'A Taste of Time' offers a piece of Kolkata to the reader: Author Mohona Kanjilal

From the Europeans, Armenians, Chinese, Jews and Parsis to the Marwaris, Punjabis, South Indians and Sindhis, the histories of each of these communities have been explored in the book.

Published: 17th October 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th October 2021 12:12 AM   |  A+A-

Author Mohona Kanjilal

Author Mohona Kanjilal

Express News Service

This book is not only about the food of Kolkata but also its history, sights, sounds, colour and smell. Tell us more.

This is an all-encompassing book. It begins with exploring the foundation of Kolkata and then moves on to explore the histories of the different communities that migrated to the city when it became an important centre of trade and commerce under the British Raj, and particularly when it became the royal capital.

From the Europeans, Armenians, Chinese, Jews and Parsis to the Marwaris, Punjabis, South Indians and Sindhis, the histories of each of these communities have been explored in the book. The culinary practices and food habits of each of these communities have been detailed.

While on one hand, the histories of Spencer's Hotel (the first hotel to come up in Kolkata), Great Eastern Hotel, Grand Hotel and Firpo's have been looked into along with discovering their archive menus, a detailed study has also been made about the profile of customers who would frequent pre-Independence eateries like Favourite Cabin, the oldest tea shop of Kolkata, housed on Surya Sen Street, and India Coffee House, located on Chittaranjan Avenue.

Kazi Nazrul Islam loved having tea at Favourite Cabin and Satyajit Ray would frequent India Coffee House while he was still working on his masterpiece Pather Panchali, Ramakrishna Paramahansa is known to have had enjoyed the kochuri and alur tarkari of Mukhoruchi, the oldest fritter shop of Kolkata, and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the fritters of Lakshmi Narayan Shaw & Sons, which is renowned throughout the city even today as 'Netajir telebhajar dokan'(literally meaning Netaji’s fritter shop) because of its once-upon-a-time association with this legendary braveheart of Bengal.

How did the idea of a book on Kolkata germinate?

A trip to Nahoum’s, Kolkata's famous Jewish bakery in Sir Stuart Hogg Market, popularly known as New Market, gave me the idea for this book. I had been to Nahoum’s many times before, but I had never observed the place with such a keen eye as I did on that day.

It was taking time to settle the bill and I began looking around, studying the décor and the many nuances reminiscent of a bygone era. On inquiring, I learnt that the year of establishment of the shop was 1902. I wondered how many eateries must be there in Kolkata that are so old and still continuing and still very popular. I discovered that there are plenty of such places. This gave me the idea for the book.

What are your favourite eateries in the city and why?

I enjoy the English breakfast at Flurys. This tea room and confectionery was set up by Joseph and Freida Flury in 1927 in Stephen Court on Park Street. They were from Zurich and such restaurants were commonplace in their hometown.

Since I enjoy drinking tea, I am always on the lookout for tea rooms in the city. In my opinion, the best places in this regard are The Tea Place by Manjushree, which is located on Purna Das Road in south Kolkata, and The Promenade Lounge in Taj Bengal.

I enjoy dropping into and spending time in Favourite Cabin for its sheer history. Young Bengal Hotel, one of the oldest Bengali restaurants located in Khidderpore, appeals to me very much. And, like every other Kolkatan, Anadi Cabin is the last word when it comes to selecting the best place that makes moghlai parotas in the city.

Which is the flavour or taste that you identify most with Kolkata?

The flavour or taste that I identify the most with Kolkata is 'mishti' (meaning sweet). The traditional sweets of Bengal were given the generic name monda-mithai. Monda were milk-based sweets made of khoya (also known as mawa), sweetened with gur (jaggery) or sugar and shaped into balls. Mithai were flour or lentil-based sweets that were sweetened with jaggery or sugar. If Bengali sweets are so famous and sought-after now, we have to thank the Portuguese for that.

The Portuguese arrived in Bengal in the 1500s and with them arrived the technique of making chhana. Earlier Bengali sweets were mostly khoya-based. But the advent of chhana revolutionised the sweetmeat industry of Bengal. Moreover, the moiras (confectioners or sweet makers) of Bengal are constantly experimenting and coming up with new innovations, particularly when it comes to sandesh.

Share an interesting anecdote about some food journey you undertook while researching the book.

In this regard, I can mention the Indian Coffee House on Bankim Chatterjee Street, which is popularly known as College Street Coffee House.

Before being turned into the historic coffee house, the building was known as Albert Hall. It was owned by the noted philosopher and social reformer of Bengal, Keshub Chandra Sen, who had converted it into a meeting place for the intelligentsia.

Albert Hall was also used as a secret meeting place by swadeshis. Whenever the police conducted raids, the freedom fighters would escape using its secret doorways and passages. 

A lot of global food has entered the city through its many eateries. Do you think the old, iconic places are in the fear of losing out?

Not at all! They shall always co-exist. When I had gone to Allen Kitchen, a very old chops and cutlets eatery in north Kolkata that has been in existence since colonial times, I not only came across middle-class customers but also a few customers from the higher income group who frequent the place for its delectable fried food. As long as the food and quality of cooking are good in a palce, old joints serving traditional dishes and new ones serving food of the global variety will always co-exist.

A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta
By: Mohona Kanjilal
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 512
Price: Rs 899


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