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Beyond dal makhni


The man who landed a big catch with 'shorshe illish'.

Before 1991, the average Mumbaikar, if asked what chingri is, might have ventured: some kind of tribal instrument? That year, Anjan Chatterjee opened his first restaurant, convinced that the city would love Bengali food. He was right. Only Fish prospered and gave way to the even more successful Oh! Calcutta, which has ensured that every foodie knows that chingri means prawn. Chatterjee now presides over an empire of 60 restaurants across the country. They include Mainland China, Oh! Calcutta, Just Biryani, Sigree, Sweet Bengal, Haka, Machan and Flame and Grill. But in 1991, Chatterjee was running an advertising agency in Mahim. He and his wife Suchhanda, both avid cooks, decided to take their hobby further and started Only Fish in a small rented space close on Lady Jamsetji Road. "The inspiration came from my bachelor days in Bombay when I craved manghsor jhol or shorshe bata, " says Chatterjee, who studied catering. "I gave (Suchhanda) Rs 50, 000. She put all her resources together and beautified the place."

Only Fish served mostly Bengali standards such as shorshe illish (hilsa in a mustard curry ), malai chingri (prawn in coconut cream) and mochar ghonto (cooked banana flowers) as well as some non-Bengali dishes. Initially, Chatterjee and his wife manned the kitchen. Over time, they hired more cooks and a manager. When the restaurant began doing well, Only Fish moved to a larger space in Tardeo.

Chatterjee says that it was fun to mine old Bengali grannies for little-known recipes. The food was a combination of flavours of food from East and West Bengal; he's from the West, she's from the East. "East Bengali food is sharp and fiery, " he explains. "Ours is slightly sweeter. We balanced everything together. " The Chatterjees continue to be hands-on in the kitchen. Every new cook is trained by them at a kitchen near their home. "It's not five-star food, " he says. "It's very homely, very cottage. We have to make them un-complicate food. "

After about four years, Chatterjee decided that Only Fish needed a makeover. "We didn't expect that people would take (the name) Only Fish literally," he says. It suggested non-vegetarian food, a specialisation in fish and Bengali food. "So it was a niche within a niche within a niche. " The restaurant was shut and reopened as Oh! Calcutta, which continues to be the most popular place for Bengali food. "The idea was to market a new kind of cuisine, " Chatterjee says. "How long can you live on the glory of dal makhni and tandoori chicken?"

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