Title: A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta Author: Mohona Kanjilal Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2021
To say that this is a rattling book on the food culture of Kolkata will be an understatement. Indeed, there couldn’t have been a better book than this on the food history of the City of Joy. In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.
A Taste of Time–A Food History of Calcutta by Mohona Kanjilal goes the whole hog in digging out the culinary history of Kolkata with every minute detail. The book is massive and gorgeous.
An alumnus of Loreto College, Kanjilal spent most of her childhood in Bengaluru. From a freelance journalist to a full-time writer, newspapers have been her invariable guidance. She dabbles in short stories, too.
Says the blurb: “Calcutta, once the nucleus of the Raj, was at the heart of a thriving economy and unparalleled administration. Over the centuries, this teeming, cosmopolitan metropolis has become home to people from various communities who have lent its food and culture their distinctive tastes and culinary rituals. The heady romance of palates and flavours in the ‘Royal Capital’ has fostered diversity in food and culture all the while adhering to the city’s Bengali roots.”
Divided into four sections and about a dozen chapters, Kanjilal brings to the platter a full account of the food culture of Kolkata and it, surely, is an intellectual nourishment.
The book is a perceptive journey through the ever-changing landscape of Calcutta’s food and cultural environment, from its decades-old cutlet, jhal muri,and puchka stalls to its iconic continental restaurants like Firpo’s and Flurys. Whether it is the oldest tea shop, Favourite Cabin, set up in 1924, to the 21st-century fine-dining restaurant “threesixtythree”, Mohona dexterously captures the stories behind the city’s adorable culture of ‘bikel chaar-ter cha’ (tea at 4 p.m.).
What makes the volume fascinating is her authentic research. From Calcutta’s renowned bakeries like Nahoum’s to the invention of rasgullas and samosas (or shingara), Kanjilal does a 360-degree exploration. Diving into Calcutta’s blazing history, she shows how the food habits of early European settlers, Jewish, Armenian, Chinese, Parsi and other communities, and the city’s next-door neighbours like Odisha, have made the culinary fabric of Calcutta immensely flush and stratified.
Food, Kanjilal says, “has always been an integral part of the lifestyle of the residents of Calcutta… whether it is… the phuchka wallah… the jhal muri wallah, selling the spicy puffed rice preparation… or the ghugni wallah, serving… the semi-dry and spicy preparation of whole yellow peas…”
In close to 500 pages, she weaves scholarly accounts of historians and food writers with the everyday fables one hears from a famous paanwallah or an old-timer of a club. In the introductory part; she deals with the founding of Calcutta — from the Mughal empire to the coming of the British and latter part of the twentieth century when Calcutta became a bursting metropolis.
Writes Kanjilal: “As the capital of British India (1858-1911), Calcutta became a culinary melting pot of Armenians and Parsis from Iran, Jews from Syria and Baghdad, the Chinese fleeing their revolution, and local migrants such as Gujaratis, Punjabis, Marwaris, Sindhis, Oriyas, Biharis and South Indians. Her book explores this culinary evolution across a variety of cuisines and time periods. She structures the book according to when these migrants figured into the city’s consciousness. It is divided into four sections, with each section taking up the culinary influence of a particular set of migrants and the dishes they influenced in a Bengali household’s repertoire.
“The British were responsible for introducing certain food habits that have, over the years, become pillars of Calcutta’s culinary culture. One of their major contributions was the introduction of beverages to the Bengali table. Tea, coffee and fresh fruit juices are a fixed part of the average Bengali’s breakfast spread today because of the British influence. This nation strongly influenced the foods Bengalis ate for breakfast as well, introducing typical preparations of egg, sausage, bacon and bread to the local palate. Chops and cutlets, which are today as essential to a Bengali as rice and fish curry, also owe their popularity to the role played by the British in Bengali culinary history. Today, kiosks in every nook and corner of the city make and sell these fried foods, usually as accompaniments to what many perceive as a quintessentially British meal: afternoon tea. Finally, egg-based puddings, now a fixture on Calcutta’s dessert menus, were introduced to the city by the British.”
Her investigation is truly fascinating. From the British influence to the Portuguese influence; from the Anglo-Indian to the Armenian; from the Jews to the Nawabi influence; from Chinese to Parsi cuisine, she digs out hundreds of recipes. Then, there is a whole chapter on Bengali cuisine itself. She also deals with Pan-Indian cuisine and the influence of nearby Darjeeling district.
