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Author Mohona Kanjilal, whose latest 'A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta' (Speaking Tiger) is a journey through the ever-changing landscape of Kolkata's food and cultural milieu.

It's a love letter to a city. Even as she explores cuisines and eateries synonymous with Kolkata, the author, who has been living there forever, discovers her city anew with every page -- first with surprise, and then gratitude.

Author Mohona Kanjilal, whose latest 'A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta' (Speaking Tiger) is a journey through the ever-changing landscape of Kolkata's food and cultural milieu, from its decade's old cutlet, jhal muri, and puchka stalls to its iconic continental restaurants like Firpo's and Flurys, from its oldest tea shop -- Favourite Cabin to the 21st-century fine dining restaurants. A book that not about the food of Kolkata, but also its history, sights, sounds, color, and smell.

As the author writes about Kolkata's history, people, and places through food, she admits the city grows on a person. "This holds even for the non-Bengalis --there is something special about this city and its people. The warmth that the inhabitants of this city exude or their tolerant nature - really difficult to point out a single factor. Kolkatans are not only culturally active but politically aware and intellectually alert. Every interesting nugget of information I would discover while researching on the city would get me excited and make my city all the more endearing to me," she told IANS.

ALSO READ: Calcutta Paan: Tracing the flavors of India's favorite mouth freshener

Kanjilal, who has written two short story collections before, was thinking of an idea for her third book. One day, while shopping, she stepped into Nahoum's - the Jewish bakery. Though she had been there before, on that particular day, it was taking some time to settle the bill at the counter. She began looking around and the old-world charm in its decor and a nostalgic feeling of a bygone era that emanated from it caught her eye. "When they told me that the place was established in 1902, it got me thinking about other old eateries in Kolkata."


calcutta Photographed during the 40th International Kolkata Book Fair at Milan Mela Complex, Kolkata.Wikimedia Commons


She found the subject interesting and began her research. While interacting with the owners of these eateries, Kanjilal also came across interesting nuggets of information about Kolkata's food history, which she began exploring in detail. "Researching on the subject further, I realized that this cosmopolitan food culture in Kolkata developed when it became an important center of trade and commerce and was made the royal capital, attracting many communities to it. Now my research, which had begun with a vague idea, became more defined. So, the book is a combination of history and food."

Of the numerous places -- Armenian, Jewish, Chinese, Parsi, and Indian ones she explored, the one where she would love to sit behind the counter is the Favourite Cabin on Surya Sen Street, the first tea shop to come up in the city. "There is so much history entwined with this place. It was the popular hub of freedom fighters. They would visit the shop in disguise and discuss politics over garom cha. Whenever the police conducted raids on the shop, the owner would signal to them in a code language, and they would escape, right on time, from the back door. Not a single freedom fighter was ever caught there."

ALSO READ: Calcutta International Classical Guitar Festival: A four-day musical

Mention the misconception among people living outside Bengal that the food from the state is all about maachh and mishti -- fish and sweets, and she smiles, "There are a plethora of vegetarian dishes in Bengali cuisine. I can think of at least ten different types of dishes that can be made with a single vegetable like bottle gourd in our cuisine, right from savory to sweet dishes."

calcutta Street Food - something like French toast, Calcutta.Wikimedia Commons


She adds that today, Kolkata has a flourishing hospitality industry, and local food entrepreneurs picked up the threads from the Europeans and began setting up restaurants. "Park Street and Dacres Lane are the two food streets of Kolkata. While the former has its fair share of upscale restaurants, the latter is the mecca of street food. There are different categories of restaurants to suit all kinds of budgets. And the number of such places seems to be growing because there is an increasing demand for them. Kolkatans love to celebrate life and one of the ways they do it is through food."

Stressing that the book provided her an opportunity to see the city afresh, she says that 'A Taste of Time' evolved over the years, and she grew with it. "I rediscovered the city, saw it with a new perspective, and fell in love with it even more. I was a Kolkata addict before. But this book has turned me into a hardcore one." (IANS/KB)


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