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Wine & Dine

As good as ma

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SERVICE WITH ASMILE: Warmth and affection is what makes a meal at Suruchi special

Suruchi, Kolkata's first Bangla Khabar restaurant, was a pioneer in what is now quite a crowded field. As it celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, TOI-Crest finds out why it's still special.

In a departure from our usual practice, this year we elected to remain in Calcutta during these pujos. We enjoyed Ashtami Anjali at a barwari pujobari;listened to the dhakis;visited pandals in our area to take in the incredible artisanship they displayed and visited relations on Bijoy Dashami. But certainly, one of the high points of these few days was our Nabami lunch at Suruchi, the Bengali food eatery run by the All Bengal Women's Union ABWU) in its precincts on Elliot Road.

Suruchi had a special pujo menu we feasted on - Mocha Chingri (banana flower cooked with succulent shrimp), Bhaaja Mung Daal, Begun Bahar (eggplant in a rich creamy gravy fragrant with mustard paste and paanch phoron, the Bengali five-spice mix, and Patoler Dolma (tender wax gourd stuffed with rasin-embedded savoury paneer and dressed in a coconut sauce), crumb fried fish, Fish Paturi (fish steamed in banana leaf) and deeply satisfying Kasha Mangsho. There was chutney, and bhajas, pulao and luchi. And for dessert, a choice of pithas - dumplings in syrup. We could have, of course, opted from one of the many Bengali restaurants that dot the Calcutta food map today - choosing from chains, five-star outlets and stand-alones. But somehow, it felt right that we should mark pujos in Kolkata with a meal at the city's very first Bangla restaurant. After all, before Suruchi opened its doors in 1969, Bangla food could only be enjoyed in homes. The numerous restaurants in the city gave you choices ranging from continental to Chinese, Mughlai to South Indian, but if you wanted a proper Bangla meal and couldn't rustle it up in your own kitchen, then all you could do was wait for the next invitation from your Bengali friends.

Moreover, Suruchi retained its one-of-a-kind status right up to the early '90s - a clear two-decade run - till Kewpie's, another gem of a Bangla restaurant, started up. And what is quite remarkable, is that this pioneering establishment has managed to preserve its original character and values while keeping in step with the demands for modernisation. Suruchi traces its beginnings to the turbulence of Partition. Set up in 1932 as a shelter and rehabilitation home for trafficked women, the ABWU was one of the main shelters in the city in 1947 for the continuous stream of women who were coming across the border from Bangladesh having lost everything. With a clear vision of enabling these survivors of violence to rebuild their lives, ABWU set up 'production centres' - centres that would provide each woman with a skill that could then bring her income. Those with an aptitude for sewing went into tailoring;those with an artistic bent entered block printing and so on. But there were a few who did not have any of these aptitudes. There was one thing they loved doing, though - something they had done everyday for their families now lost to them forever - and that was, to cook. Thus, a new production centre was started - the canteen. And this would become ABWU's most successful and well-known venture. Interestingly, even today, the food at Suruchi has strong East Bengal accents (a partiality towards mustard paste, a lingering hint of sweetness in most dishes) - a tribute to the women who were responsible for its genesis. For several years the Canteen did home delivery only - the role of the dabbawala, in this case, being played by a young man called Photik. Photik would carry food to various homes and also to Nil Ratan Sircar Hospital.

Gradually, arrangements were made so that persons could eat at the Canteen precincts. As the canteen operations expanded, Romola Sinha, a co-founder of ABWU and the lady who led the organisation for years with wisdom and vision, realised that the culinary establishment needed guidance and she brought in ladies who were known for the excellent kitchens they ran at home and who were keen to be involved in steering and shaping an initiative like this. My grandmother, Leela Ray, was one of these persons. She was a brilliant cook and experienced in running a huge joint-family household. She would come in several times a week to ABSU - or the Home, as it was referred to - and spend time training the girls in the kitchen both in culinary skills and also in the important art of efficiently managing kitchen supplies. The growing popularity of the canteen led, finally, to its evolution into Suruchi - a place where one could go to enjoy a good Bengali meal, at very reasonable prices and in simple, but clean and comfortable settings. The idea was to provide the homestyle Bengali food served with the love and care you could expect in a Bengali home.

Through my first years in school, Suruchi and the Home were a big part of my life. My mother would collect me from school and then we would go to the Home to pick up my grandmother who would have spent the morning there. Usually, my grandmother would still be engaged in a meeting or a training. My mother and I would wait in Suruchi where I was allowed to have my favourite item on the handwritten menu - the Bela Kochuri - a warm crisp kachori served with delicious, slightly sweet chholar daal. The food was wonderful, but what made those moments really special was the warmth and affection of the Suruchi staff.

And it's precisely this quality of hospitality that Suruchi has maintained over its long history and which still remains its USP. During our Nabami lunch, we saw how, despite the crowds and the pressure they were under, the girls attended to each diner with patience and care. Every question was answered graciously;every request got a response. Too often when an establishment expands and upgrades it loses its essence. Suruchi has come a long way since its inception - there's air-conditioning, the menu is longer (and it's printed!), but in one critical aspect it hasn't changed at all: it still remains a place to enjoy excellent home-style Bengali food served with home-style hospitality.

SURUCHI'S BEGUN BAHAR


(serves four as a side dish)

INGREDIENTS


Two medium sized eggplants cut lengthwise into 8 pieces 1 tablespoon mustard paste 1 teaspoon ginger paste ? tsp turmeric 1 teaspoon chilli powder 2 tomatoes chopped 100g beaten yoghurt ? teaspoon 'paanch phoron' (Bengali spice of five ingredients) Pinch of 'hing' powder (asafoetida) Coriander leaves Coat eggplant with salt and turmeric and fry in hot oil. Take out eggplant and keep aside. In the same oil, add 'hing' and 'paanch phoron'. Fry for a few seconds, then add ginger paste. Stir fry, then add tomatoes and mustard paste. Continue frying and add a little water. Once this has come to a boil add the eggplants. When the eggplants are cooked, remove from heat and stir in beaten yoghurt. Just before serving, heat through and serve garnished with coriander leaves

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