If one ever wants to read a book about Calcutta that takes to the vignettes and the history surrounding the favourite dishes and eateries, this is the book. If you want to hear stories about which famous personality (e.g. Subhas Chandra Bose) ate what and where, and if you want to repeat those experiences for yourself, then this is the suitable guide.
This delicious and all-embracing history of food in Calcutta, peppered with mouth-watering nuggets, recipes and incendiary accounts is a boon for the bon vivant.
* Puchka, jhaal muri and ghughni are savoury snacks.
Paanwallah is the seller of paan or betel leaf.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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We’ve all heard the adage, those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it. Maybe like any good saying, it’s been over-used and we’ve forgotten to consider its core truism. But think about it. If we don’t remember, we tend to repeat former mistakes, because human-beings are very alike in their actions and reactions, and we have a horrible habit of thinking we’re so unique when we’re anything but that. The ego of is young. Occasionally, ignorance shields us from historical realities. When we get older, we sometimes stop caring and leave it to those younger to us. But both approaches have deep flaws. They abdicate the responsibility of living in this world.
What reason could any of us have for truly abdicating responsibility to our grandchildren, and those who will invariably come after we are gone? Is being young an excuse? Is being old? Or are we intrinsically fond of passing the buck, as American’s say, and not believing we’ll make enough of an impact in this world to even bother? I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s apathy and a childish belief someone else will do it for us. Just look at people who drop litter in the ocean, they don’t care that it will cause havoc on sea-life, they are not thinking of the future repercussion, they are thinking only of now. They don’t see how that one act has this deleterious knock-on effect that reverberates throughout our planet.
If you’re rolling your eyes and are about to give up reading, consider this: What is your value? What do you stand for? If you died tomorrow what would have been your legacy? Don’t think wealth or children, but your place in the chain stretching from the beginning of humanity to now. What have you done to help that chain? If you don’t think that is relevant, consider why this isn’t important to you and why being self-interested is justifiable to you when so many suffer, and the world is damaged by those like yourself who don’t care.
Maybe that sounds judgmental because of course, it is. Too often we can look back in time and see these pioneers and campaigners who try to make a change and be swallowed by disinterest on the part of the masses. Literally speaking then, the masses are the problem, because whilst a few good apples stand out and speak to things we need to do, the majority are thinking of just their survival and their immediate gratification. The concept of immediate gratification has taken deep roots in the current times.
Psychologists and thinkers have many ways to explain why the majority do nothing and seem apparently not to feel they have any obligation to improve the world we live in. Some say, it’s about human development; few attain that stage of self-realization where they feel a need to contribute beyond themselves. Others point to the hardship of life, and how when you struggle, you often do not have enough left over to help others. Of course, we all know notable examples of those who despite a hard life, gave in abundance to others.
If we remove religion and its dictate that people should help each other as part of being a good (Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist) would we have a lawless approach to giving and caring, that made social concerns null void? I would say it has less to do with dogma and religion and more to do with personal ethics. There are plenty of atheists who do a great deal for others and this planet, without any desire for recompense or a place in heaven. Therefore, it seems to be a deeply personal choice or evolutionary step.
If so, why do some evolve more than others? What do we need to do to achieve that selflessness and why do not many not want to achieve it? Those questions many never be answered, but they are part of a larger picture, that of our place in this world, and what we do to ensure there is a decent world for our progeny. I’ve been told this is a utopian way of thinking and human nature is baser, seeking only to procreate and thrive, sometimes at the expense of others. I am an idealist in that I believe there is intrinsic good in many (not all) people and that’s what gives being alive its deepest worth. Without helping make the world a better place in some way, we are just oxygen users, having too many children, using too many resources and trying to kid ourselves this won’t affect the future.
Growing up I was familiar with the peace sign so popular in the sixties, and we touted many of those symbols without really considering their history or how ‘working toward peace’ had actually played out through history. Maybe like many words, ‘peace’ is over-used and we don’t consider what it means in relation to today’s world. It’s as relevant as ever. If we think we’re not needed to increase peace, we’re living in cloud cuckoo land. Peace is one of the only consistent needs we have, aside food and water. It is the erosion of peace that causes the majority of our concerns, and the dismissal of peace that leads to some of our greatest strife.
So many continue to live in a part of the planet where peace doesn’t ever reign. Let’s stop and really think about that for a moment. Those of us who don’t live in those parts often try not to think about it, because it makes us feel guilty. What can we really do? Yet if we watch the news, almost nightly politicians debate about how best to deal with this issue. Or that’s what we’re led to believe.
