300-yr-old Sheherwali cuisine is an indigenous experience of royal vegetarian tastes of Murshidabad.
Kolkata features prominently in my grandfather’s lavish photo book that captured some remarkable vignettes of the city. Nostalgia that boasts of a proud past of the city’s many firsts — Nobel laureate, capital of British India, IIM, and the Bengal Gazette — to the city’s persistent struggles with endemic spatial poverty, traffic congestion and pollution.
While Kolkata has inherited cultural influences from the Britishers, Chinese, Portuguese and Mughals, one thing that has remained untouched is Bengali cuisine with a strong emphasis on fish, vegetables, lentils and desserts. One can’t think of Bengali food without sweets. Rossogolla, sandesh and chumchum are inseparable from the culture. On a sweeter note, an interesting concoction of milk boiled with saffron, sugar, rose water and raw mango sliced as thin as a vermicelli, called kacha aam ka kheer (kheer made of unripe mangoes) needs a mention here. This is one star dish, part of the Sheherwali cuisine, served at the freshly minted ITC Royal Bengal hotel in Kolkata that pays a befitting tribute to the timeless traditions inherent to the fabric of Bengal.
The 300-year-old Sheherwali cuisine at the Royal Vega restaurant is an indigenous experience of the royal vegetarian culinary delights of Murshidabad brought by the families of the Sheherwali (intrepid Oswal Jain community of traders, businessmen and bankers). “The Nawabi influence led to liberal use of rose water, saffron and dry fruits and as people lived here and went to the sheher (city, in this case Murshidabad) for business, they became known as Sheherwalis,” says chef Varun Mohan, who heads the Royal Vega at ITC Royal Bengal.
Murshidabad was the last capital city of erstwhile independent Bengal and an important trading hub. The Sheherwalis brought in a lot of culinary influences to the culture of Bengal. “Since the Sheherwalis came from Rajasthan, a land of extreme climate, the food cooked had to last for a long time. The scarcity of water was compensated with the liberal use of milk and ghee. Lentils and beans replaced fresh vegetables and gram flour, corn and bajra were also used extensively. And the Nawabi influence of the royal kitchens used some of the most rare and opulent ingredients — saffron, rose water, herbs — to produce a fine dining experience,” he adds.
Slow cooking adds a distinct taste to the food. Fresh produce of vegetables, fruits and grains ensure the right balance between goodness and flavour. “We decided to showcase India’s wealth of unique, undiscovered, royal and forgotten cuisines under the auspices of Royal Vega. Royal Vega is the city’s first and the second in India by ITC Hotels — the first being in Chennai . There are plans to open up a third one in Ahmedabad next year,” he says.
In Kolkata, where fish is a staple diet, pure vegetarian fine dining hasn’t found any lean month since its opening in June. “There is no lean season as the city loves to eat out. And the demand will peak during the Pujas, winter months or when there is a big event in the city,” says Mohan. The fixed menu offers no-onion-no-garlic food cooked with ample use of mamra khajoor, resham patti chillies, sharbati dana wheat, panch phoran spices and cashew nut gravies. Some exotic dishes include kheera shimla mirch tarkari (a preparation of cucumber and capsicum vegetable), maheen boondi (fine sweetened gram flour pearls flavoured with Murshidabad rose water and Pampore saffron), khatte ki pakauri (gram flour fritters in tamarind water), parwal dabdaba (pointed gourd tossed with homemade dry spices), barbati dahi (long beans cooked in sour yoghurt gravy), bhutta khichdi (fresh corn kernels cooked with gobind bhog rice using dollops of ghee), to name a few.