Firingee Thala is what Calcutta Food is and not necessarily Bengali food
I had mentioned about how I assign a meal as ‘good’, these days. I would like to add on one more. You would know a meal is good if that has kindled a discussion to continue, almost an hour after the meal is over. The discussion would be at an elevated stage of ‘Was this really true? ” I remember my dida making this ” and so on.
As Pritha Sen, the food researcher and food menu curator started the afternoon – I am bored. We, as diners, accorded to her views on commercial Bengali food. I wrote in an eazydiner piece a couple of days back – the DNA structure of most of the Poila Baishakh menu are as follows – 1. The popular ones which have an instant recall with the memory 2. East bengal / Bangladesh vs West Bengal or Epar vs Opar and 3. If nothing else, then dive into an imaginary kitchen of Jorasanko to figure out new recipes every year..
Firingee Thala for Nabo Barsho at Ekdalia Rd is nothing above and a welcome change to same old stuff
The meal started with the typical prawn cocktail sauce (European mayonnaise married with American ketchup) with few pomegranate jewels. Armenian khichudi was a form of free exchange of flavours between Bengal Khichudi and dry fruits, raisins, dill and parsley used by Armenians. There was a trace of Bengali dry bhoger khichudi but with a twist. It was a complete meal in itself, so do not try to pair it with anything else on the plate. Fish dishes on any day depend on the fresh catch available and here unfortunately, we didn’t get Topshe. So Bhekti fish fingers, albeit longer in size, replaced them. Well marinated with lemon juice, a bite had the ideal combination of tough on outer side and soft and flaky inside. Dal chuchhure had such an interesting name and so was the taste. It reminded me of a typical masoor dal mash and yet this was a bit sweet and mildly spicy. The laconic honey glazed carrots and beans on the plate acted as perfect fillers time and again with bursts of sweetness. The main course at Firingee thala deserves a special mention. Will start with the one which eventually became everyone’s muse. It was the cabbage dolma, which is an inspiration from the Armenian Dolma. The original Armenian dolmas were made with grape leaves but where would they get grape leaves in Kolkata. Hence they started making dolmas with cabbage leaves. Crunchy cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat and rice in a sauce, almost velvetty, was an example of a minimalistic dish with maximum flavours and texture. The sauce was from the broth of cabbage leaves boiled with dill and parsley added with coconut milk for the Bengal touch.
Mutton, chicken and prawn in a New Avatar in Firingee Thala at Ekdalia Rd
Yehudi chicken roast, Mutton jhal frezie and Prawn cutlet gravy curry. Three of them getting a proper recognition for the first time with an inclination to the history, yet the tastes are so similar that it prods the memory cells for some recollection. I lost count on how many times my fellow diners mentioned- this reminds them of some dish which used to get made in their childhood by the older generation. What has Pritha done here? Common, familiar tastes in a new name which makes us realise how Kolkata, or rather Calcutta, embraced the gastronomical influences and how unknowingly, we carried it on. The mutton jalfrezie (often wrongly pronounced as Jhaaal Farezi) challenges two popular misnomers. Firstly, there is nothing called vegetarian jalfrezie and tomatoes and capsicums are not part of the original jalfrezie. There weren’t any bell peppers in India during those times. Leftover mutton from the last night’s roast was used to make a jalfrezie. It was basically a leftover dish. Pritha uses aloo, welts the diner with crispy caramelized onions from top and adorns the bowl with a fried dry red chili on top. Slow cooked over 2 hours, yes, the meat fell off the bones. As soft as a Bengali’s sentiment and love for Satyajit Ray and Rabindrasangeet. How can one not touch the bhaat, which was in this case, the Tolaipunji chaal, mix it and sense a Sunday afternoon in your hand. Manghso Bhaat it is but in a completely different avatar. A very vital point to remember here is that it is our generation which has started making Kosha Mangsho at home. Kosha Mangsho was always something people opted in restaurants. At home, it was mangshor patla or gorgore jhol with aloo, meaning mutton cooked in a light gravy with potatoes.
Bengalis yearn for Holud/ turmeric is fulfilled with Yehudi chicken roast. Slow cooked chicken, with small aloo and that’s Sunday part 2 for any Bengali. There was a veil of oil floating on top but it did not feel greasy. The oil came from the chicken itself and it was the slow roasting that brought out the very familiar flavours from our grandmother’s kitchen. I had to ask for a second helping of the bhaat. We got value added services too, courtesy Surojit. The tomato rich Portuguese sausage curry, which is from the Portugese influence and our very own kumror chokka reappears as pumpkin foogath. The foogath can be made with any vegetable and the name comes from the Portuguese word- refogado, meaning ‘to braise’. With local addition of mustard seeds and curry leaves, it became foogath. Today, you will find a foogath in several regions of India. This pumpkin foogath had its souring agent as lemon juice and the sweet pumpkins with some fresh grated coconut, was really soul satisfying.
Curry and gravy at the same time at Firingee thala and no, it’s not Malai curry or Dab chingri
This was a heart shaped prawn cutlet with a tail peeping out, sitting in a thick red gravy with a green streak of dill sauce over it. The hat tip will be to finish this no sooner than it reaches your table just like Gayle packs off a spinner out of the stadium in the first delivery. In case you don’t do that, you miss the crunchy first bite thrill of a cutlet. Must say, this needs great discipline from the kitchen and Pritha and Surojit have trained the people well, managed the process well.
Mango Fool or fooled by Firingee Thala?
Mango phool is a surprise and just like I hate spoilers for Avengers End Game, I won’t give spoilers. Col Skinner, once upon a time had a regiment in India known as First Bengal Lancers. He liked cooking and as a tribute, we started by Bengal Lancers Punch and ended with Col Skinners Chutney, which had garlic in it too. Again, I will refrain from spoilers here.
Pritha’s invention if any in Firingee Thali
Pritha broke the biggest characteristic and stereotype for Bengali meal – the course wise eating. She presented half the meal in the Thali which she relates to auspicious occasions in Bengali Puja. In my limited experience, Bengali cuisine needed this breakthrough to go beyond the stereotypes. People remember Dhoni for the winning stroke in World Cup final or even Yuvraj, for being the man of the match but no one remembers Gambhir for his contribution. Similarly, it is the Roll and the Biryani, which have become representative of Calcutta food and in process, Bengali food. The fact that there is more to Bengali cuisine and Kolkata food than that, needs to be unraveled.
I must say, that the Bengali New Year has started on a great note. Alas, this isn’t going to be a permanent feature in the menu, although we wish some of them finds a firm place.
Partner in crime for this meal was Madhushree, and our friends from Phoolbagan settled in Australia – Biswajit and Shyamali, who are not only great foodies but between the husband and wife, they run a food channel called foodieshut on youtube, popular for Bengali recipes.