Book chronicles evolution of Bengali cuisine, its real spirit

PTI | New Delhi | Updated: 12-01-2023 13:21 IST | Created: 12-01-2023 13:21 IST
Book chronicles evolution of Bengali cuisine, its real spirit
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What is known as Kolkata's food today has its backstory embedded in 250 years of political, social and cultural history, says a new book which takes readers on a gastronomical journey with the city's food and its rich past.

Kolkata's gastronomy is not a defined story of an ethnicity's interest in culinary delights but rather an exploration into the psyche of a community that has made their love for food a statement of self-expression, writes author-filmmaker Nilosree Biswas in her new book ''Calcutta On Your Plate''.

The book, published by Rupa, tells the story of Kolkata's food, the platter that is identified as the city's grub as well as the notion of 'amader khabar' (our eats) as the author situates Bengali gastronomy.

''The narrative does not follow a year-by-year account of changes that Bengali food has undergone, because no gastronomic history is chronological. Going back and forth, I explore how multifarious factors played their part in creating food tastes, leading to choices,'' Biswas writes.

From the private kitchen of an exiled king and the homes of a handful of upper-class Bengalis, how some dishes became so popular, is a thrilling story of taste, smell and savouring, she says.

''To think that some of today's signature dishes such as dum biryani, kebabs, fish chops, kabirajis, cutlets, kathi rolls and Mughlai paratha were once exclusive to those who had access to the ingredients or for whom it was their 'home food', is perhaps overwhelming at some level,'' the book says.

It also describes how with influences of two cooking styles - English and Mughlai-Awadhi - aided by contributions of the Portuguese and an already pre-existing food habit from the medieval times, Kolkata's foodscape underwent a sea change, impacting people's lives, food habits, food procurement, desires and the ways of social engagement.

The book, which has photographs by Irfan Nabi, sets the tone with impressions from the early East India Company days, which not only generated revenues from silk and cotton trades but also engineered the building blocks of one of the world's biggest cities.

''I touch upon how Kolkata looked in its early days, its lived-in spaces. The discussion moves to gastronomy, revolving around the major actors that were instrumental in the emergence of a new food order. Routing via throwback, the book walks the story of early taverns, hotels in the city, 'dak' bungalows and transit food along with stories of what was sold and consumed,'' Biswas says.

There are also descriptions of buying trends and how advertisements with quirky words titillated the babus enough to lure them into a redefined luxurious life.

''Discussions revolve around their outdoor life, discreet sojourns at hotels and travels out of Bengal. All in all, there was a behavioural change in the affluent, educated class of Bengalis, much like their food, and this is one of the central themes throughout the book,'' the author says.

The narrative closely looks into the then Calcutta life of the 18th and 19th centuries, when Bengalis were becoming uninhibited, albeit a tad selectively, as many of them got into English education. Soon, women's education would follow, with a handful of all girls' schools opening.

Though met with initial resistance, education would act as one of the most influential factors towards the rise of 'new food'. With the advent of the printing press, a whole world of women's magazines surfaced.

According to Biswas, these magazines fostered discussions on home management and culinary, letting women take a proactive role in penning their stories of food including recipes they came up with.

To that, there were manuals written by men, conveying the idea of an ideal Bengali woman and her role at home, she says.

Biswas writes about history (often colonial Bengal and pre-modern India), culture, art history, food and cinema of South Asia. Her earlier books include ''Banaras: Of Gods, Humans and Stories'' and ''Alluring Kashmir: The Inner Spirit'' (co-written with Nabi). She has also won a best documentary award in the New York Festival.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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