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AROMAS OF Didima's kitchen

Check out the Bengali food fest at The Chancery



Bioscope: authentic flavours of Bengal

EVERY BENGALI worth his/her salt is a foodie by birth. There's no disputing that. Bengalis, no matter how far away from Kolkata, have been known to congregate for adda about theatre, films, Marx, current politics — and the ageless debate on whether hilsa from the Ganga is superior to that from the Padma. The Chancery hotel has stoked these fires three years in a row with its annual food festival, launched each Poila Baisakh, on Bengali New Year's Day.

Bioscope — thus named in 2004 because its ambience emulates an old cine-theatre, complete with big screen music from old Uttam Kumar, Madhabi Mukherjee or Suchitra Sen starrers — is on up to April 25, a welcome break for those hungry for authentic flavours of Bengal.

Thanks to chef Prasad-da, who flew in from Kolkata with panch-phoron (a traditional mix of five seeds), garam masala, ajwain, hilsa, giant prawns, and fresh ghee, the buffet evokes the aromas that once emanated from Thakurma or Didima's kitchen. Served in clay pots, supervised by resident chef Ramprasad Biswas, what does he serve up?

The first bite of the chingdi chaap is divine, a rich cutlet of shrimp and gram flour, with undernotes of onion, cumin, and coriander. But the Bengali vegetarian cutlets — the enchorer chaap of raw jackfruit and the mochar chaap of banana flower — are just as superlative. Each is mildly spiced, hinting at plump raisins, and perfect with kasundi, a traditional mustard relish.

To prepare the palate, nothing works as well as the fragrant gobindobhog rice, teamed with old-fashioned vegetable preparations. Such as the shukto of drumsticks, potatoes, brinjal, and bitter gourd, cooked with a dash of mustard seeds-ajwain-ginger paste, tempered with milk, bay leaves, and fried matar dal bori to a delicate unity. It's at this point that we realise how little lauded Bengali vegetarian delicacies are, as though secluded for aeons within an inner courtyard.

We move on to golden, puri-like Radha ballabi made of a wheat-gram flour combination, which is delicious with the moghlai cholar dal, rich with florets of fried cauliflower and diced coconut, with a hint of sweetness.

The non-vegetarian spread is gourmet fare. With a helping of Bangali Polau sprinkled with raisins and nuts, we face a choice of delicate bhapa ilish (the fine-boned Kolkata hilsa steamed in mustard within a banana leaf to a melt-in-the-mouth deliciousness) or rohu kalia (generous chunks of carp cooked in a fragrant gravy) or even the chingri malai curry (giant prawns cooked in coconut milk with a dash of cinnamon, cardamom, and mace). In case fish is not your favourite dish, you can opt for kasa mangso (tender mutton cooked in thick, spicy gravy) or the chicken do pyaza (modified to Bengali tastes from the classic Mughal recipe with mounds of onions).

Replete with good food, we find there's more to come. To help digestion, there's an array of sweet chutneys — of raw mango, of tomato and, much rarer, of dates and cashewnuts. The sweet-sour zest of the latter lingers on the palate long after the last lick off our fingertips.

What's a Bengali meal without mishti? To round off the feast, a rice payesh with jaggery is on for dessert, as is the thick, famed mishti doi. Looking for the unusual, the golden, syrupy rounds of fried malpua prove a heady treat. But the piece-de-resistance is the tiny rasmalais floating in a creamy, pista-enhanced base. Manna for the tongue.

The Bioscope buffet is priced at Rs. 250 per head for weekday dinners, and Rs. 295 for weekend lunch and dinner (with a special menu). For groups of 50-plus with prior reservations, a corporate lunch discount of Rs. 200 is available.

Here's an opportunity for the Bengali adda to continue uninterrupted, fuelled by dishes straight out of Didima's kitchen.

(At Colours, The Chancery, 10/6 Lavelle Road. For other information, call 22276767/ 98441-02045.)

A.D.

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