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In the last 20 years, a number of publications have provided readers with a high-quality selection of Bengali cookbooks in English. Minakshie Das Gupta's Bangla Ranna remains the well-thumbed Bible: its classic recipes and impeccable introduction to the principles of cooking and serving Bengali food is an excellent initiation into the Bengali kitchen. For the seasoned cook, there's the beautifully produced Pumpkin Flower Fritters, a translation of Renuka Devi Choudhurani's classic. And for the sheer joy of reading magical prose that takes you deep into the cultural cauldron of the food traditions of Bengal and Calcutta, there's Chitrita Banerji's Life and Food in Bengal and The Calcutta Cookbook by Minakshie Das Gupta, Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha.
Advertising professional Gini Sen's attractively produced Harir Khabor - What's Cooking in Bengal is a welcome addition to this shelf, greatly augmenting the doable recipe range available to an English-language reader;and serving a generation-on-the-move with uncluttered content and engaging food bytes.
Sen explains: "This book is for my grandson who has lived abroad all his life. Remembering my childhood and the central role that food, festivals and rituals played, I realised he would have little opportunity to know this crucial part of his heritage. So here's a cookbook that will hopefully help him joyously engage with the rich culinary culture he belongs to no matter where he makes his home. "
With her eye thus firmly fixed on the growing numbers of Bengalis born and brought up abroad (and also those living outside Bengal), Sen presents a wide range of recipes from humble fare rooted in the waste-not-want-not dictum of rural Bengal like khosha charchari (a mêlange of vegetable peels) to elaborate dishes like hilsa in coconut milk. The recipes are interspersed with potted histories, tips for the kitchen novice, and short pieces covering an eclectic range of topics from Calcutta street food to Darjeeling Tea. Chapters on Pujo, Parbans, and Festivals provide snap shots of major events in the Bengali calendar and life-cycle and, together with accompanying menus, help readers observe food traditions surrounding these.
"A traditional Bengali meal is governed by two major organising principles - the order of serving various preparations and the seasons - so the book progresses as you would through a typical meal with the seasons woven in, " explains Sen. Thus, it begins with the chapter on rice (an excellent section, mining the much-neglected subject of the many varieties of rice grown in Bengal) and concludes with chutney and mishti. Along the way, there's time for delicious diversions into jal khabar (snacks) and picnics.
Several recipes and essays in Harir Khabor are edited translations of pieces that first appeared in a Bengali food magazine of the same name launched some years ago (but no longer in print) by Sen and the small team at her ad agency, Write Wing. "We are inveterate foodies and constantly discussing food, " Sen says. "This passion prompted us to start a magazine dedicated to food trends in Bengal. We called it Harir Khobor - meaning both what's cooking in the cauldron and a tongue-in-cheek reference to hot gossip. " The issues were packed with articles and recipes - many contributed by its wide readership. Recalls Sen, "The magazine was like a party thrown by family and friends where everybody contributed something. "
This explains why, despite the multiple sources of its content, the book retains the intimacy of a family food memoir. As one browses through recipes, foodcentered anecdotes, menus for special occasions, wise bits of advice, snippets of food history and quotes from poets from Tagore to Nash, there's all the charm of an old-fashioned food journal. At the same time, it's organised to serve a younger generation.
Some new sources were also tapped for the book. For instance, interviews with descendents of the Tagore family have resulted in a brief but interesting peek into the culinary culture of the Tagore household.
Sen says that her mantra for editing the book was, "Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!" This approach works well for the recipes which are reader-friendly but results, at times, in rather uninspired prose passages. Translating from the original Bengali presented a few challenges, admits Sen, as nuances of certain Bengali terms were simply lost in translation. On the whole, the cross-over from one language to another has been managed well. Disappointingly, this has not prevented the author from falling into some predictable translation traps like using the term spinach to refer to all greens - shaaks - when of course spinach refers to one particular kind of green - palang shaak. And careless errors such as translating bati charchari - a steamed dish as the accompanying recipe makes clear - as stir-fried vegetables.
Sen concedes that the book barely touches upon the various colonising influences on Bengali cuisine. But, she says, that just might be the subject of another edition. Going by her debut effort that will be well worth waiting for.
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