Memories of Midnapore Cuisine

Earlier this year I had transferred my blog from free platform to a paid WordPress platform with the aspirations to share my food experiences frequently. The decision was made while I was vacationing in the tranquil Majuli island in Assam and obviously, the peaceful surroundings motivated goals. Things, of course, changed when I returned and eventually got engulfed with work. Long story short, I did very little writing this year. Now that we are only a couple of days away from ending 2019, I want to at least preserve my memories of a few cherished experiences. The curated meal at Sayantani’s was one such event.

24th October 2019

3-4 days back there was a surprise message from Sayantani. “Alokeparna, I have invited Rhea to lunch. It would be lovely if you could join too!’ For me it was a double delight! I am an ardent admirer of Sayantani with whom I had interacted only on social media so far. She is a hard-working and well-known food blogger and home chef who is archiving old Bengali recipes as well as global recipes through her blog She is also actively promoting organic rice and other produce in association with ‘Amar khamar’ farmers. The opportunity to meet with her and Rhea (of Euphorea fame) and to taste Sayantani’s food was just too tempting and I said yes, of course, I would come. I must mention that I am a big fan of Rhea Mitra Dalal too, who runs a very well known Parsee food catering unit- Katy’s Kitchen, in Mumbai that she has inherited from her mother-in-law. She is also a blogger and has a strong fan following on social media. We were joined by two more surprise guests Priyadarshini Chatterjee, a well-known food writer and Soumyasree Chakraborty, a recipe archiver and one can imagine the tremendous adda we had about food over food! But for now, let’s focus on the scrumptious meal we were served.

Right to left: Sayantani, Rhea, Soumyasree. Priyadarshini arrived post photo sessions.

The number of bowls around the kansha-r thala (traditional bell-metal plate) was overwhelming. Sayantani had cooked for us a variety of intricate dishes that originated from her birthplace Midnapore, a district in the state of West Bengal in India.

The spread, well some of it!

For the uninitiated, it’s better to explain that Bengali food from each district varies in taste and ingredients. Beyond the commercial and hyped Bengali food that is served in restaurants and star hotels, is the real and nuanced Bengali cuisine that relies heavily on the flavors of the vegetables or fish/meat rather than the spices. Midnapore has its unique food culture which people outside the region not much aware of. There are many amazing dishes and cooking styles which have evolved from this place. Some of the notable ones are “Maacher Tel Jhal” cooked in West Midnapore and “Maacher Tok”, a spicy and tangy dish prepared by using dried mangoes or raw mangoes with the fish which is cooked in the East Midnapore. Another famous and very unique dish is the “Posto Bati” or steamed posto which is quite different from the usual “Posto Bata” or posto paste (poppy seeds paste )which everyone else in Bengal knows about.

Coming back to the lunch at Sayantani’s place, we started with mulo bata (radish paste) that was a bhorta made with radish, mustard, chili, and coconut paste and additionally flavored with mustard oil and nigella seeds. On another day, I would have finished all the rice with mulo bata only! Never could imagine that radish could taste this great. By the way, rice was two kinds- red and white doodher shor and banshkathi- both were organic, unpolished rice and surely helped to elevate the tastes of the dishes that these accompanied!

Peyanj bata diye khosha shuddhu aloo bhaja ( potato cubes with skins on and fried with onion paste). Pic courtesy: Rhea Mitra Dalal
Pur bhora kumro patar bowra or stuffed pumpkin leaf fritter (stuffed with poppyseeds paste and coconut paste)
Goyna Bori or Ornamental lentil chunks

With bhaja moong daal (lentils) there were 4 kinds of bhaja (fries)- Potato cubes with skins, brinjal, gohona bori (sun-dried ornamental lentil chunks) and last but not the least Pur bhora Kumro patar bawra or stuffed pumpkin leaf fritter that just won the heart. Gohona Bori or Nokshi Bori demands a bit more illustration as this rare food art is specific of only Eastern Midnapore. This local art was celebrated by luminaries like Rabindranath Tagore to Satyajit Ray and had become the pride of Bengal. Its production is still restricted to Midnapore and is available in Kolkata only through only a few cooperative organizations. Sayantani creates her own goyna boris in the winters- the only favorable weather for this fine art. Lentil paste is designed in the form of paisley or eye-catching ornamental designs like necklace, tiara, earrings or bracelets or lotus with the help of a cone. Animal motifs like elephant, butterfly, deer, peacock, fish or parrot are also not uncommon. The boris are directly formed on a bed of poppy seeds so that they don’t stick to the surfaces. You can read more on Sayantani’s blog including the recipe and techniques:

The daal was no ordinary daal either- it had shrimps and Malabar spinach with drumsticks in it and tasted wonderful. Next was ridge gourd cooked with milk and mustard aka potol jhinger doodh jhal. A bit tangy and very delightful!

