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Archive for the ‘Kolkata’ Category

Two very interesting gastronomic events were planned for us on our second day in Kolkata. The first was a cooking demonstration in a colourful family home that was converted into a restaurant (called Kewpie’s). The female chef (who grew up in the house) gave an interactive demonstration of 4 dishes: she specializes in Bengali cuisine, and gave us lots of information of how the cuisine formed with its various influences; how to cut vegetables Bengali style and how to make various spice pastes. Vegan 'thali' at Kewpie'sAfterwards, we sat down to a meal served ‘thali’-style with little round bowls placed on a large copper platter for each person. She went through the trouble to make my entire lunch vegan – I praised her for her time, her effort and kindness. My bowls contained: cooked carrot with raisins, spinach patties, almond cream, aromatic rice, poori fried bread, vegan naan and wholemeal roti bread and chickpea dumplings. Ghee is used less in this area’s cuisine than elsewhere, with mustard oil the preferred fat for frying. Characteristic spices used are poppy seed paste, mustard seed paste, coriander seed and leaves paste; ginger-garlic paste, nigella seeds, desiccated coconut, chilli powder. Whole spices like dried chillies, fennel seeds and cardamom are added additionally to a dish. A surprising taste sensation at the end of the meal is betel leaf (‘paan’), astringent in taste, served rolled up stuffed with fennel seeds – this serves to aid digestion. The food is very aromatic and not as fiery as southern cuisine.
Colonial buildings Kolkata

The cuisine in Bengal had been influenced and shaped by the Mughal courts during the Indian Middle Ages of 500 – 1500 AD (called Muglai cuisine, with its rich sauces and lots of meat) and Awadhi cuisine from the Nawab court in the 16-18th centuries (known for its elaborate dishes like kormas and biryani, cooked over a slow fire). Then came the British influence in the 18-19th centuries in the form of the ritual of tea, snack foods and confectioneries. Jewish immigrants left their stamp on the cuisine by opening large bakeries (their puff pastries are still served at every train station in the state). A large Chinese immigrant community established in the city in the 20th century, wove “chop suey”, noodles, rice cakes and pork dishes permanently into the area’s cuisine.
Potato patties at Saffron Restaurant

One evening we had a chef’s taster menu that consisted of a course of 12 small dishes. This is the traditional way of serving a meal Bengali-style, in the form of multi-dishes following a particular order. I felt so special when I received a printed version of my vegan courses! The restaurant’s name was Saffron, headed by a young chef that learned to cook from his mother and then trained and worked in London for many years. His style is a modern take on traditional dishes, while retaining the essence of the ritualised cuisine where each dish is individually made with its own spice ingredients and paste mixes – vegetables are even cut in certain ways for specific preparations.  While the classic Bengali 5 spice mix is ginger, nigella, celery seed, fenugreek and cumin; the five basic tastes are always taken into account – astringent, bitter, sweet, sour and pungent.  Each dish is eaten separately and in a certain order so as not to mix the flavours. Bitter vegetables (called ‘shukto’) is for instance followed by lentils (‘dal’), together with roasted vegetables (‘bhaja’, ‘bhate’ or ‘bhorta’).  Coconut dessert Saffron RestaurantThen come the lightly spiced vegetables (‘chenchki’, ‘chokka’, ‘mishti dalna’), followed by more heavily spiced vegetables (‘chochori’, ‘dalna’, ‘ghonto’). The fish and meat dishes (from lightly to more pungently spiced) that follow next are easily substituted by tofu and then by firmly pressed bean patties.  The sweet-sour dish that follows (a chutney, ‘ambal’ or ‘tauk’) to clear the palette is accompanied by poppadums (‘papor’).  The sweet dessert of rice and milk can easily be veganized made with almond milk.  

Vegan menu Saffron Restaurant, Kolkata

(3 little dishes; mustard paste brushed over)

(2 dishes, each with their own chutney. ‘Paturi’ (banana leaf) – the chutney was lightly steamed in a banana leaf parcel; ‘Gondhoraj’ – type of lime only found in West-Bengal)

(sorbet on a stick dotted with chilli seeds!)

