Sunday, July 20, 2014

1844... a love story. The story of Prashanta and Partho Nandy

India has numerous old cities and towns with food institutions that have passed down culinary heritage from generations. Lucknow is one such old city, hence growing up here and eating in these old food establishments I always heard conversations which were either about the miraculous inception of their really renowned dish or the stories of the glorious culinary scene of the past. So, when the owner of one such establishment running since 1844 starts his conversation with a description of the clear and bright future that he sees for his great product, you stop and take notice and I am so glad i did.

This was in North Kolkata at the 170-year-old “Girish Ch Dey & Nakur Ch. Nandy” sweet shop where I went to taste the famed golai pera, parijat, kasturi, ratabi sandesh that have survived over a century and continue to attract crowds. Here I met the owner Partha Nandy who was visibly happy to know that I was a chef set out to taste some food because he wanted feedback on the texture and mouth feel of his new experiments with sandesh, an unusual and a humbling request from a sixth generation sweet maker. I ended up tasting close to 50 sandesh varieties that were on the shelves, every sandesh tasting took its time as it came with a story, a passionate description and a future. I was so glad there were so many of them to taste allowing me the time to know more about this young proud gentlemen with a sound knowledge of sweets and a passion for his work that could belittle the greatest chefs.

I had to (and like how) know where Partho got it from, it was his “Mejo Kaka” Prashanta Nandy, his father's younger brother, who had spent all his life “at the shop for the shop”. Partha spoke about his uncle’s connect to Chhena so intensely for the next 10 minutes that Prashanta da’s life passed me by like I was living and feeling it. 
A proud traditional Bengali confectioner, “Mejo Kaka” started training with the chhena kaarigars after school at the age of 14 and by the time he was in college he was a deft player of this game. The true game changer in him surfaced a little later, when he felt that the fascination towards western confectionary was pulling people away from his passion, what is it that we cannot do he used to say and thus started a creative era of Nakur sweets, liquid centred chocolates faced the liquid gur filled Jolbhora sondesh, Liqueur-filled sandesh and the ganache centered chocolate chip sandesh then came the world’s first “sandesh cake” 
Prashanta da wouldn’t stop here, he went on to create more than 50 varieties of sandesh before he passed away at the age of 56 leaving behind a legacy of flavour and a well-trained heir, the 29-year-old Partho Nandy. "My story so far has been exactly the same" Partho says, mejo kaka had him start with the karigars early and “married” him to the shop after his Bcom “that’s where the similarity ends,” he adds.
“Mejo kaka has given Bengali sweets a modern future that I or nobody can dream of giving.” By virtue of my 18-year-old beautiful relationship to food I’d like to put this on record, Partho da — You will change this game again, soon

Celebrated cuisine of the Aam aadmi and Haji Zuber

                Lucknow has two distinct culinary styles, food for the commoner “Dastarkhwan-e-Aam” and food for the royals “Dastarkhwan-e-Khaas”. While it’s very common for the royal food to travel to the streets via stolen recipes or via cooks that have been thrown out by the royals after getting bored, It’s very rare to see the Dastarkhwan-e-Aam dishes to be glorified to a royal status. 
                There’s a story about Nawab Shuja-ud-daula who while walking his Sooba was stopped by an immensely sweet and balanced aroma of spices from a travellers' caravan, the source he saw was a handi all covered with coal and sealed. On going back, he instructed his cooks to recreate the aroma and thus the art of Dum pukht was born; this is how food from the streets came first to the palaces of Awadh. 
                The second example is the commoners' super rich breakfast stew “Nihari” that gave the 'aam aadmi' his share of warmth, carbs and protein that would keep him going till lunch, and it went to the Royal Palaces on days when the Nawabs had to sleep through this period between their breakfast and lunch. There is a lot of argument whether Nihari was soldier (sipahsalar) food from the by-lanes of Lal Quilla, that travelled to Lucknow or whether it’s a Lucknow original phenomenon. Being a Lucknowi I openly side with the Lucknow bandwagon and hence in my last visit to get a better insight on the origin of this dish, I met Haji Zuber who owns and runs the famous Rahim ki Nihari in Chowk. 
                 A sixty something gentleman, known as Haji Saab in the area, displaying an immense passion for life and food, "Of course Nihari is from Awadh...!” he yells back at the question. He talks at length about the fabled evenings of chowk as his great grandfather used to describe them to him. He is a graduate from the Lucknow University, which he thinks was quite a feat considering all he was doing was accompanying his grandfather to the markets and the kitchens and his culinary escapades to Delhi and Hyderabad. The only written will that is passed down in this family is the Ek Mann Nihari ka Nuskha, the recipe of 40 kgs Nihari and the same has already passed down to his sons. 
                On being asked about the changes that he has had to make in the recipe so it suits today’s taste and digestion (considering Nihari can be an immensely heavy dish to digest) he answers “None”, the taste and the sublime feeling of immense pleasure after eating good food has not changed and will never change; as for the richness aspect “apna apna haazma,” he jokingly concludes.

Jack D’Souza … and a story of passion and precision

Portuguese have had a definite influence on two major Port cities of India, Goa and Kochi. 
They have given a lot, visible in art architecture and above all the cuisine of these regions .Along with the chilly they have given us a taste and appreciation of all things nice in life (siesta included of course). In my last visit to Goa wanting to explore this Portuguese side more, I went to my very dear friend (and an authority on Goan food) Odette Mascarenhas who guided me to Jack D’souza in “Pilerne” a village abundant with old Portuguese style houses and Chapels.
Uncle Jack was sitting in his typical Portuguese verandah of the 200 year old ancestral house. An old man in his late seventies who would walk slowly and talk loudly yet in no time you understood that behind this frail smiling face was a man very aware and passionate about his food.

I asked him a lot of questions about Portuguese influence on Goan food and the origin of Portuguese Goan dishes; he had an answer and an anecdote for each question. Where and how did he learn so much, “I am not a chef, i have always smiled at food and food has always smiled back” he said. A philosophy that I would absorb well, soon. Uncle jacks grand mom was a super cook and a seasoned baker who used to also teach the nuns at times, sitting along with the nuns and noting down recipes was this young boy Jack , smiling in anticipation of the next awesome meal. 
“When I was young all my friends would call me for drinking parties, I smilingly went where I’d get the best food. I’d come home and granny and I would critique the dishes for hours, sometimes she would tweak her recipes if I felt a sorpotel or vindaloo had a balance better than ours”. Uncle Jack decided to share his grandmas Vindaloo recipe with me on one condition, I had to cook it with him. He wanted to make sure I got it. 

The recipe was in numbers and inches, not in grams and kilograms, reminding me of the “masha-Tola” recipes of Munir ustad .The Similarity between Munir Ustad and Uncle Jack didn't end here. Uncle was as unsatisfied with my choice of the sizes of onions and cloves and my understanding of one inch piece of cinnamon as Munir Ustad would have been if he were alive. I had to grind all masalas fresh on a mortar pestle (Ghonsono in Konkani) and it was never fine enough, I was living my apprenticeship all over again and loving it. 

By the time the masala was ready I realized that I was by now just being “Linguini”, the cook from the movie Ratatouille and uncle jack was “Remy “sitting on my head and pulling the strings, I was living the movie and loving it. After another 20 minutes of “Ratatouille“, Uncle finally told me I was a good cook and I could keep the recipe.
After having him sign the cherished recipe, I put a small footer on the page …“Haven’t yet learnt to properly smile at food, so much to learn”

Next write up is dedicated to another passionate perfectionist from Lucknow, “Haji Saab”.......