Monday, 7 May 2012

Eating out: The Bengalization of Bangalore

Chingri- prawn malai curry
(This piece dates back to 2009)

WHEN The Esplanade, Bangalore’s newest Bengali restaurant, opened in Koramangala in April, it signalled a shift in the city’s food focus. Despite recessionary times, Chef Shubhankar Dhar – a former partner at 6 Ballygunge Place in upmarket Indira Nagar – decided to go solo. Leaping into the unknown, he offers ‘contemporary’ Bengali cuisine, much of which does not exist in Kolkata.  

Dhar thus redefines a foodie phenomenon that began with Babumoshai in 2001. That wallet-friendly eatery in the bustling Majestic area catered to homesick Bengalis arriving by train or bus. It has since opened branches on C M H Road and Hanumanthnagar. Unlike Kolkata, where few would seek Bengali food at a restaurant, while Thukurmas and Kakimas still stir up memorable meals at home, Bangalore was a poor hunting ground. In the 1990s, options were probably limited to loochi, aloo dum, and cholar dal at the legendary K C Das sweetshop on Church Street.

As a local wag put it, the Bengali – however global – is passionate about fine living, including politics and poetry, football and food! But does that account for the slew of Bengali restaurants since – Bangaliana in Koramangala (2002), 36 Chowringhee Lane in Shantinagar (2004), 6 Ballygunge Place in Indira Nagar (2005), Bay of Bengal on Church Street (2007), Oh Calcutta in 2008, and now The Esplanade? Oh Calcutta, from the group behind Mainland China, already has branches in Kolkata, Mumbai, New Delhi and Pune. Besides, for simpler fare including Kolkata-style rolls, there is Lazeez in Koramangala and Best of Bengal in Frazer Town.    

Bangaliana, with a fish meal initially on offer from Rs. 40 to 95 per head, had the young IT/ BPO crowd from Bengal, Orissa, Assam and Bihar homing in twice a day for flavours like Ma’s cooking. Today, the originally 34-seater mess-like eatery in Koramangala, set up with an investment of about Rs. 3-5 lakh, generates an annual turnover of Rs. 40-50 lakh.

Likewise, at 36 Chowringhee Lane, a bhapa elish (steamed hilsa) fish meal was priced at Rs. 105, while a chicken kansha curry meal was priced at Rs. 85. Addressing a clientele beyond Bengalis, Shubhrajyoti Dasgupta, who set up the no-frills restaurant, recalls when Jnanpith award-winning playwright Girish Karnad and his wife walked in one day, seeking authentic murighonto (fish head cooked with fragrant Gobindobhog rice).  

Bhapa ilish, a popular steamed fish curry
Swapan Kumar Ghosh, the brain behind Bangaliana, analyzes the boom thus: “More people are accepting our cuisine. About 40 per cent of my clients are non-Bengalis, including non-vegetarian Tamilians. Some come in with requests for shukto or aloo posto (poppyseed potatoes). Now that Bangaliana is an established brand, I’d like to expand to Airport Road or Total Mall.”

Can Bangalore’s Bengali population support such a crop of restaurants? According to the Bengalee Association, there are approximately 6.5 lakh Bengalis in a metropolis of about eight million.

Bangalore-based since 1986, Chippy Gangjee is a Kolkata-born communication skills trainer. He says, “Bengalis aren’t the only ones here pining for Kolkata’s food. The Marwaris and others who’ve lived in Bengal love the cuisine, too, especially its range of delicious vegetarian dishes.”

How do local Bengalis see it? Jayaditya Gupta, a sports journalist and occasional food writer, responds over email: “The Bengali's love for his own cuisine can't be exaggerated. A friend is a Kolkata-based accountant. When his staff come to Bangalore on work, they stay at a five-star hotel (one of his clients), but eat all their meals at Bay of Bengal. They refuse to eat anywhere else! That's what all these restaurants tap into.” 

Kosha mangsha, of mutton/ lamb
Chef-entrepreneur Abhijit Saha, who recently launched his signature tapas lounge/ restaurant Caperberry, was earlier Director, Food and Services, at The Park. Voted one of India’s top ten chefs in a 2002 independent Outlook poll, he analyzes the trend: “I’d call it a coming of age of regional Indian cuisines, beyond the standard Tandoori/ North Indian fare. I feel Bengali food has the potential to make it as haute cuisine. At hotel management school in New Delhi about 20 years ago, I figured out why. The character of this cuisine depends on seasonal ingredients. Most dishes use just one or two distinctive spices, such as ginger/jeera, panch phoron (five whole seeds), or red chilli/ mustard. Its unique home repertoire can be translated into a restaurant menu of 30 to 40 dishes, or six to nine courses.”  

Gupta adds, “There’s always been an interest in ‘Calcutta’ food, not necessarily Bengali food, which includes Raj era food, Mughlai food, even momos and thukpa… Those who aren't comfortable with Bengali food can try the Anglo-Indian part.”

At this juncture, Dhar’s 54-cover enterprise seems on track to capture Calcutta-oriented palates. Besides reviving Anglo Kolkata fare like Jumbo Prawn Thermidor once celebrated at the famed Firpo’s and the Smoked Hilsa from Peleti’s restaurant, his contemporary Bengali cuisine tweaks traditional recipes to present palate-pleasers, fusing culinary knowledge with an adventurous spirit.

For instance, starters like Gandharaj bhapano chingri (steamed prawns marinated with Bengal’s distinctive Gandharaj lime) or Poddo Pataye Kasundi Murgi (mustard chicken cooked in lotus leaves). Fragrant Gobindobhog accompanies unusual main dishes like Chingri Aam Kasundi (giant prawns cooked with green mango/mustard), Kankra Chingrir Palang Ghonto (spinach sautéed with shrimp and crabmeat), or Mochar Dhoka Dalna (banana flower and dal dhokla in gravy). Traditional mishti? No way. Dhar serves baked nut-topped rossogolla in creamy rabri instead; its crusted sweetness melts on the tongue.

Perhaps Dhar’s is the first bold step towards the Bengalization of the Bangalore palate. Or even a leap towards the haute launch of a regional cuisine, if Saha has his way. As Ghosh points out, this business is about a passionate 24/7 commitment from kitchen to customer. Every which way, it’s bon appetit for Calcuttans in Bangalore, now spoilt for choice.  




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