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Calcutta on Your Plate by Nilosree Biswas


Calcutta on Your Plate by Nilosree Biswas

Reviewed by


Shankhadeep Ghosal

Independent Researcher

 M.A. (English), NET-JRF

Purba Bardhaman, West Bengal, India

Calcutta on Your Plate | Academic | Nilosree Biswas |

Rupa Publications India Pvt., 2022, pp. 208, INR 283

ISBN 978-93-5520-774-6

Calcutta on Your Plate by Nilosree Biswas succinctly captures the complicated gastronomic history of Calcutta and how the Calcutta’s culinary identity gets diversified with the advent of foreign interlopers belonging to different centuries. Instead of chronological narration of the various influences that shaped and enriched the Bengali Cuisine, the author employs the ‘back and forth’ technique to formulate the discourse on the complex foodscape of Calcutta. Putting colonized Bengal at the backdrop, the author seeks to underscore the evolution of Calcutta’s food culture that was influenced by the overseas culinary practices, particularly by that of Britain. With the ever increasing supremacy of British East India Company over Calcutta and its adjacent territories, a new class of affluent Babus (elite Bengalis) emerged in the then social scenario, who became allured to emulate the sophistication of British lifestyle in every respect. Being plunged into the anglicized luxuriousness, the household kitchens of Bengali affluents started to experiment with  firangi recipes and as a result of which many delectable dishes, starting from fowl cutlet, kabiraji to Roshogolla, Ledikeni, made steady inroads into the foodscape of the City of Joy, that is, Calcutta. With the passage of time, these trending dishes started to find home with the mainstream traditional Bengali dishes and as a result of which Calcutta’s food culture became hybridized and more inclusively complex in nature. In a nutshell, this book is an exemplary specimen of Calcutta’s gastronomic evolution that journeyed through the socio-political turmoil of colonized Bengal.

Calcutta on Your Plate, the book under review, contains four chapters which are intricately interwoven with the common thread of Calcuttan’s gastrophilic orientation. In the opening chapter, the author sets the background by depicting the socio-political scenario of Bengal where the East India Company’s (EIC) objective was to make today’s Kolkata a habitable station for trading. But this dream of making Calcutta London of the East was not an overnight outcome rather it took a lot of efforts in the form of politico-administrative adjustments with the provincial rulers. Job Charnock, the agent of the company, played a crucial role in this transformation of a river side marshy land covered with deep jungles into a city of elite Europeans where with the passage of time different cultures started to mingle to make Calcutta a vibrant space in the map. It is with the gradual commercial prosperity of the company, Bengali affluent class started to flourish by involving themselves into the business ventures with the Company agents and as result of it, urbanization began in Calcutta in the form of establishment of markets, European colonies, babu colonies, restaurants, to name only a few. These cultural transactions coupled with territorial transformations left unavoidable impacts on the Bengali lifestyle in the form of household tendencies of imbibing the European customaries in every respect. As the European culinary influences were not in isolation from this event of cultural convergence, the newly educated Bengali housewives started to read cookbooks and kitchen magazines in their leisure to make themselves dab hands at both kitchen management and cooking Eurocentric innovative scrumptious dishes. The author believes that it is not only the process of acculturation which single-handedly impacted on the lives of the Bengali people but also the business attachments with English companies that influenced the culinary lifestyle of Bengalis.