Lentils with Malabar spinach and prawns
Ridge gourd cooked in milk and mustard paste. Photo courtesy: Rhea Mitra Dalal

There were 3 fish dishes. Chingri batichochhori ( a dry curry with prawn), rui macher tawk (fish in a tangy sauce made with mustard and aamchur/ dry mango) and shol macher mangshi ( a meat like dish made with the flesh of snakehead murrel fish). The last one I had for the first time and simply loved the taste.

Prawns dey curry cooked in a small bowl hence the name batichorchori
Fish in a tangy sauce
Snake head murrel cooked like meat

We ended with fish roe chutney that was brilliant and of course such a grand meal must be wrapped up with desserts like shorbhaja, rajbhog, and mishti doi.

Fish roe chutney. Photo courtesy: Rhea Mitra Dalal
Shorbhaja Or layered milk cream fried and dipped in sugar syrup

If someone asks me today what is good food memories, I would say this. It takes a culinary genius to take simple ingredients like mulo and jhinge and Kumro pata and so on and transform that into a memorable meal. I feel really blessed to be a part of it. Sayantani like a loving family member, served us while we ate and gently prodded to eat a bit more of this and that, making the experience all the more special. This touch of warmth is so missed in the modern day buffet style self-serving meals. Sayantani Mahapatra, take a bow! My respect for you has gone up several notches higher. I wish you more and more success because you deserve so!

Special Note: if you wish to try out the recipes, some of them are on Sayantani’s blog along with more such gorgeous recipes.

Special thanks to Rhea for letting me use some of the photos clicked by her. I was too engrossed in eating and missed clicking some of the dishes.

Luchi – Fish Fry Bhalobasha at Chilekotha

Sometimes, I truly feel that my parents can be the brand ambassadors of Bengali food. Even after cherishing Bengali cuisine for 8 decades, they still prefer nuchi, pheesh phry and the works when they eat out. So for family dinners, our go-to place is 6BP. However, this time when we were selecting a restaurant for mom’s birthday dinner, we decided to give the newly opened Chilekotha at 7/2B Dover Lane, a try.

Honestly speaking, if you are a true blue Bengali grew up reading Sarat Chandra, Satyajit Ray and Ruskin Bond, you can never ignore a name like Chilekotha. For my non-Bengali readers, I would loosely translate Chilekotha as Attic, but it’s really a room on the rooftop. In the older days, most of the individual houses in Bengal were adorned with a ‘Chilekotha’. It was a space where usually extra bits and pieces of a household were stored. However, it was also a space where rules were broken, imaginations were given wings and passions were let loose. Our previous generation had actually lived the Chilekotha days-played to their hearts’ content in the room that was hidden from the world, emptied that jar of pickles during summer breaks, smoked their first cigarette, or stole the first kiss from their sweethearts. So, Chilekotha spells nostalgia and romanticism for us Bengalis.

And if you combine that with Bengal’s other love – food, the outcome has all the potential to be a super hit. So did Chilekotha live up to the expectations? Let’s find out!

Location wise, the restaurant is pretty easy to found, though it is not on the main road. If you are coming from the Golpark side, after negotiating Gariahat 4-point crossing, you will have to drive straight ahead and take the second left. After driving straight down for about 700 mts, you will find the restaurant on the left side. Here’s the location on Google map.

Chilekotha is on the ground floor of a residential building. The good thing is the entrance,  that comes with an ornamental door, is right on the sidewalk. This was another reason we had chosen the place. My folks have weak knees and they just can’t do stairs-even 5-6 steps. Inside, there are two rooms. The outer room is on the funkier side- with a yellow Kolkata taxi picture on the back wall. The wooden benches give the space a casual look. It was also a bit dark hence was not social media friendly.

