I feel a certain affinity with Bengal. And, like a particularly persistent potential amour, the state seems to be making a determined bid for my affections. I think I’m ready to be wooed; whenever I dally with a Delhi chaat, slope off with a Sri Lankan string hopper, or play away with a Parsi patia; there’s an edible Bengali joy waiting to lure me willingly back to our marital bed… A plump shingara; a kati roll; a handsome, burnished square of fresh nolen gurer sandesh.
How has our sweet love affair blossomed? I couldn’t tell you, but Bengal is under my skin and all around me. Friends, colleagues, acquaintances – all seem to have their own links to deepen and strengthen my own. It could have stemmed from spending time under the wing and in the kitchen of Asma Khan, purveyor of the finest Calcutta khana I know; from ogling the blogs of ‘Miss Masala’ Mallika Basu and ‘Cosmopolitan Currymania’ Purabi Naha; or Tweeting and eating with Mr ‘Finely Chopped’ himself, Kalyan Karmakar.
Perhaps experiencing the authentic Calcutta eats Angus Denoon peddles from the ‘Jhalmuri Express’ cart he pedals around London flicked the switch. Maybe I was seduced by the stream of food musings of Angus’ fellow ‘Rick Stein’s India’ guest star Kaniska Chakraborty, whose radio appearances I stream through internet radio. His Bengali burbles are a regular presence in my front room. I might not understand much of the language, but I hear his enthusiasm loud and clear.
My surrogate ‘Bong Mom’, Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta, certainly played a big part in instigating and perpetuating my Bengali romance. Rather like a well-intentioned mother attempting to steer her wayward offspring from the arms of a darstardly demon toward a more suitable suitor. Like the Ramayana, my love affair could make an epic of epic proportions. In the latest act, I’ve been cooking with Neha Misra, whose Burmese-Bengali food has brought a spicy twist to proceedings.
And now there’s Rinku Bhattacharya – a brand new character in my ever-broadening Bengali cast. Hers is another virtual appearance in my life – like fellow New Yorker Sandeepa, Rinku delivers her lines – and her spirit – via her cookbook. This one is a bit of an epic in its own right. It’s almost encyclopaedic; ‘The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles’ encompasses recipes, traditions, glossaries, and food information. Heavens! Lots of lovely, Bengali food information: sheer heaven for me.
Rinku saw my interest and fed my growing obsession by whizzing me a copy of her comprehensive tome. Or should that be my Bengali bible? Since landing in my letterbox, it’s taken pride of place as my go-to guide and guaranteed source of gyaan. Having the info to hand means I don’t have to run straight to my Bong Mom every time I need enlightenment. I feel like a baby bird ready to fly the nest – although I know I can always slip back under Sandeepa’s wing for one of her spectacular stories.
‘The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles’ takes its name from that quintessential, definitive blend ‘panch phoron’– a ‘full’ masala comprising equal quantities of whole mustard, cumin, methi, kalonji and fennel seeds. The book devotes sections to each spice; along with writings on Bengali food history; guides to ingredients, techniques, culinary lexicon; meal planning for daily eating and celebrations; and in excess of 180 truly authentic recipes – each preceded by a personal, informative intro.
Turning the pages makes me happy. Not only because the action immerses me in a bubbling cauldron containing all the Bengali’s most beloved ingredients – fish; dal; rice; eggs; and, of course, mishti galore – but also because it brings home how much I’ve absorbed from my acquired acquaintances. Reading is revelatory yet familiar; the realisation I’ve picked up a basic Bengali culinary vocabulary as richly rewarding as the jollity of mastering mangshor jhol.
I haven’t yet started cooking from ‘The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles’ because, quite honestly, I don’t know where to start. Or how I would ever stop. I’m frightened that I’ll open the floodgates with a tentative attempt at alu sheddo and drown in dhokar dalna. Seeing a recipe for ‘plastic chutney’ just like the one Sandeepa, Kalyan and the crew have given me gyaan on, and chef Vivek Singh makes at Cinnamon Soho, provokes a yelp of excitement and a lapful of scalding chai. This book is dangerous.
And I’m in danger of becoming a Bengali food bore, espousing the excellence of the state’s kitchen to anyone who gives me the smallest sideways glance. You can’t look away quick enough – I’ll already have collared you to chat kati rolls and converse about chingrer cutlets rather like what Kaniska showed Rick Stein on the telly. If you don’t get away quickly enough, I’ll pull the book out of my bag like a crazed preacher wielding a holy scripture. And probably proffer a piece of sandesh.
Ah, sharing sandesh – the Bengali equivalent of getting you to drink the company Kool Aid. One bite of the creamy, soft, cheesecake-like sweetmeat and you, too, will be royally ‘fudged’; your own Bengali food love blossoming like the much-revered banana flower. Conversion completed, you’ll find you need a handbook to hand at all times. ‘The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles’ tells you all you could need to know. And you and I both know you need it.