The venerable figure from the ad world, culture oozing out of every pore, asked me as we savoured our lunch, circa 1980, at the Bombay Gymkhana: where do you think the strong vegetarian tradition in Bengali cooking comes from? Knowing that I wouldn’t have a clue, he added: “From vegetarian widows, mostly grandmothers!”
I should have guessed. My earliest memories of my grandmother, who was a widow (I grew up assuming all ageing grandmothers wore white and were widows), are of her depositing herself after her pujas late in the morning in her separate vegetarian kitchen before the chullah, and cooking a succession of dishes. The food was only nominally for her, as we waited for her to finish so that we could all get a share. There was no question that her items were far superior to anything prepared by the professional cook in the non-vegetarian kitchen. Little wonder, then, that I grew up liking vegetarian and non-vegetarian food equally.
Vegetarian food again powerfully intruded into my life when I shared a flat in London with my Kolkata friend Jyoti. Hundred per cent Bengali, he still couldn’t stand the smell of fish, much less actually taste it. Why? He had grown up with his grandmother, whose food he lived on and who was a widow and a vegetarian. Thus, I came to believe that nobody cooked like mother, except grandmother.
But despite this true-blue vegetarian tradition in Bengali cuisine, somehow non-vegetarian food – centred around an endless array of fish preparations – has come to dominate not just the image of the Bengali but also his own perceptions of basic and speciality dishes alike.
I came to realise exactly how much when we moved to Delhi and our young children dutifully came out in rashes in the height of summer, landing us before the paediatrician. He said there was nothing to worry about and, in response to my wife’s query, agreed that giving them fish “once” was fine. Only later did he realise, with much amusement, that while he had assumed “once a week”, we had taken it to mean “once a day”. It was only during our 15 years in Delhi that we, as a family, came to realise life could go on quite nicely without non-vegetarian food.
In keeping with this love for fish, the average Bengali looks down upon vegetarian food from elsewhere in the country, no matter how good. Hence, a tour of the south is considered fantastic in view of the temples and forests to see, except for one problem. How do you survive on “dhosa-mosa”, goes the common refrain — which even gets the word “dosa” wrong.
My education, which began in Delhi, has been rounded off in Bangalore, where I have discovered the joys of south Indian cooking. A fine crispy dosa, coming with the coconut chutney and the sambar done just right, is a treat. And if you want the dosa extra crisp, then the place better serve an authentic paper dosa, which is so long and large that the wife must share it.
Among all south Indian meals, I, like many, most savour breakfast, popularly called tiffin. And it is not complete without a fine cup of filtered coffee — and, in Bangalore (here my Bengali sweet tooth comes in), kesri bath. Of course it is bathed in ghee, as all good things in life are; but the added flavour from the finely chopped pineapple and nuts makes it for me a king among sweets.
As happens when good food becomes a part of life, a lot of social conversation revolves around which is the best place to have what. The traditional topper is the MTR restaurant on Lalbagh Road, now challenged by the place that Sadanand Maiya – who used to run the processed food business – has set up in traditional Jayanagar after the MTR family split. And if you are driving to Mysore, you will, of course, start very early to both beat the traffic and reach Kamat, a bit out of the city, just in time for a glorious breakfast — sorry, tiffin.
It is not as if I have become indifferent to non-vegetarian food. Bangalore is now dotted with some of the best purveyors of Bengali cuisine, all imported from Kolkata, who charge a hefty price for their authentic vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare, knowing what the techie can afford. So the idea is to eat out only occasionally and know where to buy the best fresh fish, which is touted as “from Kolkata” but is most likely from Andhra Pradesh.