(vegan pasta, filled with black lentils, ginger and garlic (a basic ‘makhni’))
(‘channa dal qobli’ – dried lentil stew with amazing spice pastes)

(young coconut and coconut water blended together and set in a glass)

Saffron tea

*****

A platter of rose and saffron flavoured home-made chocolates placed on the table for the whole group, look divine but I did declined those – I know how difficult it is to make vegan filled chocolates!

The head chef further amazed me when he and all his kitchen staff brought out a huge vegan chocolate cake they baked for my birthday! Although the cake was way too sweet, we all had a chunk from the velvety, moist and rich cake made from exquisite chocolate.
Vegan chocolate cake

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Spiced lentils and samosas

Healthy protein snack food

The airports in India overall offer excellent choices for vegans. Apart from small meals (see next post), I bought packets of spicy chickpea halves, that more resembled yellow split peas (‘Hul Chul’).  [Ingredients: chickpeas (70%), chilli, coriander, ginger, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, salt and vegetable oil].  The packet of 200g contains 14g of protein, so 7g of protein per 100g of chickpeas. Another delicious packet of snack food I bought was ‘Nashta’: samosas with a bean stuffing. Each samosa was large (about the size of a small child’s fist), so I’d only eat two at a time. The packet lasted more than a week and provided me with an excellent source of protein. [Ingredients: fine wheat flour 67%, green gram 8%, salt, sesame seed, black pepper powder, red chilli powder, cloves, cinnamon, aniseed, mango powder, sugar 2%, cashew nuts, raisins, vegetable oil]. Also, just like the above packet, it also contained no preservatives or E-numbers. 

Kolkata (the name possibly derived from the Bengali words for canal + dug), used to be a major trading town. The British established the East India Company in 1690, after the Dutch and Portuguese had already settled there. Some of the buildings retained their British colonial splendour in striking brightly painted buildings but most were terribly dilapidated with tree roots clutching the crumbling bricks like a large hand crushing sugar cubes. In the backstreets we came across a market where men were sleeping on their folded-up stalls while the early morning vegetable market was making brisk trade. Those same men would set up their businesses (most were selling computer parts) later in the day when the market was over: in such a crowded city it makes sense to double up, making full use of the little space available. Carefully watching where we placed our feet as we walked, we passed flower sellers, spice merchants, dried pulses and nut hawkers.  We also encountered other surprising enterprises such as shoe polishers, ice-deliveries in huge cut blocks, stalls ironing men’s clothes as the patrons patiently stood around waiting for their trousers in their underwear, wiry thin men walking around with 2 buckets of water and 1 toothbrush for people to brush their teeth, gypsy women wearing lots of silver jewellery weighing people for a fee on an old fashioned scale.
Vegetable stall Kolkata

Lots of food stalls were set up along the roads: sugar-sweetened chai tea (a local brew made of star anise, black pepper corns, fennel seeds, cloves, cinnamon bark, nutmeg and ginger, sometimes with added black tea (a British import) and frothed with milk (a Muslim import from the north west) served with various biscuits from glass jars; spiral dough deep fried, dipped in orange-coloured syrup – a sweet snack from the Mugals of the north; a wagon selling sugarcane juice extracted with a hand crank contraption; small boys sitting on tables rolling balls of dough to be either placed in an earthen pot with coals at the bottom or deep fried by their fathers/uncles in a typical family business. Lots of shops were tiny, no bigger than a guest bathroom. The above mentioned tea as well as a yoghurt-based drink called ‘lassi’ (served heavily sweetened with sugar or made salty instead) were served in reddish little clay pots that get tossed afterwards in the normal rubbish bins. Labour is so cheap and plentiful that just a few shops away, a family makes those little pots: in their shop was just a large heap of red sand and at the back an oven to bake the little pots.

Tea tasting

Different teas being weighed for tasting

Quite a highlight was our tea tasting. We were taken to an unassuming government building with high security (in fact a common phenomenon at all hotels and some shops). In that plain looking room on the third floor major decisions are made for buying tea to be distributed world wide to eventually end up on the shelves of supermarkets and high end stockists of quality teas such as Fortnum & Masons in London. We tasted various Assam, Darjeeling and green teas from different tea estates.

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