Food

101 TRADITIONAL RECIPES FROM A BENGALEE LADY OF OLDE CALCUTTA

The original Bengali book Randhen Sanket (literally translated ‘Cooking Instructions’) was my grandmother’s wedding gift to all her female relations. My grandmother, Amala Bala Dutt was fourteen years old when she married and died at the age of ninety – during her life-time there were many girls who married and she would dip into her rapidly diminishing pile of this cook-book till it became a family joke. She was very proud of this book. Because her aunt had written it.

Amala Bala and her aunt belonged to one of those illustrious Bengali landed gentry that one reads about today. I have myself visited their ‘country seat’ just once. My grandmother had insisted on rounding up her grandchildren, over-riding the objections of our parents, and whisked us through miles of monsoon mist and swampy lands to reach this palatial building that stood on the banks of one of the swollen tributaries of the Hooghly river.

The building was of course a shadow of its original grand self. Rooms with high ceilings, ornate doors and marble floors, towering oil paintings on mouldy walls, cracked Belgian mirrors and dusty chandeliers, dark wood Victorian furniture draped in dust-sheets – a veritable ghost Bungalow setting! The two-storied building did not have electricity. I remember my granny presiding over the meal that we ate sitting on the floor, eating from brass plates and served by the family retainers. She asked us to savour the freshly plucked vegetables from the vast fields surrounding the house, we competed to recognize the various scents of the turmeric and the spices grown in the fields and dried, ground and added to each dish. It was a wonderful experience that made future foodies of the children there. And all those dishes are included in this book.

Amala Bala’s aunt, the author of the book, Binapani Mitra must have been a very rare woman. I have heard tales of how she had been one of the early convent educated women, fluent in English and French, an avid tennis player, a voracious reader of books in three languages and a writer of an extremely popular cookbook.

Pirated copies of the book Randhan Sanket can still be found in cheap editions and still form a part of the dowry of a new bride. The traditional recipes that are still used today and bear the nomenclature of ‘Hindoostani’ recipes and South Indian recipes are very simply described as ‘Madrasi’; have a good portion of vegetarian dishes also.

The recipes in the book have been selected on the basis of traditions, and for the simple easiness of preparation. The author’s characteristic easy cooking style makes it very contemporary and suitable for cooks of today. And naturally, that which sets it apart from the other cookbooks in the market is that the recipes form the corpus of traditional recipes of India and British India.

In the 1930s when Binapani Mitra wrote her cookbook, ladies were not really expected to enter the kitchen and the recipes read out to the cook by an employee higher up in the hierarchy of domestic employees. Measures were not needed; everything was by ‘andaaz’ loosely translated to mean a knowledgeable estimate.

Some samples of the recipes of Binapani Mitra in direct translation are given and we hope others out there, our friends from the rest of India, and from the world over will blog their own recipes – those handed down, those rediscovered, those with a twist … Or perhaps some will give more updated versions of the recipes with measure and cooking time and the method of cooking – by oven or on gas-fire and pressure cooker or by microwave. Write in?

Devilled Potatoes

(translated by) Ketaki Dutt-Paul

One of my earliest memories of the splendid potato dish, Alu Bonda served at the birthday parties next door at Aunty Norma’s at Hyderabad. This is where we stayed as children for a few years and more than the memories of the kababs at Hussein Sagar dam, the Alu Bonda is the comfort food from childhood for me. After being gifted Randhen Sanket I found this recipe, but why it should be called ‘devilled” I don’t know.

Ingredients:

Medium sized potatoes, paneer, khus-khus, almonds, zafran, salt, sugar, ground red chillies, flour or arrowroot, milk, powdered puffed rice or chivda, ghee.

Method:

Parboil the potatoes in jacket. Be careful that you do not over-boil. Slice the top of the potatoes and keep aside. Cool the potatoes and then scoop out from the center. The scooped out area should be sufficient for the stuffing. Now take the zafran and mix it with milk and knead into the paneer for colour. Heat the ghee and fry the chilli paste. Sprinkle water from time to time adding the paneer, almonds and khus-khus. Do not fry it, and stir till it turns golden. Now stuff the potatoes with the paneer. Make a thin paste with the water and flour. Cover each potato with its lid and apply the paste to keep the top firm. Now make another paste of flour and water or with arrowroot. Dip the potatoes in the paste. Roll the dipped potatoes in the powdered rice or puffed rice or flat rice (chivda). Fry till golden brown, use a brown paper to soak the extra oil and serve hot.