What if we’ve been lied to? What if major world governments and thus, the puppet political system, do not wish for peace but thrive on discord because it permits them to do what they really want, which usually has to do with power, domination/control and profit. Think of all the wars since the second World War America has been involved in. Not one of them has brought peace, not one of them has ensured or guaranteed peace. The money spent is unfathomable and would have been enough to resolve many countries crisis’s forever. The profit is hidden and often in the sole possess of those who really pull the strings and many lives are lost. For what? Peace?
The idea of going to war to promote or guarantee peace is not a new concept. Traditionally however wars were fought for one reason only, one side wanted to conquer the other side to gain something (profit, land, slaves, control) and war was typically a male endeavor and one that seemed to exist in every society where human beings existed. You could say, war was uniquely human. Similar fighting has been witnessed in other primates, and animals, and they often share the occupation or protection of territory as their prime objective, so perhaps it’s an instinctual thing within our animal psyches to go to war. However, wars in the modern sense of the word have not been as basic, and their motivations have increased with the complexity of our societies, to make what we understand by war, a thoroughly human concept.
A complex society, invariably thinks of many more strategies related to war than a simple brawl in the old days, with sharpened rocks. The more complex, the more devastating and wide-reaching and drawn-out wars, think of Rome and their stampede across the world, or Alexander the Great’s conquests. Wars have been the cause of so many negatives, not the least; sexual assault, slavery, subjugation of people’s, famine, destruction of land and property and livelihood, physical and mental suffering and the collection of extreme wealth by the minority. Does that begin to sound modern to you? It does to me.
Today’s wars are all about the optics, the phantom, the illusion. Countries go to war to act out their own strength to ensure other countries don’t forget how mighty they are. The people who get caught in these, die or suffer terribly, the displaced cause huge economic fallouts and a minority get rich. It sounds a lot like a pyramid scheme to me. I began to think of the military machine as a pyramid scheme when I began studying the wars America has been in since WW2. One could argue without America half of Europe would be speaking German now. I personally don’t believe this is true, but it’s a common myth that thanks to America, Europe wasn’t destroyed. It might be worthwhile considering how WW2 began, what part America had in it, and the specific strategies employed, because it’s never as simple as it seems, not least this repeated thirst for groups to condemn and persecute other groups. Everyone involved has an agenda, few are as civic minded as they appear, and so a war is, as I said, more complicated.
What we do know is this: The World Wars (which sadly are being phased out of being taught at schools throughout the world, begging the question, if future generations don’t know what happened and why, how can we avoid a repeat?) was a consortium of countries, spearheaded by Germany, seeking to over-run vast parts of the world, and to promote a new ideology. I can resolutely say this needed stopping and at any cost because within that, were persecutions towards groups that led to mass slaughter. This is true in most wars but the difference is, this was on a larger scale (comparatively speaking with the then-populations) and anything less than involvement would have brought disaster.
What’s different about the wars since?
World Wars one and two were world wars, they involved nearly everyone, aside from Switzerland who decided in their neutrality they could make a tidy profit, and Spain, who were having their own civil war, and made a deal to be left out of it. When everyone is involved in a war that involves everyone, we can argue, this is a war that cannot be avoided, defused or worsened by involvement.
Can the same be said of Vietnam? Were the involvements of France and then America beneficial? Could the war have been avoided? Was it necessary?
The same can be said for many other so-called necessary wars, from the smaller (Falkland’s and the UK) to larger Korean or Afghanistan. In every situation, the involvement of other countries that were not directly affected, only worsened the war and suffering, the involvement was not simply to ‘help’ others, that was never the intention, the involvement had many motivations, and only one was a true sense of ‘aid’ with a view to peace. So why is it, when we see the soldiers leaving out, or the declaration of war, we also hear the word ‘peace’ bandied around? Why do people truly believe ‘going to war’ will ensue peace when history tells us, this is rarely the case?
Too often I have heard that people have to go to war for peace, or that peace-keepers will be sent in. I find it hard to find any war that has led to peace and even then, everyone involved would agree, if it could have been avoided, that would have been a better strategy altogether. In truth, WW1 and 2 could have been avoided, if you consider what really caused them. The feelings of helplessness and loss of face, led the German population for example, to vote for candidates who promised them a better future. Nobody knew how bad this would become, but the feelings of resentment and despair were the fuel for why extremism won the vote. In that sense, it’s very much a domino effect.
