‘Petpooja’ Pampering: An Indian Food Journey

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By Indranil Halder

As a Bengali Australian curry connoisseur, I believe presentation along with heritage food culture and thali goes hand in hand. After noticing, Kolkata’s celebrity chef Shaun Kenworthy with his Times of India sponsored ‘Petpooja’ award certificate, I was determined to make my India trip, a special ‘Petpooja’ birthday celebration in India.

To me Presentation is vital for ‘Petpooja’ :

‘Petpooja’ (a typical food setting to eat with heart content) is a Bengali term that effect Bengali men in general. I feel ‘thali’ is one of the perfect ways to enjoy ‘Petpooja’ in a short duration holiday. And according to Wikipedia update, “A Thali is a platter of many different dishes to create a perfectly balanced meal.”

In Australia, enjoying different varieties of thalis for my ‘Petpooja’ is rare. Instead calorie count is part of my daily life. But whenever I visit India, calorie count becomes a hard task to follow. I eat with my heart content without worrying about my cardiac health. For me, this art of enjoying food is incomplete without presentation. Presentation creates endearing memories for me. The unique experience of enjoying traditional dishes with an old world charm, highlighted by use of silver, fine bone china or golden Khagra (suburb in Beharampore, Murshidabad, West Bengal) kansa(bell metal or bronze, an alloy of Copper 78% and Tin 22 %) on a marble top table is my all time favourite.

In our Halder Bari, Ballygunge, our presentation also includes Murshidabad giant brass verses with white tube roses, limited-edition GOLD bottle of Italian Prosecco sparkling or bottle of French Moet or both and a vintage table clock from Jaipur with a ceiling high mirror to set the scene. I identify such presentation as ‘Bengali Babu’ style. This age old Bengali sophistication and charm with grand food presentation was started by ‘Bengali Babus’ or Bengali gentlemen in the early 19th century Kolkata(Calcutta).They were known for individualistic selection of dishes, attention for details and presentations which are today, attributed to high end Western chefs.

Varieties of Birthday Thalis for my ‘Petpooja’ :

My birthday celebration, started as soon as, I landed in India. Delhi based Singhal family took me out for a birthday treat to a restaurant named Ardor 2.1 in Cannaught Place. Not far from my residence, The Imperial Hotel. I was served Khalibali Vegetarian Thali that had 40 dishes with unlimited refills. And what a giant feast it was. Every dish unleashed an unique gastronomic delight. I loved Phulkopi Aloo (cauliflower potato) pan roast, thin and crispy Naan bread, Paneer Tikka and Boondi Raita.

Before, I could mentally digest Khalibali Vegetarian Thali, I was in Kolkata attending an invitation by Ayan Chattopadhyay (whose mum cooks the best Shorshey or mustard Baby Bhetki fish). It was a Sheherwali Cuisine( Royal Vegetarian delight of Murshidabad district) Thali at Kolkata’s glamorous hotel, ITC Royal Bengal. Presentation was grand and elegant. The sixteen dishes for this thali was served in silver. Sheherwali cuisine comes with its own history. The Sheherwalis clan came to Bengal from Rajasthan. During the reign of Murshid Quli Khan (the first Nawab of Bengal), they did trade and commerce, created astronomical wealth and brought along with them centuries-old vegetarian culinary legacy known as Sheherwali Cuisine.

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In ITC Royal Bengal Hotel, Sheherwali menu included my favourite Polao and Kheera Shimla (sweet).To add to my birthday indulgence, I also received a curated selection of amazing mango sweets from one of the most famous Sheherwali families : The Singhi of Murshidabad. Their kind gesture reminded me of their famous mango orchards in Murshidabad. During my childhood days, mum would celebrate my birthday with mangoes from Sheherwali orchards, Hilsa fish from Padma river and Thankuni Pata (green leaf) from local Beharampore market. She used Khagra Kansa “batis / katoris” (utensils) for an elaborate lunch. Her artistic taste, style and presentation made my birthday most memorable. Memories that never fade away, just like an Indian summer.

