July 2018, December 2014, October 1992.
Let’s start from the middle which is where all good stories begin.
Unexpected, because Chiro forgot to mention the party we were invited to was for lunch.
It’s our first visit and one of my early interactions with Rohini. Dinner has been organised and we’re sitting at the table waiting for the food to be served. I’m completely floored when Rohini stately wheels in a trolley on which the serving dishes are neatly arranged. I half expect a portable stove to be pulled out and for Rohini to do gueridon service. Rohini casually explains she grew up in hotels and her father was the GM of the Taj Mahal, Mumbai. Neurons fire. Bhowmick. Rohini Bhowmick. You’re Subir Bhowmick’s daughter I sputter.
I was young. I was thin. It was the last year I had short hair.
On a warm (or perhaps it was searing hot; it’s the events of the afternoon that singed into my memory) October day I started my internship in the main kitchen of the Taj Mahal hotel. I was assigned to the continental section but an Indian chef grabbed me, positioned me in front of an industrial grater and gave me a couple of kilos of carrots to grate.
So, there I was quietly grating carrots in one corner, keeping an eye on all the stations when a man in a black suit suddenly starts screaming at me. Look at the mess you’re making! Is this the way to work? Clean this up cuss cuss. What the hell is going on? Cuss cuss. Everyone knows the kitchen is the domain of white coats; black coats have no authority. And yet this one was fearless crossing the line as if it didn’t exist at all. The kitchen had suddenly gone quiet. Everyone turned away and got on with their work. Frantically, I searched for a button on the machine; there was none. I tried switching it off from the board, but there no switches, only points. I tried pulling out the plug. That didn’t work. The more flustered I became the angrier he got. No one offered to help. Finally, someone alerted the chef and he quickly rushed over turned off the machine and apologised profusely to the black coat.
Scared out of my wits in the very first half hour of my very first job, I asked Who the hell was that? The GM of the hotel, the chef replied. (Later in the day I also got ticked off by the Executive Chef and the Executive Sous, but that’s another story.)
Rohini has taken the plunge and launched Spices and Friends, a catering service. She has chosen to specialise in the two cuisines that she is most familiar with Bengali and North Indian. One represents her ethnicity, the other a reflection of growing up in Delhi. These choices reflect the story of modern India, where a generation by virtue of diasporic parents grew up rooted in multiple cultures: one that they were born into and others adopted from their new homes. It is the story of many second generation urban Indians who didn’t grow up, to use that delightful Indianism, in their ‘native place.’
Unlike, most other caterers, everything about Spices and Friends (not a big fan of the name) is very personal. She takes orders for only about to 25 people, the food is packed in reusable, returnable containers and personally delivered by either her, Chiro, or both together anywhere in Mumbai. The menu comprises of her versions of traditional Bengali and Delhi food that are her, and her father’s favourites. We start off with something off menu: macher dimer bora; plump, spongy, lightly spiced, deep-fried fish roe fritters.
The trolley makes an appearance once again. Rohini hides it well, but her nervousness peeps through occasionally (I’m not known to be a kind critic).
I mostly like everything that’s been served with the exception of the low-fat dal makhani which I find touch too smoky, but not rich enough. The potatoes in the dahi aloo are too chunky, but the addition of coconut gets my approval.
I love the bhara hua baingan. The brinjals are firm and the sweet sour sauce has the depth and intensity of a well-aged balsamic. Traditionally, Rohini explains, the fish in a doi maach would be added raw but she prefers to fry it first before adding it to her gravy. It works for me; the crispness adds an additional level of flavour of texture to the thick, tart gravy. The shorshe phool kopi is crisp with just a pleasing sharpness of mustard that is not overwhelming. I happily took seconds of the kosha mangsho, the rich Bengali-style mutton and potato curry. Its tangy-spicy flavours are rather comforting for the Indian palate.
I forget to serve myself the tomato chutney and eat it’s by itself, but find it violently sweet. I use it as a topping for ice cream instead. Rohini tries it, but remains unconvinced. Chiro ignores my experimentation all together.
Does Rohini’s food conform to some misconceived notion of authenticity? Probably not. But then, I think authenticity is the refuge of the historically illiterate, and I’m also a Savarinist who believes that, ‘The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity, than the discovery of a new star’.
Is Rohini’s food tasty? Yes. And, at the end of the day, that’s all that matters to me.
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