Can vegetarianism flourish in the land of hilsa? Surprisingly yes

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Updated: Jul 28, 2019 1:36 AM

The Marwaris and Gujaratis have been dominating trade and business from the days of the British rule, when they served as contractors for the British and eventually took over the businesses after independence.

West Bengal, Peruvian potatoes, hilsa, Marwaris, Gujaratis, vegetarians, vegetarian sushi, Kolkata, Peruvian asparagusA dish of Peruvian potatoes; Mochar ghonto, a traditional Bengali preparation cooked with banana flowers along with potato and aromatic spices

While the regime in West Bengal is resisting the Gujarati invasion politically, state capital Kolkata tells a different story, with a declining population of Bengalis, and where the rich are mostly Marwaris and Gujaratis. But this is not a recent phenomenon. The Marwaris and Gujaratis have been dominating trade and business from the days of the British rule, when they served as contractors for the British and eventually took over the businesses after independence. And while the rich Bengali landlords of that time are today a mere patch of their glorious days, the businessmen continue to flourish.

The moneybags obviously have also been changing the dynamics of daily life. A steel and glass mall right in front of Tagore’s residence in Jorasanko triggers outrage from the natives, with some like tourist guide Partho Ghosh uttering in disgust: “The rich are only bothered about money. They have no respect for Tagore and have built a shopping mall right in front of his house.”

At Taj Bengal, a 30-year-old hotel located in a traditionally rich neighbourhood, executive chef Sujoy Gupta says there is more demand for Peruvian potatoes and asparagus than hilsa from his clientele. This is because only the well-to-do can afford to either eat at five-star hotels or organise events and weddings there, and the rich mainly comprise Marwaris and Gujaratis, who are vegetarians. This seems ironical in a land where it is said fish might jump at you even from the bed, but economic reality is hard to ignore. In fact, the chef recalls how at a recent Japanese cuisine pop-up in the hotel, they sold far more vegetarian sushi than the real deal. “To achieve the exotic quotient in vegetarian dishes, we move away from the typical paneer and mushrooms to include vegetables and ingredients not otherwise encountered by our guests,” he says. So in his all-day restaurant Cal 27, he has dishes like Peruvian asparagus with polenta, purple potato roesti with ratatouille, Jerusalem artichoke caponata, sweet potato steak with fava beans, celeriac, Kenya beans, etc, with extensive vegetarian options in other menus as well which champion not only imported produce, but local options such as banana flower too.

Executive chef Sujoy Gupta of Taj Bengal

This is interesting in a city where non-vegetarianism is predominant. A recent government survey also pointed out that Kolkata is the least vegetarian city in the country. So much so that meat and fish are an integral part of religious festivals, weddings and other auspicious occasions in Bengal.

However, it’s not that Bengalis do not eat vegetables. The initial courses of a many-course meal consist of seasonal vegetables, ending with fish and meat. Vegetarian food among Bengalis gained currency due to widows, who were forbidden meat. Use of onions and garlic is also sparse in vegetables cooked traditionally for the same reason, says chef Gupta, as the ingredients were considered aphrodisiacs and not allowed for widows. Poppy seeds, ground mustard and five-spice mix panch phoron are used instead. Potato is the most popular vegetable, and is combined even with meat and chicken. The biryani here comes with a flourish of a potato instead of an egg. Gupta even recalls having encountered an aloo biryani on the streets sans the meat.

But forced vegetarianism can be difficult to digest. Which is why food politics is central to the state government’s defence against the saffron imprint. In response to a ban on illegal slaughter houses in BJP-ruled states, the West Bengal government rolled out special vans to distribute meat, obviously counting on the support of numerous Hindus, including Brahmins, who eat meat and fish. As tourist guide Ghosh points out, he finds it difficult to feed vegetarian tourists as pure vegetarian restaurants are rare in the city. Maybe he could guide them to chef Gupta!

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