The flavour of Kolkata

The flavour of Kolkata
The city is known for its old alleys. One such is shot by Atanu Pal.

Monday, January 25, 2016

An afternoon with Christine Manfield in AKLF

It was the closing day of the well-organised Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF) which took place at various venues including Oxford Bookstore, Victoria Memorial, Town Hall steps and Tolly Club, covering a wide range of subjects in standalone or book release-linked discussions over 14th to 17th January.

The first session of the event was the release of the new book ‘A Personal Guide to India and Bhutan’ written by Australian Masterchef, food and travel writer Christine Manfield, by veteran journalist Vir Sanghvi, followed by a conversation between the Masterchef,  him, musician and food writer Nondon Bagchi and chef Sharad Dewan of The Park, which was the venue. It was succeeded by showcasing Christine’s book ‘Dessert Divas’ with Meera Syal and a demo of one of the desserts from the book.

Before proceeding further, a few facts about Christine Manfield:
  1. She is deep into food tourism and has been conducting food trips to India for years. She has been travelling to the country by its length and breadth for the last 20 years. Her coffee table book ‘Tasting India’, which is said to be a delectable cross between a coffee table book and a travelogue, is an outcome of this.
  2. Use of spices is her forte. Her favourite spices include chilli (first in order), turmeric, saffron and mustard seed. No wonder she is known as Mistress of Spices.
  3. She can’t live without rice and chilli. So much so that she carries chilli to places that don’t grow them.
  4. When she’s at home, she shops daily and doesn’t like stocking up for days. Sounds like a quintessential Bengali habit? There’s more to relate for Bengalis. Her Bengali favourites include luchi, shukto (she finds it really light and cleansing) and kochuri on the streets.
  5. Though she’s been a guest chef on the Masterchef Australia, she doesn’t think such ‘game shows’ are the right platform to learn to be a good cook or chef.

Reference: Her interview in t2 by Samhita Chakraborty in 2011.

Back to AKLF. I regret turning up late at the well-attended first session. But the short while I witnessed, was thoroughly enjoyable. Christine is good to listen to. She is well-spoken and articulate and has a good sense of humour. Because of her long experience of India, she knows Indian food by heart.

(Left to right) Christine Manfield, Nondon Bagchi, Vir Sanghvi and Sharad Dewan

The Q&A session that followed was interesting too. An old gentleman asked why a nation’s cuisine changes when it crosses the nation’s borders. The reference was to Chinese food which as he had experienced and heard, was bland in China and very unlike what is available by its name in India, even if Chinese cooks make it. Vir said he didn’t agree to the blandness thing completely because food in China has a wide variation in taste. While food in Peiking is bland, Hunan or Szechwan food are spicy. Nevertheless, the question was addressed.

The beginning of the Q&A session

Sharad said the similarity in taste depends a lot on the water. One of the things a dish derives its taste from is water and as that varies with a change in geography. So the taste of food changes too, no matter how authentically it is attempted to prepare.

Christine’s view was that a cuisine in the first place has to appeal to the people having it. So the taste of a cuisine can change in different corners of the world to some extent to adjust to local taste.

Nondon shared an anecdote of his younger days. He was in Chennai on a trip and became broke towards the end of the trip. So they had to survive on cheap local food. He still remembers the sambhar he had there. Back to Kolkata, he has had sambhar at many places cooked by south Indian chefs, but it has never been the same. It is impossible to replicate the original taste far away from an area.

 Interaction with audience

In this context, here is a word on the ‘Kolkata Chinese cuisine’. The early Chinese cuisine of Kolkata, served in restaurants like Nanking in the 20s’ was subtly flavoured, close to what it is in China. But with time, the taste evolved to suit local taste more. Thus green chilli sauce was born, marrying Chinese and Indian flavours, in the hands of a Chinese gentleman living in the city. It was followed by other sauces like chilli garlic and hot garlic which have nothing to do with China but everything to do with Kolkata’s palate.

There was a supposedly short tea break between the sessions. But given the wide array of items served- finger food and dessert, and the large attendance, the queue was slow to move and seemed never to end. There were chicken breast (mini) cutlet (with tartar sauce), small mangsher shingara with tentuler chutney (tamarind chutney), Joynagarer moa, sandesh and mini lemon tart among other things. Not surprisingly, with such a delectable spread the short break was getting longer and the moderator lady had to make repeated calls to the audience to be back on seats.

 Mangsher Shingara (left), chicken breast cutlet (centre down), Joynagarer Moa (Centre up), ), sandesh (right up)
and mini lemon tart (right down)

In the next session, where Christine’s new book ‘Dessert Divas’ was showcased, she was introduced as ‘The queen of decadent desserts’. In Christine’s words, a dessert is ‘seduction through the eyes’. The book is divided into six chapters and four seasonal sections including summer desserts, winter desserts and spring desserts. This session saw a full house.

Over the next half an hour or so, we saw the title pages of the desserts in the book projected on the screen at the right and Christine described one by one. I must mention, the names are imaginatively and wittily given.

(Left to right) Christine, Meera Syal and Sharad Dewan

The Summer Desserts section has desserts like ‘I go to Rio’, a banana-based dessert- ‘Bananarama’, named after a popular rock band, ‘Bite the Pillow’ (The pillow is of marshmallow with lemon tart at the centre). There is one called ‘Sticky Fingers’ made with pomegranate, fig and organic honey. The pomegranate seeds are soaked in the honey and the longer they are in the honey, the better they taste. There was another one called ‘F.I.G. J.A.M.’, which seemed it meant the obvious, but the audience had a good laugh when she expanded the name. It was …..'F**k, I’m good, just ask me'.

“Apples are good in winter”, she said. So the Winter Desserts section had many apple-based preparations. ‘Bithday Suit’ was one of the desserts and the demo that followed was of this. ‘Queen Bee’ and ‘Adam’s Downfall’ were two others.

Spring Desserts had names like Rock the Kasbah, Strawberry Fields Forever, Menage a Trois and Mocha Bomb (A chocolate mousse on the bed of espresso ice cream).

She moved on to the table at the left for the demo of ‘Birthday Suit’. The printed recipe had been circulated to every audience member before the session. She explained every step in great detail and much of her interaction with Meera happened at this stage. It was made of meringue puff, white chocolate mousse, lemon curd (made of egg yolk, castor sugar, lemon juice and cold, unsalted butter), raspberry and raspberry sauce.

Session over, the audience was privileged to taste it. I liked it because of the tangy raspberry sauce.

#AKLF #ChristineManfield #DessertDivas

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