As 2022 Bengal summer heated up a notch and monsoon cloud gathered in the sky, I caught up with Siddhartha Bose( food entrepreneur, alumni of South Point High School) at Bhajohari Manna, Hindustan Road was a delightful surprise. Under Bose’s leadership, Bhajohari Manna restaurant chain had experienced bootstrapping organic growth and as Non Resident Indian Bengali, I am proud of it. Greeted at the jam packed restaurant, I entered with Ramgopal Paul (owner of New Rupasree Jewellers, Ballygunge, Kolkata ) and Pushpak Sen (India Blogger & Emerging Fashion Influencer) to enjoy a perfect Bengali thali lunch. For globe trotting foodies like myself, the amazing taste of Bhajohari Manna thali was a surprise.

Restaurant manager Manik introduced ghee, mustard oil and various bhajas (fries) as a customary start to the Bengali thali. Out of the eighteen dishes Jumbo Daab Chingri (giant coconut prawns) and Jumbo Ilish Barishali (giant Ilish fish) had done-just-right gravy, Jhuri Aloo (julienned potato), Posto Bata (poppy seed paste),Bori Bhaja(fried and dried lentil dumplings), Gandhoraj Lebu(lime) added an extra layer of taste. Followed by Mishti paan(sweet betel leaves) served with Bengali sweets such as Kheerkadam, Antaramukhi and Rajbogh.

In Kolkata, I was also lucky to have home cooked Bengali thalis of various sizes. I
visited extraordinary talented Kolkata artist Narayan Chandra Singha, business consultant Malini Sarkar and friend Ayan Chattopadhyay.

Even though Kolkata based artist Narayan Chandra Singha’s sculptures are finding their ways in public spaces such as Nandan, Kolkata or Indian Habitat Centre, New Delhi or Jahangir Art Gallery’, Mumbai, India, I found myself in nirvana at his home where his lunch presentation was in perfect harmony with fresh white and pink lotus decorations. Narayan presented a small but typical Bengali thali with Beguni (eggplant fritters), Chochori (mixed vegetables), Mochar Ghonto (of banana flower) with Chingri(small sweet water prawns), Dal (different types: Biuli , Kolai or Moong) with vegetables, Rohu fish curry and superb Nolangurar Sandesh(sweet).
Bengal summer never felt better.

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While Malini Sarkar’s extravagant dinner presentation of a Bengali thali included fifteen dishes. Served in silver with grace and Bengali tradition. My favourites were Lau Chingri( (Bottle Gourd cooked with Prawns), Chingrir(giant tiger prawn from Bay of Bengal ) Malaikari, Kosha Mangsho, Aamer Chatni, Payesh(rice pudding) and Bengali sweets such as Rashogolla and Malpoa. A giant sandesh with Happy Birthday written in Bengali, stole my heart. I was joined by Australian diplomat Mr Daniel Sims from Australian consular office, Kolkata. One of my favourite post birthday dinner celebration. Whereas, Ayan Ayan Chattopadhyay presented an immaculate Bengali thali of fourteen dishes in fine bone china.

Next stop Odisha.

Equally spectacular was the presentation of Oria Thali with fourteenth dishes, served by Welcome By ITC Hotel , Bhubaneswar, Odisha. Dishes such as Besan ki Tarkari, Nadiya Pachadi and Daalma were part of the thali. Authentic. Tasty. Well presented. I enjoyed the freshly baked Chenna Poda( paneer cake, a popular local dessert) in the thali with my heart content before arriving at Dhenkanal Palace, Dhenkanal.

Dhenkanal Palace is located right next to a hill( locally known as Pani Ohola or water reservoir and home to barking deer, panther and jackets). Painted bright yellow. Decorated with rustic period furniture. I entered a magical palace. The aroma of Daalma cooked in ghee with dry chilies, the rush of air from the ceiling fans and the cold water in my bathtub created a mesmerising summer experience but the sheer delight of the paneer curry with janta rotis from the thali made my Dhenkanal Palace stay heavenly. Indian summer was luxurious, tasteful and unique with mouth watering food and free flowing adda.

My Indian birthday trip, felt like a successful pursuit of food paradise, where I got to spend my birthday with two men who raised me with love and care(dad and uncle) while creating new memories of ‘Petpooja’ and recalling my childhood days.

In addition, our Australian national carrier Qantas and ex-Australian PM Scott Morrison(pro in cooking Indian) celebrating the signing of 2022 India Australia trade deal by serving and cooking curries too. I am positive, my ‘Petpooja’ is surely to remain blessed with the taste of authentic Indian dishes, as I continue my transnational life between Australia and India.