Food

Will Kolkata’s love for all things Russian extend to food from the Soviet Republics?

‘Milee Droog’, a restaurant in the city, offers more authentic fare than just the ubiquitous Russian salad.

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 The city’s historic Asiatic Society has undertaken the publication of numerous archival and historical documents from Russia.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.

Indian and Russian flags displayed at Milee Droog. Photo credit: Aditi Bhaduri
Indian and Russian flags displayed at Milee Droog. Photo credit: Aditi Bhaduri

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.

Satyaki Manna and wife Irina. Photo credit: Aditi Bhaduri
Satyaki Manna and wife Irina. Photo credit: Aditi Bhaduri

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.

Photo credit: Chicken salad. Milee Droog Cafe & Bistro/via Facebook.com
Photo credit: Chicken salad. Milee Droog Cafe & Bistro/via Facebook.com

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.

Photo credit: Mushroom Cream Soup. Milee Droog Cafe & Bistro/via Facebook.com
Photo credit: Mushroom Cream Soup. Milee Droog Cafe & Bistro/via Facebook.com
Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.