I wanted to take pictures. So we moved to the inner room which was well lit and in spite of being not so big a space, gives the impression of a large room. The inner room is on a higher level and my folks had to negotiate two steps. But the staff was extremely nice and they made sure mom and dad could do it comfortably. I met an acquaintance from the PR world inside and we both caught each other by surprise. She was on work, so after exchanging quick hellos we three settled down at a table. There were four large tables and each could accommodate 4-5 persons. One wall was painted with a view from a roof top to give the room a chilekotha feeling. Next to the wall, in a corner, there was a spiral iron staircase just like you find one in the old houses. This one obviously goes nowhere. There were faux antique shuttered windows giving a feel of a typical Bengali house of the previous century. My ancestral house had those and it was emotional to be surrounded by those. There was also an antique phone and how could I not mention the jumbo switch box, immediately transporting me to my childhood days. All good. Mom was impressed which should be counted as 10 stars as she usually does a ‘nak shintkano’ in star hotels as well. No, I am not gonna translate that.

We had ordered Diamond Fish Fries for starters. Impressive sizes, thick fillet of Bhetki and thin crumbed walls. Tasted good, just a tad overpowering lime juices in the marinade. Usually, excess lime is used to cover smells. Was it yesterday’s fillet or was the cook having a bad day? We wondered. Fries were served with herbed tartar sauce and it was yum!

The main course started with Luchi, Begun Bhaja (fried eggplants slices). I like my begun bhaja crispy, these were lightly fried. Luchis were not puffed up. Sliding the luchi into the oil when it is just rightly hot, is a skill. Otherwise, the luchis were soft and light.

Next, we had Daab Chingri and Bhetki Paturi with steamed white rice. Daab chingri was more of a chingri malaaikari than being baked in a tender coconut shell with coconut shell meat. The dish was served in a jhuno dab (older coconut) and that was proof enough. Four large tiger prawns came with it. It had all the goodness of a malaaikari. But if I am to compare it with the finger licking good dab chingri served at 6 Ballygunge Place, Chilekotha has miles to go. I must mention all the ingredients were absolutely superb. Freshest chingri, fresh coconut milk and hand ground spices. The Bhetki paturi too used excellent fish and tasted nice and subtle. The pungency of mustard and heat of chillies were missing. Those were my personal preferences and everyone might not appreciate that.

The last dish of the main course was Dhakai Mutton Tehari. Those who are unfamiliar with Tehari or Tahari, let me enlighten. It is something between Pulao and Biryani. Unlike biryani, smaller chunks of meat with fat are used and another important ingredient is milk. Meat and rice are prepared separately and then put on a dum (low heat cooking with sealed lid). Tehari usually has a lot of onions in beresta form (crispy fried onions) as well as in paste form.

 This was the first time we had Tehari and the Chilekotha version was more of a mutton pulao. Colourwise, it was yellow, rather than white- the Tehari Colour. Melting mutton chunks and delectably flavoured short grain rice really delighted us. We simple loved the taste and ignored the fact that it had no beresta. One pot carried 6 pieces of mutton and enough rice for sharing.

Desert options were not really enticing. Ma had ordered a payesh, and a small bowl of sugared milk with boiled rice was served. Sorry, there’s no picture.

Prices at Chilekotha are slightly less than its seniors such as Bhojohori Manna and 6 Ballygunge Place. The restaurant actually has some Bengali cuisine giants in 2 km radius and has good chances of catching surplus crowd in high demand seasons like Noboborsho, Jamai Shashthi and Durga Pujo. It also has a fusion menu that looked very interesting. I would surely go back to taste some of the fusion dishes. By now it was clear, that Chilekotha team has good intentions. However, they lack in good recipes. Most of the shortcomings I mentioned would not even be noticed by patrons unless they are Bengali cuisine experts which both mom and I were. So all they need is a good recipe consultant and they would be good to go! Chilekotha owner Debaleena Chakraborty was present at the restaurant and when she requested feedback, I did give her some hints.

The interior is surely beautiful, the location is priceless (with plenty of parking on the street outside),  and if you are not extra critical, food is good without creating deep holes in pockets. Our damage was 2153 which really was not much in today’s world. Must mention the staff was extremely helpful, with a great sense of hospitality. They even made sure that my parents could get into the car comfortably. Very rare and I must praise owner Debaleena Chakraborty for nurturing a good team.

Chilekotha was born only 4 months back and is taking baby steps. I have written an honest review from my perspective and I do hope if Chilekotha management is reading this, they will take it in right spirits and take steps to overcome any gaps. Otherwise, in the long run, promotions will not really of big help. Excellent food will be.

Mandatory pic with the birthday girl!