In the age of the food selfie, Pritha Sen is busy bringing back postcards from forgotten kitchens.
Pritha Sen talks about food with a discernible relish. Her aunts, all of them octogenarians, shared a common nostalgia for maacher khichudi (fish khichdi) that Sen’s paternal grandmother would often prepare. “They talked about this khichudi all the time, so one day I made my version of it and sent them a picture. Pat came the reply — ‘You’ve got it all wrong.’” Sen had misjudged the ratio — for every bit of rice, the quantity of fish had to be double. She would have to cook it with raisins and ghee. Charmed by the novelty of the recipe, Sen recreated it with precision. The food historian, though, wasn’t entirely satisfied. She had to dig some more to get to the bottom of the bowl. “This fish khichudi came from kedgeree, a popular colonial breakfast food made with fish and milk. They say it came from the Bengali khichudi. So, the khichudi led to the kedgeree, which my grandmother then used to make her own fish khichudi,” says Sen. A repository of anecdotes, trivia and historical facts, Sen has now been reviving heritage cuisine since 2013. Her popups, which have travelled to Hyderabad, Kolkata and Delhi, are what she calls, “a physical demonstration of my research”. The meal is preceded by a talk and an audio-visual presentation that details the history of the dishes her diners then eat. To sample Sen’s culinary reconstructions, you could also travel to Goa; she has helped curate the menu for Mustard, a French-Bengali restaurant.
People enjoying delicacies
In March last year Sen joined spatulas with Manzilat Fatima, the great-great granddaughter of the last nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah. Sen says their popup in Kolkata had a specific purpose — “I wanted to showcase the cuisine that had stayed in Wajid Ali Shah’s family, which is very different from what you get commercially.” Commerce may have mangled the taste of the kebab, but hearsay has gone and distorted history. The girth of Wajid Ali Shah, for instance, led to the assumption that the nawab was a foodie, but Sen says he was a disinterested eater. Citing proof of their inventiveness, Calcuttans often point to the potato in their biryani, but Sen tells us its story was pragmatic. “Though the nawabs had fallen on hard times, they had to be different. Potatoes were introduced because they were still exotic vegetables and meat was expensive.”
Sen’s stories stretch back centuries and her sources are as diverse as they are rare. To research dishes such as the Goalando steamer curry, she visited Kolkata’s National and Asiatic libraries. She dug out ancient copies of the Bengal Gazette, the Imperial Gazette and old journals of tea planters and forest rangers.
Sen owes some of her rigour to her days as a history student. “I was uncaring about it when I took up the subject, but I now realise how much it helped me.” As a journalist, Sen honed the art of information gathering. Hunting for that sometimes elusive first line, she’d go into the kitchen. “As I started doing things there, my creativity would soon flow.” In 2000, Sen gave up her life as a journalist to join the development sector, and eight years ago, she and a like-minded friend started their own consultancy firm. Their work in sustainable livelihood took Sen to the interiors of the country. “I used to go to remote areas and stay with the people there and see how they made their food. This would sometimes send me back to how the women in my family cooked.” Governmental mandates for nutrition and imported packets of quinoa began to seem “stupid” to her. “The one reason why people have lived in such great poverty and still survived is because their food is preventative and curative. There was an age-old, indigenous wisdom that informed their cooking, which was in reality, very scientific.” Coming home, Sen would look at her own food and try to employ the methods of cooking she had seen.
Sen traces her roots back to Dhaka and has even put together a pop-up called Bhortakahon that juxtaposes the cuisines of Bangladesh and erstwhile East Bengal. Heritage cuisine, she adds, is defined by simplicity — “The rituals and ingredients are both simple.” In 2014, she served to diners at a Gurgaon pop-up the Goalando steamer curry. Described alternatively as “nothing but a rustic curry made from grated onions, garlic, ginger and lots of chillies and mustard oil” and then as a “fiery, thin red curry with oil floating on top”, it took Sen three years to perfect the dish. “I kept making it till it matched the descriptions and tastes that people described.” The Goalando steamer travelled from Goalando ghat in West Bengal to Narayangunge in Dhaka, and was discontinued sometime just before the 1965 war. With no authentic recipe, all Sen could rely on was feedback from passengers aboard a steamer that still travels between Myanmar and Chittagong. “When they asked how I’d got that particular taste, I knew I’d cracked it. The best way is always to make people taste.”
Kalo jeera bhorta
Red amaranth with peanuts and kasundi at Mustard; Scenes from Bhortakahon
An East Bengal version of the shukto made with bitter elements like bitter gourd or neem leaves and served with black gram and coconut
Nabeez, a drink made with soaked raisins or dates
Sen’s labour alone is worthy of praise, but wouldn’t modern weightwatchers be put off by the light film of oil on the surface? “If you take the Goalando curry on to your plate, it has a very thin curry with minimal spices and almost no oil. When cooked slowly on a chulha, the little oil you’ve used comes to the surface and the gravy itself is left with very little,” she explains. Intent on cutting out oil and unnecessary spices from almost all of the food she cooks, Sen found an unwilling apprentice in Prasanta Mandal. As a chef in Kolkata, the 23-year-old was used to doling out generous dollops of oil and masalas in the restaurant where he worked until February last year. “After I came to work at Mustard, Pritha madam changed my entire mentality. I cut out the spice and oil and the customers just kept coming back. We even won the Times Good Food award. I can now cook better than her.”
In Mustard’s Goa kitchen, the running joke is that Mandal always stops the kitchen help from clearing the leaves and peels that are left after a day’s cooking. “Madam will do something with them,” he says. “Maximum nutrition comes from our tradition of eating peels, stalks and leaves,” says Sen. Her cooking is based on a simple principle — the richer you get, the farther you move from nutrition. The chef’s food preserves the flavours our grandmothers would have us relish, the kind of uncomplicated deliciousness our forefathers would have us preserve. Heritage cuisine ought to be a movement, but Sen thinks this impetus can’t be sustained by popups alone. “I dream of a restaurant that will give you heritage cuisine of eastern India. I have my fingers crossed.” We do, too.