If then, most modern war begins with issues that can be resolved if identified, isn’t true peace keeping, to deal with those issues, before a war begins, rather than after that? Of course, those people are called diplomats and to be fair to them, many have thwarted worse outcomes through diplomacy, but just as diplomats can be successful, they are also used as pawns in a bigger system, that of the war machine. Certain countries wish to go to war almost at any cost. Consider the war between Pakistan and India and how culpable the English were for their interference with both countries as ‘peace keeper’ when in reality it was all about subjugation, control and imperialism. If we think this is an old-fashioned term, consider the patronizing tone of Western societies when ‘peace keeping’ in other countries, taking the paternalistic approach instead of considering what got them there in the first place. Years of exploitation aren’t easy to undo.
While this is never acknowledged and is hidden behind rhetoric about trying to protect others and ensure peace, we should bear in mind the true motivation. This doesn’t make us conspiracy theorists or negative thinkers, so much as realists who see history and its repetition of such wars and quiet conquests. The homogenization of the media has seemed on the surface, a good thing, but if the ‘facts’ are controlled then it’s more of an illusion of information, although preferable to the situation in those countries where international news is altogether restricted. When I moved to America, I was surprised at how little international news was on nightly TV and of that, how they only glossed over the most salient points. But it seems the rest of the world has followed suit, with the once immutable BBC now expressing opinion rather than fact, it seems they’re all spurred on by the rush to entertain rather than inform.
The outcome of exploitation is today greater than ever. It is the reason why so many refugees seek refuge in countries overburdened with too many asylums for their fragile infrastructures. A no win situation, begun after WW2 where Jews were not permitted asylum and the Geneva Convention acted to prevent this ever occurring again, to displaced peoples, yet countries who do not possess the jobs or social infrastructure like Spain, could not realistically take in the numbers arriving. War is not always the sole determinant for asylum seeking, but it remains the main reasons. Small wars unreported on daily newscasts, prevail in areas ravaged by gangs and corrupt governments. The West might consider themselves far advanced from this desperation but if we consider how many times the West has been implicated (or should have been) in foreign affairs that led to wars, it’s definitely a fully fledged partner in the root cause.
Take the South and Central American refugees streaming into Mexico as I write, seeking asylum in America as a prime example. Thanks in part to years of American meddling in local politics. We can wash our hands of it and say: This is their war! But we should be mindful of what led to the war. It’s never as simple as it seems. Years of erosion, weaponization and drug sales that would not exist if wealthy countries were not buyers, there are so many factors to consider, many of which originate outside of the actual country in question. When civil or border wars begin, they are rarely unprovoked and locally generated, but the result of years of exploitation and meddling from foreign interests.
Maybe we don’t want to admit that. And many times, that’s what politicians do, they simply refuse to see what history proves is true. By stating categorically, ‘this is not our fault or problem’ they tap into those people who desperately want to hear that, rather than take responsibility for something they feel they had no part in. Sometimes they genuinely didn’t have a part in it, but oftentimes we are a part of the problem, even if we aren’t willing to admit it. Every time we buy deeply discounted goods from other countries, we condone through our purchase, the maquiladoras where underaged women work for pittance, displaced from their home towns because NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) created a bigger market and eroded the traditional farmers. They now make our Levi’s jeans which we want at a good price, and therein is our part in the exploitation cycle.
True, we don’t have to admit this. We can turn away from the oceans filled with debris cast off from giant containers routinely sunk poisoning the sea and sea life, even as those containers give us the affordable middle-class existence, we feel we are owed. We can turn away from child labour, gunrunning, drug-crimes, all related to things we set in motion from influential countries. We can say if we specifically didn’t sell Mexico a US gun, we’re not responsible for kids being shot; if we didn’t smoke a joint at college, we can’t be responsible for the drug-trade and its fall out; but the situation is far more insidious. No one trade is in isolation, they are all linked. So, when you smoke a joint from weed coming out of Mexico, you’re not just supporting the drug-trade, you’re supporting the heroin trade, the smack trade, the child-prostitute trade etc.
None of us want to own that kind of legacy, so it’s easier to just say: I have nothing to do with it. I find myself thinking that when I want to buy a cheap dress from a chain store that makes things in China, I should be thinking of the worker who made it and how little they were paid. I feel it when I go for a cheap taco for lunch or expect a Mexican local lawn cutter to charge less for their services, there are so-called levels of ‘innocent’ subjugation we permit because they’re enshrined into our system and only the most moral will ever have the strength to protest them. With regard to peace, we also turn a blind eye, instead of holding people responsible, perhaps because we don’t know how to, we condone non-peaceful interventions throughout the world, in the ‘name’ of peace all the time.
