One hardly expects President Pranab Mukherjee to begin his innings at Rashtrapati Bhavan by sending out invitations to lunch, which suggests itself as a lonely affair in the cavernous dining halls of the world’s largest residence for a head of state. The kitchens that serve the president must have adjusted to the shock of shifting from shuddh shakahaari cuisine to daab chingri and maangsho, fare the First Lady has declined to personally prepare. But given how fussy a Bengali can be when it comes to his food, the cooks will need to brush up their skills in the use of shorse and posto and all things chorchori if they are to make the cut and get Mukherjee to send out invitations because Begum Sheikh Hasina has sent hilsa fresh from the Padma for the president’s pleasure.
Oh, how that will annoy Didi, who came to the capital carrying not presents but an invoice from the people of Bengal. If only she’d thought to bring some Murshidabad mangoes instead – the hilsa from the Hooghly, say Bengal’s foodies, being a poor substitute for its Padma cousin – but Didi’s frugal eating ways haven’t allowed her to cadge up on the ways of dinner diplomacy. Though she’s declined to sup with the party president, she might make an exception for the nation’s president, seeing how they’re related by Rabindra Sangeet, which she plays at every street corner in Kolkata and will no doubt advise Mukherjee to have piped throughout the Presidential estate.
Presidents are notoriously stingy about issuing invitations to lunch and dinner, but I can boast of having made a career of at least having tea with not a few of them. No doubt, there was a time when the Willingdons and the Mountbattens served scones and cucumber sandwiches and lemon tarts and sponge cakes for tea, but those days are long gone, replaced by – you can almost swear on it – fritters, thinly sliced rings of onions and potatoes fried in a chickpea batter by a pakora sous-chef. The last occupant of the august house, I have it on good authority, liked her pakoras not so much bland as spicy, and a supply of mirchi-vadas from a mithai shop in the city kept the presidential palate in good humour.
Giani Zail Singh was a surprisingly good host, serving up fluffier pakoras, though he always made sure to have sandwiches too, thereby continuing a tradition, and though Amritsari macchi never made it to the table, unappetising fish fingers did. Usha Narayanan may not have added Burmese khaw-swey to the menu, but you could count on K R Narayanan’s teas to at least include cocktail-sized idlis and vadas with coconut chutney (but, alas, no accompanying south Indian filter kaapi) alongside the inevitable pakoras. Pratibha Patil’s tastes ran to dhokla and khandvi, which were supplied to the august residence along with Indian sweets.
The burden on President Mukherjee is greater because of Bengal’s great culinary tradition. Which other state can claim to have a dessert – a flattened rossogolla tarted up with some cream – named after a former vicereine, Lady Canning (now pronounced Ledy Kenny)? There is the inevitable sandesh which Pranab Babu can arrange to have flown fresh from Kolkata, especially when prepared with notun gur. But, oh, how wonderful if the president would find a way for Flury’s not just to keep the kitchen supplied with its quiches and patties and pastries but to open a branch at Rashtrapati Bhavan, By Order of the President.