CHENNAI: I began my career as a chef in Chennai in 1996,” announced Masterchef Sirajul Rahman to the motley group of people who were invited to the restaurant at Novotel Chennai, Chamiers Road. Rahman was apparently flown in from Novotel Kolkata to prepare a sumptuous menu of Bengali cuisine in view of Durga Puja. His list of accomplishments include cooking for some of India’s former Presidents, not to mention accompanying former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his trip to the United States and preparing the dinner for him and George W Bush. It certainly raised expectations so much that nobody minded the delay.
Tricks of the trade
An earthen plate was brought in, on which was placed small earthen bowls, each with varying combination of spices — saunf, mustard seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander etc., but what caught our attention was Jharna Ghee, the popular ghee brand that is indispensable to Bengali cuisine. The bowl was passed around for each of us to get a whiff of its unique aroma. Next up was garam masala made the Bengali way with its mix of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and cumin alongside the other spices. The chef essentially wanted to make sure we got our basic theory right before bringing in the dishes.
Just as we were readying our appetite, the starters arrived. Beetroot chop, Aloor chop, Murgi cutlet and Bengali Fish fry all of them thickly coated in Bengali spices. Needless to say, they were fried to perfection the thick outer crust giving way to the softer inner core. “Bengali food, like all Indian food, is best enjoyed by eating with your hands,” the chef was quick to remind us, and we were happy to oblige.
The real deal
As we graduated to the main course, large plates were brought in with smaller bowls inside them to make room for close to a dozen items, a mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, served alongside a bowl of Basmati Pulao, with rich doses of cashew and saffron, and luchi, another name for poori in Bengal.
As we were introduced to each delicacy on our plate, it was the Macher Paturi, Barramundi Fish coated with mustard paste, wrapped in banana leaf and cooked till it was tender that had us drooling. Fish, the chef explained, is central to Bengali cuisine, and there’s hardly a family in Bengali that wouldn’t eat fish. “But the fish we consume in Bengal is mostly freshwater fish, unlike in the southern belt, where it is mostly marine fish,” Rahman explained. For somebody used to marine fish, either fried or gravy, this was quite a novelty, both the mustard flavour and the melt-in-mouth quality of the fish.
Coriander and green chilli dominated the colour and flavour of Kachalonka Dhonepata, a chicken dish that made for a good combo with the pulao, while the luchi tasted best with a vegetarian dish like Aloo Phool Gobhi Kaliya, a dry potato and cauliflower dish or Chanar Dalna, a tomato gravy with cottage cheese nuggets. But one had to be careful to make space for Kosha Mangsho, one of the more popularly known Bengali mutton recipes. It was a sizable chunk of lamb sauteed in slow heat until the spices had worked their way into the marrow. Soft and succulent.
Two more bowls remained, waiting to be emptied — lancha, an elongated gulab jamun so to speak, and rice payesh, which tasted quite similar to paal payasam closer home. All of this put one on the verge of a sensory overload, and the meetha paan was served just at the right time.
As we prepared to say good bye to Sirajul Rahman, our hearts full and our stomachs fuller, he expressed his happiness at being back in Chennai after so many years, and extended an invite to each person in the gathering to Kolkata. “I’ll make sure you have a memorable stay there,” he added, as he waved goodbye.
‘Oh Calcutta’, a dinner buffet is on till October 9, with Sunday brunches on October 2 and 9. Price: Rs 1,500. For more details: 7825808005/7824808013