With 9/11 the outrage in the US was at an all-time high. It was the perfect timing for launching a war that in any other setting would have been pronounced doomed, foolish and already tried and failed many times. Yet based on emotion and rhetoric that’s exactly what America did and few protested, because fear, fearmongering and inaccurate emotive rhetoric rules the day. Now with social media, this tendency has run amok and very little fact exists so much as knee-jerk reactions, immediate- gratification and social outrage which is more false outrage than accurate. We feel good if we speak out about injustice as we perceive it, cherry picked by social media as the dish du jour and we don’t ever question how much social media manipulates us.
I find those who are not on social media have the vantage point of not being susceptible to this invariable bias. When we go back and check our ‘facts’ as we perceive them, we run into mine fields of websites littered with inaccuracies and who has the time to truly fact check? Today, the media en mass is less accurate, more reactive, more immediacy-based, and we’re junkies of the like button and click bait more than ever before. In fact, I just finished watching a documentary about how social media is specifically set up to emulate the impulses you have when gambling, with one example being that tempting ‘ding’ we receive when getting a message and how hard it is not to check. This is all psychological programming, and it’s deliberate, but who ever considers that and its far-reaching consequence on truth?
As long as we have our new iPhone (criminally expensive), we’re all good. The modern world keeps us too tired and busy to really muster lasting outrage about anything. In fact, we’re gaslighted if we do. Unless of course it’s the sanctioned ‘approved outrage’ that’s flavour of the week. We’re controlled in our responses more than ever before but believe we are freer than we’ve ever been. What a fallacy and what a stellar job those who control us have done. And before you say, “I’m not controlled!” Think about it – really think about it.
So how can we live in a peaceful world if our very notion of peace is perverted by the long-standing agendas of those who really set the schedule? How do we as individuals have any power for change? If we send our cousin off to war with misgivings and we’re told we’re not patriotic if we question his/her service, how can we ever expose the lies behind the notion of ‘peace keeping’ and what modern-notions of peace really mean? Just like Missionaries who originally might have had good intentions but essentially forced their way into cultures and demanded they adhere to a foreign God, we’re going into countries that have problems, possibly historically caused by the West, and thinking we know best. But there is absolutely no proof we do.
In fact, there is ample proof we don’t and we don’t learn. Of course, there are worse offenders. Iran’s shameful human-rights legacy, their determination to build a nuclear weapon are terrifying. But on the flip side, whilst I will never condone their punishment tactics or human-rights violations, I can see why they would wish to have access to a nuclear weapon if others have. What makes one country have the right to be weaponized and not another? Personally, I wouldn’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons but I also think it’s wrong of countries like America, the only country to have used (and some would argue, abused) a nuclear weapon, to dictate which countries can have access. It’s also wrong when you consider it is the very countries with weapons and power who often have sold those weapons to the countries, they then sanction for trying to build said weapons.
Ultimately as a peace striving person, I would wish NO country had nuclear weapons but how realistic is that nowadays? I think it’s like the Smallpox scenario. We can all agree to get rid of our Smallpox because we have eradicated Smallpox but what if one country keeps theirs and then has the upper hand over the rest? Can we ever trust other countries? Ideals aside, history tells us human nature is such, we rarely can trust even those closer, even our own governments. So perhaps skepticism and mistrust aren’t so much a peace-breaker as a natural response?
I’ve never felt there could be an ideal of total peace. I don’t think it’s within our purview as humans to achieve that. I hope I’m wrong and I hope the day comes that’s proven. Meanwhile, with America and Russia acting like stupid cold-war frien-amies again, I pause before I trust any country totally, not least my own. As such, we invariably have weapons of mass destruction to act as ‘deterrents’ as a stale-mate to prevent out-and-out war. Whether this will be our undoing, remains to be seen. It only takes one nuclear accident to prove anything nuclear wasn’t such a hot idea. Surely, we’ve learnt this? I would argue the younger generations haven’t because it’s not being taught and it takes me back to the idea of those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. If you believe your generation is ‘better’ and won’t make that mistake, consider how many generations had the same (wrong-headed) concept and the consequences thereafter.
Is there really an answer? I don’t have it But I think if we all stop hiding from reality and try to figure things out, we have a greater chance. Certainly, having a pie-in-the-sky approach doesn’t work anymore than being too reactionary does. At the moment, America is stymied by its polarization of thought and its reluctance to think. Until those change, we’re just a bunch of fussy children wishing bad things didn’t happen. I believe we can be more than that. Even if we don’t attain total peace, we can get closer.
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.