Travel through North East India without leaving Kolkata

Grand Market Pavilion at ITC Royal Bengal rounds up culinary treasures from across the region.
There are many north eastern delicacies at the grand market pavilion buffet at itc royal bengal, kolkata.
There are many north eastern delicacies at the Grand Market Pavilion or GMP buffet at ITC Royal Bengal, Kolkata.

Micro cuisines need champions. The culinary treasures of India’s north east have long remained overshadowed by the country’s more popular cuisines that have been feted in fine-dining venues across the country.

The 2019 film Axone (that takes its name from one of the mainstays of Naga cuisine crafted with fermented soya beans) highlights the lack of awareness around cuisines from the region as well as cultural sensitivities. Around the same time this film debuted on Netflix, Executive Chef Vijay Malhotra and his culinary team at ITC Royal Bengal put cuisine from the north east of India on the pedestal. Probably the first time we’ve seen these exotic dishes in a fine-dining setting in any venue in the country. 

Chefs handling the north eastern section at the gmp buffet with executive chef vijay malhotra (extreme right). Image: ashwin rajagopalan.
Chefs handling the north eastern section at the GMP buffet with Executive Chef Vijay Malhotra (extreme right). Image: Ashwin Rajagopalan.

The Grand Market Pavilion (regulars like to call it GMP) at ITC Royal Bengal pays tribute to Kolkata’s most iconic market. The New Market (also known by its original name — Hogg Market) dates back to 1874. This was once the treasury of produce for the entire country. The all-day diner at Royal Bengal captures some of the energy of New Market, and the grid-like design with multiple buffet counters adds to the market experience. This is a quintessential buffet restaurant with arguably the largest spread in the city. It’s why weekend lunches at the restaurant that can seat almost 200 diners, can be almost as frenetic as the market. 

The delectable north east spread at gmp.
The delectable north east spread at GMP.

With over 300 ethnic communities, tribes and sub-tribes and fiery chillies that power Naga cuisine to the Nepalese influenced fare in Sikkim, every state in the North East has its own unique culinary identity. Each of these states is well represented in a menu that is refreshed every day and occupies pride of place in one of the seven large buffet stations. It’s not surprising that ITC Hotels took the lead in showcasing these eclectic cuisines. Over the years, the group has deep dived into India’s culinary heritage and created brands like Dum Pukht and, more recently, Avartana. Kolkata’s location also makes it a logical choice. But Vijay Malhotra tells me that sourcing the perfect ingredients has remained a constant challenge. It’s the quality of the ingredients like the hooker chives in the rupchi — stir-fried mushroom with chives — that defines this experience. 

The smoked bhetki spiced with sumac and served with banana blossom is an interesting dish. Image: ashwin rajagopalan.
The smoked bhetki spiced with sumac and served with banana blossom is an interesting dish. Image: Ashwin Rajagopalan.

It was the first course that set the tone for my recent dining experience. A smoked bhetki spiced with sumac (yes, the same spice that elevates Za’atar, the popular Middle Eastern condiment) and served with banana blossom. Simplicity is one of the hallmarks of many of these recipes. Just one or two ingredients define each dish, a welcome relief from restaurant-style Indian food where ingredients are overpowered by potent masalas. 

Pork is an integral element in cuisines from across the region. It is also a recurring feature in the spread. I first tried the Awoshi kuksa — crispy pork served with pineapple salsa. Meghalaya produces some of the finest pineapples in India.

It was the dohsnang, Meghalaya-style dry pepper pork that was the pick of the pork dishes, along with a rustic Sikkimese chilli pork cooked with chilli ginger and soya. A popular dish among regular diners, especially through Kolkata’s brief winter, is the comforting thukpa — the Sikkimese-style noodle soup. 

Manipuri black rice kheer is a great way to finish the meal at gmp.
Manipuri black rice kheer is a great way to finish the meal.

Rice is the major staple across the region and works really well with dishes such as the Yensha hangam thongba, a Manipuri-style chicken curry with whole garlic. Chak-hao, the Manipuri black rice (that won a GI tag last year) is probably one of my favourite rice varietals due to its scented aroma and chewy texture. The Chak-hao is the hero ingredient in the black rice kheer that was a fitting finale to a meal which offers a peek into the cultures and food heritage of the region. 

The north east spread (left); and thukpa, which is a kolkata favourite in winter. Images: ashwin rajagopalan.
The North East spread (left); and Thukpa, which is a Kolkata favourite in winter. Images: Ashwin Rajagopalan.

This was not my first visit to GMP and this is no pop-up. I’ve seen this menu evolve in quick time with new additions. The culinary team drawn from across the region continues to explore traditional recipes that add to the GMP repertoire. For long, chefs from the North East have stayed in the background, often part of Asian kitchens in restaurants across India. It’s wonderful to see chefs from the region in the limelight. We only hope the ‘Discover North East experience’ at Grand Market Pavilion could set the stage for a dedicated fine-dining restaurant that takes the cuisine to newer audiences. 

Grand Market Pavilion is at the ITC Royal Bengal, JBS Haldane Avenue, Tangra, Kolkata. Phone: +91-33-4446-4646 ( Meal for 2: Rs 4,000 

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