually served with fish and can be quite strong. This was a milder version of the kalia and perfectly complemented the pan seared scallops that were immaculately cooked. It was so inviting that I had eaten the lot before I remembered I meant to photograph it. I could have had a repeat of that a few times over and bypassed everything else. But then I would have missed the Malai Chingri (prawn) which is a marriage of coconut gravy with prawns - what's not to like. Nice balance of sweet and savoury and a perfect foil for the prawns.
Course number 5 was Maacher Paturi. Traditionally cooked in our Bengali households with Ilish, the holy grail of Bengali fish eating, salmon was a good substitute. Personally, I would have like a stronger, more wasabi-like, mustard taste because that is how I am used to having this particular dish but I guess the kitchen toned this down to appeal to a wider, non-Bengali, non-Indian palate. Nevertheless, the fish was cooked really well and I had no problems polishing off the lot. This was followed by the Tandoori roasted chicken served with a coriander and chilli based gravy, garnished with some shredded radish. The chicken was moist and quite tender but, delicious as it was, this is not something that is specific to Bengali cuisine, I felt.
The 7th course was a palate cleanser in the form of a traditional chutney-flavoured sorbet. In this case, it was a pineapple chutney. Absolutely delicious and so very good. It had all the elements of a sorbet and the flavours of a chutney. As I mentioned to Chef Atul, as he stopped by our table, all chutneys should be converted to sorbets. I was getting quite full by now even though they were tasting portions and there was a 15-minute gap between each course.
The last two jewels were the "main" course of Kosha Mangsho (slow cooked lamb with just a hint of gravy - so tender it would have fallen off the bone), cholar daal (lentils made of Bengal gram, stewed with subtle hint of spices - a tad too much garam masala for my personal taste - and grated coconut), begun bhaja (fried aubergine disks - my favourite vegetable of all time) and eaten with freshly made phulko luchi: every Bengali mum rolls out these dough disks on special occasions and deep fries them till they resemble a puff bread that collapse to become soft and pliable. In other parts of India, they are known as puris. The kitchen kept these coming for those that wanted a few more. One was enough for me. And the last one was dessert. A creative amalgamation of all the various traditional Bengali sweets given the 5-star creative treatment: Patishapta (a rice flour pancake stuffed with a sweet coconut filling) and Mishti doi ice cream served with rossogulla powder, two triangles of bhapa doi one flavoured with blueberries and the other with raspberries, garnished with crumbled mihirdana, fresh blueberries, raspberries, and edible flowers. I think there was a hit of payesh (or kheer as it is known in other parts of India) there somewhere too.
You could feel the deft touches from the professional chefs, under Chef Amrish's watchful palate, in each course. The presentation was quirky and fun with great attention to detail. You could sense Ishita's generosity in sharing recipes that she has honed and tried and tested over the years, learnt from her mother and mother-in-law. There was a lot of love and passion in each course and it showed.
I am not the best food photographer but here are the photographs I took, minus the scallops. You can follow me on Instagram and Twitter if you want to see more of what I get up to. I'm quite prolific especially on Twitter, so you have been warned.