We were a group of six journalists waiting to take the next morning's flight from Kolkata to Paro International airport in Bhutan. We were headed there on invitation from Taj Tashi in Thimpu, and Taj Bengal hosted us in Kolkata. The most exciting part of this stay turned out to be… what else…food.
Lunch was planned in the Sonargaon restaurant, where the rustic décor was a perfect background for the mouth-watering Bengali thali served there. Authentic Punjabi and North Western food is also served, but who would skip delicious Bengali food in the heart of Bengal? No regrets for the choice.
Our lunch began with a refreshing helping of Gandharaj Ghol, a chilled yoghurt drink lightly flavoured with the gandharaj, a fragrant lime available in this region. As summer was setting in, the offer of a second helping was gratefully accepted. The gandharaj with its thick skin is not very juicy, but it's so full of flavour that a few drops are enough to make the yoghurt drink remarkably refreshing.
For starters there was the crisp and crunchy Kasoondi Fish Fry; the main course had the Beckti Paturi, prawn malai curry and a tender lamb preparation (Kosha Mangsho).
Beckti Paturi is a traditional Bengali dish. Marinated in turmeric and salt, thin slices of the delicious Bekti fish are covered in a thick mustard paste into which go green chillies, mustard oil, turmeric, salt and sugar. After being wrapped in a banana leaf - reminds you of similar fish preparations in Kerala - it is steamed.
The preparation is simple enough, but the trick is to get the mustard and other spice proportions right. The Chef had got it bang on… there was just sufficient mustard to ensure it did not overpower the natural taste and flavour of the fish.
The chingri, or prawn, curry was delectable… the prawns were soft and succulent, and the onion-cashew paste and coconut milk lent a rich flavour and taste. The thick and delicious gravy was a perfect accompaniment for both rice and lucchi (deep-fried, crisp puffed wheat bread, another trademark Bengal delicacy). Later, when I mentioned this to Taj Bengal's Executive Chef Sujan Mukherjee, he smiled and said, “Actually, these are not prawns but freshwater scampi; compared to seawater prawns that are crunchy, Bengalis prefer the scampi, which is much softer.” Small wonder then, that this is one of the hottest items on the menu at Sonargaon.
I made the mistake of accepting the chef's offer of a second helping of Beckti and had to pay a price. The dessert line-up was too tempting, so I could manage only a solitary bite of the traditional Bengali spiced tender lamb and the heavenly Chholsar Dal tempered with cumin, ginger and coconut.
What is a Bengali meal without sweets… and, in particular, that heavenly delicacy called rossogolla? On offer were soft and sinful rossogollas soaked in milk, Sandesh and the other Bengal staple — Mishti Doi flavoured with saffron. The rossogolla was perfect because it was not served in the usual sugary syrup which, unless drained, or rather squeezed out, can make it too sweet and mar its taste.
After this delicious Bengali thali, it was humanly impossible to do justice to the elaborate dinner planned for us at the Souk, which offers Eastern Mediterranean delicacies from Morocco, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and other Arabian countries. I opted for the great selection of Mezzes or starters; the hummus with soft, crisp peta bread was among the best I've sampled anywhere, including Mediterranean countries; the Yogurtulu Ispanaki (spinach cooked in yoghurt, onions, olive oil and some spices) was good too. But I decided to pass up the Sawda dijaj, because I am not a great fan of chicken liver, even if it is roasted and garnished with lemon and garlic as it is in this Lebanese delicacy!
It proved a wise decision to skip the main course and concentrate on the desserts. The baklava, filled with pistachios and almonds, was absolutely light and flaky, just as that super Mediterranean delicacy should be, and the rose-petal ice cream, good enough to be polished off the plate!
Time of prepartion: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Beckti cubes — (4) 120 gm
Mustard paste — 2 tablespoons
Green chilli paste — 1/4 teaspoon
Onion seed — a pinch
Mustard oil — 11/2 teaspoon
Green chilli slit — 4
Turmeric — a pinch
Sugar — 1/2 teaspoon
Salt to taste
Lime juice — 1/2 teaspoon
Banana leaf — 1
Cut beckti into thin cubes and marinate in salt, turmeric and keep aside.
Cut banana leaf into four large rectangles.
Transfer mustard paste to a mixing bowl, add chilli paste, onion seed, mustard oil, turmeric, sugar and salt.
Coat the fish with the paste and keep aside for 10 minutes.
Place the marinated fish on the banana leaf, top it with the remaining mustard paste and slit green chilli and wrap it.
Place the wrapped fish in a steamer and steam for 10 -12 minutes.