Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Pop goes Saffron

It is not often that gourmet chefs seek the expertise of obscure housewives in their Five Star kitchens. When they do, they come up with winsome spreads that not only impresses your palette but also beguiles you with their familiar comfort.

I was surprised enough when I heard Saffron, Park Hotel Kolkata's Contemporary Indian restaurant was hosting a specialty Bengali cuisine pop-up. I was a tad skeptical initially. I have reservations against eating Bengali food in restaurants, albeit with exceptions. I eat authentic, and superlative, Bengali food with all the works 365 days a year at home (excuse the hyperbole) and the idea of going to a restaurant to eat the same stuff seems a little weird to me. Eating the same at a Five Star restaurant, outright ridiculous. But what intrigued me about this particular spread is the people behind crafting it. To craft the menu for this special pop-up the Park Hotel Kolkata had roped in two homemakers, Gopa Mitra and Santa Paul, both natives of erstwhile East Bengal and residents of West Bengal for decades. Naturally they are intimately acquainted with the cuisines of both East and West Bengal and they had brought their experience, expertise, heirloom recipes and kitchen secrets to the Saffron kitchen. Along with chefs Sharad Dewan and Arindam Jana, the two women crafted the menu, a pathwork of traditional specialties from both East and West Bengal.

Now the Ghoti (natives of West Bengal)-Bangal, (natives of East Bengal) divide is stuff of legends. And if they have flaunted their rivalry on the football field, there has been a culinary war in progress for the longest time. And here at Saffron the best of both world's was on the menu. And what made the spread as endearing as it was appetizing was the curious nomenclature of some of the dishes. On hand there were West Bengal specialties like Niharbalar Pabdar Jhol and Picimar thor chorchori (Aunt's , on the other were Ghosh Barir Kosha Mangsho (The Ghosh-family recipe for slow cooked spicy mutton curry) and Pabnar chalkumror jhaal, ash gourd curry as done in the Pabna district of erstwhile East Bengal. Even mundane comfort food like ol bhaate (elephant foot yam mash) and peyanj posto (onions and poppy-seed curry) enjoy glory spots on the menu.

If you are wondering what happened to the Ilish and Chingri, of course one cannot conceive Bengali cuisine without Hilsa and Prawns. So there are several preparations of Illish straight from River Padma - paka tentuler ombol (cooked in a runny tamarind sauce), Khulnar kaalo jeere baata (cooked with nigella paste as done in the Khula district of present Bangladesh) and Hilsa cooked in Pabna syle mustard gravy. Prawn lovers can opt for Daab chingri (prawns cooked in tender coconut shells), narkel shorshe chingri (prawns cooked in a coconut-mustard gravy) or the more common malaikari.

For those with a sweet tooth there are desserts like Didimar Dhani Pithe Payesh and Mung Puli. Fancy some ice cream instead? You can take your pick between Daab Malai ice cream and Nolen Gurer ice cream

Though I belong to a Ghoti family, I have a soft spot for Bangal cuisne. So I opted for the East Bengal Thali, a veritable assortment of dishes from Opar Bangla.  The spread included dishes like Bhetki Machher Borishali Jhol, a light home-style fish stew flavoured with cumin and ginger, Kochu Saag narkel diye, taro leaves cooked with coconut, a classic East Bengal delicacy, Narkel diye mocha, which is nothing butter stir fried banana flowers topped with grated coconut and shukto, a slightly bitter stew made with a host of summer vegetables. How my picks from the motley assortment of Bangal delights are - the fragrant but light Bsanti pulao and the Ghosh Barir kosha mangsho. The perfectly done tender chunks of meat laced in slightly caramelised medley of spices was to die for.

I was not particularly impressed with the vegetarian dishes, perhaps because these are dishes I have grown up eating and I subscribe to a particular taste. I cannot help but have a soft spot for the Narkel diye mocha my grandmother makes or the Kochu Saag my aunt doles out of her kitchen, and those are standards hard to meet. But for those seeking an experience and insight into authentic Bengali cuisine the spread at Saffron does justice indeed. This is the closest you can get to enjoying home-style cooking in a five star setting. The pop up is on till the 15th of November on popular demand!

All photographs provided by The Park Hotel Kolkata

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