The gradual transformation of Calcutta into a well-planned city allured all who visited it with the passage of time. The city started to exfoliate its traditional look to appear like a modern European metropolis where the Bengalis were ready to welcome the intruding cultures wholeheartedly. But the adaptation of these alien customs into the domestic spaces was not a cakewalk for the orthodox Bengali families because of their religious constrains. The more Bengalis came in contact with the foreign settlers, the more these socio-religious conservative attitudes of Bengalis started to shrink in response. It was because of the business tie-ups with the European merchants that made Bengalis inclined towards the western customs and rituals. The business tours made in different parts of India as well as in abroad brought them in close contact with the western culinary delicacies. This lavishness of the outside world slowly but surely crept into the household in its miniature form where the Bengali housewives tried to emulate the recipes famous in taverns, duck bungalows and foreign restaurants for their loved ones. The ever-increasing anglophilic attitude of Bengalis welcomed all those food and culinary practices which were once forbidden in the society and as a result of it Bengalis started to become victim of the western gastropolitics in colonial period. The author opines that this marked transformation in terms of Bengali gustation was possible because of the escalation in the selling of imported food products at the markets in Calcutta. On the other hand, the strategic incorporation of some close shot photographs of delectable Bengali desserts, snacks, starters and main course dishes towards the end of this chapter inevitably promotes the culinary legacy of Bengalis, which takes this shape as a result of the gastronomic evolution with time.

Putting the dynamic foodscape of Calcutta at the backdrop, the penultimate chapter of this non-fictional work brings to light the process of converting teenage girls into sugrihinis (expert housewives) who can efficiently take the charge of all the domestic duties including cooking. Being an expert in cooking was so essential feminine skill to be happy in conjugal life in then society that most of the women schools used to provide mandatory training of culinary skills to the girls so that they became a good cook in their in-laws houses. With the advent of printing press in the city, cookbooks and domestic manuals became popular among the newly wedded housewives as it prompted them to experiment with cooking new recipes to win the hearts of all. Growing acquaintance with these cook books brought culinary diversity in the domestic space, which in turn further contributed to the gastronomic hybridization of the city. But this effort of organizing themselves as sugrihinis within the fabric of familial setup made their lives monotonous and challenging. Throughout the nineteenth century, Calcutta witnessed so many publications related to the culinary transformations of the city, from which it is clear that the concept of authenticity in terms of Bengali food gradually started to get diluted.

With the rapid growth and development of the city, migrant workers from both villages and neighboring states in innumerable numbers started to invade the city with the hope of securing livelihoods as the city became a reservoir of immense possibilities for them. In this newly invaded group of workers, Ranner thakur, bawarchis or the male cooks played crucial role in the culinary metamorphosis of the city. Although the charge of indoor cooking rested mostly on the housewives, the bulk cooking in any social events was the duty of these male cooks. In these social events and festivals wide range of scrumptious dishes were cooked as Bengalis could not even think of celebrations without the preparation of culinary delicacies. In a nutshell, these social celebrations helped the Bengalis in adopting the culinary improvisations and it further led to the formulation of a mosaic foodscape in the city. Taking recourse to the Bengali tradition of mistimukh at the happy ending of any event, the author draws the conclusion by depicting the evolution of sweetmeats in Calcutta. It was with the invention of channa as the byproduct of milk by the Portuguese settlers, the city saw a revolutionary transformation in the production of wide variety of sweets. With the passage of time, these sweets were proved to be the culinary treasure of the city and it became one of the culinary attractions for both the visitors and city dwellers. It was the khadya rashik (lover of good food) nature of Bengalis that allowed foreign culinary influences to mix up with the traditional Bengali cuisine.

Written in lucid language, Calcutta on Your Plate seamlessly incorporates inter textual references of other food critics working on Bengali food culture and as a result of which a comprehensive knowledge on gastronomic evolution of Calcutta is formulated. On the other side, one may also find some limitations in this non-fictional work. For instance, the author surprisingly remains silent about the history of the establishments of some well known food outlets of Calcutta like Mitra CafĂ©, Anadi Cabin, Golbari, Coffee House, to name only a few, that have been serving the people of Calcutta since the early twentieth century.Over the years these food outlets played crucial role in making Calcutta’s richly diverse foodscape. Apart from that, this work primarily focuses on the changing food habits of affluent class of the city during colonial period due to the continuous interactions with overseas culinary influences. But this book does not put much light on the evolving food habits of the people belonging to the lower strata of the society. Notwithstanding these shortcomings, Nilosree Biswas’ Calcutta on Your Plate is a great addition to the existing knowledge of critical food studies and it would inspire modern scholars as well as gourmets to delve deeper into the history of Bengali food culture.