As globalization has sophisticated our palates and increased our knowledge, we have realized that the term 'Indian cooking' has short-changed us. A country as large as India has many cuisines buried within its wide borders, but they have remained mysterious, even unapproachable to many westerners. In The Calcutta Kitchen, the sparkling prose of Simon Parkes and the recipes of chef Udit Sarkhel open the window on the rich and varied cuisine of Bengal's largest city, one that teems with life, one that owes its development to world influences. Writing with affection and verve, Parkes tells us, "In this book, we go to fish ponds and markets, artisan food producers, restaurants, and clubs; we hear the recollections of cooks and gourmets, and we are dazzled by the freshness of what is cooked on the street."
Dazzling is the appropriate word for the food of Bengal's largest city. Fish is abundant in Calcutta, provided by the River Hoogly, the wetlands and marshes at the edge of the city, so easy to get that it is always fresh. Not limited to fish, Calcutta cooking has developed with world influences. As Parkes says, "The ebb and flow of people into and out of Calcutta never stops." The chapter divisions that Parkes has chosen gives an idea of the variety of foods: Bengali Home Cooking, Fish, Vegetarian, The Raj, Muslim Cooking, Cosmopolitan Calcutta, Park Street, Snacks and Street Food, Bengali Sweets, and Rituals and Celebrations. Parkes goes on to say that an enterprising British woman has opened a pizzeria, testimony to the continued influences absorbed by Calcuttans with eagerness.
The earliest awareness the western world had of indian cooking came through the British Raj. We recognize many of these dishes some so familiar that we don't even realize that they came from India. There is Khichuri, mispronounced as Kedgeree: there is Country Captain Chicken which may have gotten its name from dishes prepared for officers of the Raj when they were "out in the country." Vegetarian cooking is commonplace in India due to religion as well as the principles of Ayurveda which recognizes the healing properties of food. Muslim cooking developed with a taboo on pork and is rich with lamb recipes while Chinese hotpot is a classic dish in the Chinatown of Calcutta - the oldest existing Chinatown in the world. There are recipes that show Portuguese influences as well as Tibetan, Burmese, Armenian and Jewish. Among the recipes in the book are Mulligatawny (Spicy Lentil Soup), Sweet Potato and Green Pea Cakes, Spicy Chicken and Onion Stir-Fry, Spiced Rice with Cashew Nuts and Raisins, Coconut Dumplings in Sweetened Milk. All recipes are authentic.
We always look forward to a new cookbook from Interlink Books. In their books the carefully selected recipes are always accompanied by text that reveals the culture in which the cuisine developed. Not only do we enjoy traveling through the pages of a cookbook, once armed with a cultural understanding of a recipe and its history, we cook that much better. The Calcutta Kitchen is a rich addition to their book shelves, and, as we have come to expect from Interlink, is written with verve.
There are photographs of food and of Calcutta throughout, all taken by Jason Lowe. They Calcutta photos include religious shrines, daily life , markets, and luscious scenery.
About the Authors: Simon Parkes is a presenter on BBC's "The Food Programme," and won the Glennfiddich Award for Radio in 2004 for his program, "Bombay Lunchboxes." Simon also writes for The Calcutta Telegraph and the BBC Good Food magazine, and spent two years living in Calcutta, reporting on food for BBC Radio.
Calcuttan Udit Sarkhel has four London restaurants: Calcutta Notebook, Sarkhel's Indian Cuisine (awarded a Bib Gourmand by Michelin), Sarkhel's of East Sheen, and Dalchini. He has been rated as one of the top five chefs in Britain by Waitrose Food Monthly.