IÂ must have been 15 or so when I first heard Noel Coward speak the lines “In Bengal, to move at all is seldom ever done” in a recitation of Mad Dogs and Englishmen; it was at a quiz, probably at the Dalhousie Institute (then regularly referred to as the DI), probably compered by Neil O’Brien. Those were wonderful times, I have great memories of the vibrant quiz circuit that existed then.
Initially, the Coward lines used to irk me; I thought he meant that nobody did anything in Bengal, and, even if we were known to be somewhat languorous at times, I felt that the statement was a bit over-the-top. It made me realise how Slough residents must have felt about Betjeman, when he said:
- Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
- It isn’t fit for humans now
- There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
- Swarm over, death!
But later on that same day I changed my interpretation of what he said. Took it to mean that the Calcuttan was too sensible to “move at all” during the midday sun, and that Coward was paying him a compliment. Now I don’t particularly care what the right interpretation is any more, I like Coward and I like Calcutta. So there.
I was reminded of all this while reading something I’d been waiting for, a book titled The Calcutta Kitchen. I love the quote at the back of the book:
What you’ve got to remember about us Bengalis is that we’re only really interested in three things: educating our children, reading books, and food.
[Yes I know, I don’t particularly care for the Oxford comma either, but I wanted to quote the line verbatim].
Parkes and Sarkhel have done something that is rare for me: they’ve made me salivate just reading their book, despite my having had a wonderful dinner this evening. I’m looking forward to trying out their Aloo Makallah (heavenly deepfried potatoes), Ghugni (spiced-up chickpeas), Shingara (Pastry pyramids with spiced potato/vegetable filling), Kathi Kabab roll (spiced kebabs rolled up in a flat bread), Ledikenni (semolina and cottage cheese dumplings) and Maacher Jhol (serious Bengali fish curry), to name but a few.Â What I particularly like about the book is that it seems to capture the cosmopolitan essence of Calcutta food as well as the roadside to restaurant spectrum. [And you’re right, I have this hang-up about spicy potatoes. And I am so tired of having samosas, which are nothing but bad shingaras that someone went and flattened. Pyramids not triangles…]
More after I try the recipes out. Flower Silliman first introduced me to Aloo Makallah, so they have a very hard act to follow.Â She was a wonderful cook, I’m sure she still is one. I have not been able to order Around The World With a Skillet, her new cookery book. Sanjay Kapoor, whose family lived in the same apartment block as the Rangaswamis and the Sillimans, told me about its existence, but I haven’t been able to find a copy. Any suggestions out there?