Festooned with that Rajbari ambience, a colonial-styled dining hall and club music, the East India Room – the restaurant at Raajkutir – is like a time capsule that takes you back to the charms of 19th-century Calcutta.
Early this June when Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti, the culinary mind behind Raajkutir’s restaurants (and those under the Neotia group banner including Sonar Tori & Afraa) decided to revamp their colonial themed restaurant, aptly titled East India Room, he was faced with a quandary. How does one take a uniquely themed and popular restaurant and up its ante without appearing repetitive?
Unlike other places in the country, Kolkata’s rich culinary heritage from the British era is rather well-documented. The city that the Britishers reconstructed to showcase their Golden Period remains not just the original culinary capital of India, but also boasts of restaurants, raajbaris (homes of new zamindars), pice hotels, cafes, clubs, gymkhanas, old style canteens, and food lanes that are till date the aorta of the city’s food heartland. In fact, each of these places has been trendsetter for some of the iconic dishes that today form the core of Kolkata’s culinary heritage.
But that is just a slice of the bigger food pie from the influence of every single countryman who anchored at Tamralipta, Spice Route’s most popular port. As a result, the city’s food is like a potluck of different influences including the British. They incidentally preferred that the Mog cooks, the French chefs, and the trained Anglo-Indian hands design their cuisine in India, rather than their own.
This preference expanded their tables with inspired dishes including the British Chicken Tikka — which was given as perks in the House of Lords — and the Dak Bangalow Mutton and Captain’s Chicken, all an integral part of the East India Room’s new menu. It inspired the Indian adaptation of different techniques that resulted in the creation of Pantheras — a fascinating dish made of pancakes stuffed with spicy minced meat/ mochar (banana blossom), all deliciously crumbed and deep fried. Such was the popularity of the mog cooks’ innovation done at the Raja Nabakrishna Deb’s home that it soon spewed versions. Notable ones included one made with egg in Chittagong, and the intriguingly brilliant one done by Chef Chakabarti which is made using jhuri bhaja (small fried fish or in this case, Bombay Duck).
For an avid reader and researcher like Chef Chakrabarti, the work wasn’t about where to get information from but finding those dishes that would transform the dining experience into a culinary time capsule. What followered were months of scouring through recipe books, reaching out to families like the Oswal to give him the original method of making masalas, and over 580 miles of travel through train and bus to places like Chitarpur and the like. It was only in August that the culinary revivalist began tweaking the menu that was all about post-1901 Kolkata.
It was an exercise in restraint, recalls the Bong, “and quite a difficult one.” What added to Chef Chakrabarti’s problems was the constant uncertainty of the lockdown that made inviting families for a taste a distant proposition.
But an equally research-driven team brought a solution in the form of a little tiffin filled with food and delivered to each team member’s home for a taste and vice versa. After nearly 30 days of trials, tweaks and reworking the recipe to suit the modern palate, the new East India Room menu was launched. The dishes over the years create the weave and waft of the Calcutta food tapestry.
The brilliance of the new menu is that it has stayed true to its 19th-century themes. Featuring old classics like the Chitpur Road Jali Kebab, mutton kebab encased in a lattice-style crepe made with egg, there’s just one tweak: each dish on the menu by that era had gained popularity among the aristocratic classes and people who constituted the Upper Class of the Society. Or in other words, people who were allowed to be part of the British tea rituals and get invited to their parties. One such dish is the Paneer Barrel.
Said to have arrived on the food scene with the Portuguese traders (who introduced the art of Paneer making), it is a delicious cheese roulade filled with apricot, prune, and jalapenos. Chef Chakrabarti adds, “It was also a popular dish in the Nawab’s court and possibly part of the Mughal Dastarkhwan too.”
In fact, as per another story on the barrel, he says, “It came to the table after the Bandel Cheese Malakoff, a crumb-fried cheese fingers served with tomato-raisin relish, made its mark not just at the portal town of Tajpur but in the capital too.”
Another dish with a similar ancestry and timeline is the French-style Bhekti Meuniere. A flour-dusted fish fillet, skillet grilled and served with the famous butter and lemon sauce. The dish reminds you of the earlier days of French Enlightenment cuisine where flavouring was all about accentuating an ingredient’s natural flavour.
In true French style, the fish comes with pommes fondant, and a side of greens. In contrast to this is the Pine-smoked Bhekti, which is traditionally shallow fried fillet served with a basting made of sorshe — stone-ground mustard paste — and tomato paste.
The highlight of the new menu also brings forth the famous Dalley Chicken, a spicy dish made with Darjeeling chillies and sichaun peppers. Coming close is the iconic Metiabruz Murg Tikka flavoured with Peshwari masala, along with the Devil’s Crab that uses mustard and cream forming the Sheherwali food.
Curated by the Oswal Jains who came to West Bengal in the 18th century, settled in Murshidabad and eventually rose to power, Sheherwali cuisine is a fine example of the marriage of Bengali flavours with Rajasthani cooking style. A dish that perfectly illustrates this is the Paniphal Ki Tarkari and Milao Ki Sabzi, which mirrors Bengali’s love for mixed greens dishes. The beauty of the Paniphal ki Tarkari, says Chef Chakrabarti, “is not only the use of water chestnut, a native fruit of Murshidabad, but also the use of mango powder or amchur. It was prepared in the Eastern style from the mango varieties that these expert grafters and mango lovers grew including the sweet Dilpasand, the sandalwood-scented Chandankosa, and the sublime Kohitoor.”
The menu features popular items like the Tangra Spicy Chicken that is believed to be the granddad of chilly chicken and fish and chips. For those veering towards contemporary items, there’s the Prawn Cocktail whose recipe has a definite wow factor.
Take the case of the Park Street Prawn Cocktail. This once popular amuse bouche or starter has been re-tweaked by the chef to a more Satyajit Ray time version. It includes a base of avocado and is tangier than the original that is still served in clubs. The same rings true with the double onion ghee roast. A far, far cry from its Mangalorean counterpart, the Calcutta version is more subtle and uses one version of the Peshwari masala to give the khasi goat meat its edge. Best served with Tulaipanji Pather Pulao, a fragrant pilaf made with the rice from upper region of Malda, it is a hark back to the time when bone broth or yakhni was the main flavourant of a pilaf. It is the same technique that gives the Dhakai Morog Pulao made from country chicken its aromatic aftertaste and delicious bite.
On the sweeter end of the spectrum, the menu brings forth many of the old classic like the Baked Alaska, Caramel Custard made in hand crafted clay pots, and the Chocolate Banofee Fudge (toffee flavoured!). However, it is the Oswal community’s Saloni Mewa ki Khichdi that warms the soul that nippy afternoon we visited East India Room.
Served belly warm, it is the perfect wedding of two cultures — Mihidana from Burdwan, Mewa from Rajasthan, cashew from Kanika and almonds and raisins that were once the finest imports at the ports. Designed as a khichdi, it excels in the balmy feeling that satiates the tastebuds and the soul.
Clearly, a culinary royal repast worth a try.