Kolkata’s fascination with Russian culture goes beyond Lenin. One of the oldest thoroughfares in the city, stretching from Jawaharlal Nehru Road to Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road, was named Lenin Sarani in 1969. Gorky Sadan, the Russian Cultural Centre in Kolkata, is a landmark. For decades, it has given Kolkata’s residents a place to immerse themselves in Russian culture, through music, literature, films and chess – a kind of Russian oasis in an Indian setting.
Bingsha Shatabdi, a bookstore on Park Street that sold Soviet and Russian literature at throwaway prices in English and Bengali, was a treasure trove to anyone growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Kolkata. You could buy an entire collection by the poet and novelist Alexander Pushkin for less than Rs 100. The sprawling Soviet and later Russian cultural centres in Kolkata also had their share of Lenin statues, exhibitions of Soviet memorabilia, cine festivals with Russian movies, ballet shows, cultural troupes with Soviet performers. Bengali theatre continues to pay homage to the works of Gogol and Dostoyevsky. Gerasim Lebedev was the Russian founder of modern Bengali theatre in 1795. The city’s historic Asiatic Society has undertaken the publication of numerous archival and historical documents from Russia.
The one thing that had long eluded Kolkata though, was Russian cuisine. A Russian restaurant called Milee Droog (which translates from Russian as Dear Friend), located inside Gorky Sadan, the Russian cultural centre on Gorky Terrace, has plugged that culinary gap.
Milee Droog began with two dear friends: Irina, a Russian tourism professional, met Satyaki, a Bengali management professional from Kolkata, at a conference in Delhi. The two kept up correspondence over the internet, and five years later, met in real life and decided to get married.
Irina moved to Kolkata immediately after, and as the years passed, she grew enchanted with the idea of putting her culinary skills and knowledge of Russian cuisine and culture to use in Kolkata. Along with her partner Satyaki and his friend Apratim, Irina finally set up Milee Droog in April.
At present, Apratim takes care of the restaurant’s daily management and finances, while Irina and Satyaki take care of the rest. The team was fortunate to find chef Gautam Sircar, who had received substantial exposure to international cuisine, having worked at Rajasthan’s Pride Hotel in the past.
Milee Droog’s first big test came while they were still doing up the place, in October 2016. “Ahaare Bengal”, a West Bengal food festival that is billed as India’s largest food festival and includes food from Thailand, Myanmar, Japan and China, had an opening, and Irina and her team decided to host a Russian food stall.
The food festival is held in Kolkata’s huge Milan Mela grounds, and to their relief, Irina’s team found that Russian food was a hit with Kolkata’s food connoisseurs. The dish served at many Indian functions as “Russian salad” (which the Russians themselves know as Salat Olivier) was the first to run out. But the other hit was a surprise – people thronged the stall for blinis, which resemble stuffed pancakes.
While traditional blinis are stuffed with minced meat, in keeping with local tastes, Milee Droog’s blinis at Ahaare Bengal were stuffed with chicken mince and mushrooms. As word about the stall spread, the blini consumption seemed to double. “The second day of the fest we sold 10,000 blinis alone,” said Apratim.
A plethora of flavours
Milee Droog opened its doors to the public in April. The interiors of the restaurant are relaxed, modern and light. The lack of natural light is remedied with green upholstery. Russian souvenirs and collectibles are spread through the place, along with flags from the two countries as a prominent centrepiece.
The menu is affordable and offers a range. There are blinis topped with sour cream and syrnikis, which are a kind of bread stuffed with sweet cottage cheese. The borsch (a beetroot and meat soup which is a meal by itself) and the okroshka, a cold soup, also form part of the menu.
Russian food has been complemented by food from various Soviet Republics. There is the plov from Uzbekistan – rice cooked with carrots, mild herbs and meat and the Georgian khachapuri – bread stuffed with cheese. The Armenian khinkali – meat stuffed dumplings – also come in a vegetarian avatar. Ukrainian varrenikis (steamed or fried dumplings stuffed with potatoes) are also available.
The only Russian import is tea, which according to Satyaki, is “because their flavours are so authentic”. Russians, he said, love going on treks to find berries and flavour their teas and homemade concoctions with them. “The kind of flavours that result from the infusions taste far more natural than the flavoured Indian teas,” Satyaki added. After vodka, tea is probably the most beloved Russian national drink.