Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha
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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