Fascinated by Kolkata and Bengali food, a British journalist wrote an ode to them in a cookbook

Anna Kochan came to Kolkata to volunteer. She went back a cookbook author.

The tiny kitchen at Future Hope’s main school in Kolkata is tucked away in a corner of the building. And yet, in the late mornings, when lunch is being cooked for 270 people, the aromas manage to make their way across every nook and cranny of the school. British journalist and author Anna Kochan, who spent six months volunteering at the charitable organisation, remembers those smells very vividly. While the fumes were often “lung-shattering”, thanks to the introduction of mustard oil to a hot pan, the meals that the students and staff were served were memorable enough to inspire Kochan to work on Rice and Spice: A Bengali Food Adventure, a cookbook that records the kitchen’s recipes for posterity.

After volunteering in India for six months, she returned to the UK in March 2014 armed with three notebooks “full of barely legible scrawls” that amounted to 70 recipes. Recreating these in her London kitchen proved to be time-consuming and quite a challenge, and so Kochan was thrilled to discover Alperton, a suburb of London. “You could almost believe you are in India, such are the sights and smells – shops selling saris, restaurants and pastry shops, not to mention a beautiful Hindu temple,” she said. “Every possible ingredient for Indian foods is available here.”

Three years later, in April 2017, Rice and Spice was finally ready to roll off the presses.

The children at Future Hope.
The children at Future Hope.

As a book of recipes, it is absolutely delightful, especially so for a non-Bengali cook. From the simple, quintessentially Bengali begun bhaja (which makes it to the book’s cover, served on a steel plate with a tomato and coriander chutney) to the classic street food yellow pea chaat with yoghurt, the book includes quite a range. The kopta curry that uses unripe bananas is particularly interesting in its uniqueness, as is Ghugni, a spiced preparation of yellow peas.

A regular at London’s Drummond Street and its Indian restaurants Diwana, Ravi Shankar and Chutneys, Kochan believed she had been acquainted with Indian food before she arrived at Future Hope. “But most of what I ate in Kolkata was quite different from anything I had tasted before. It was not only delicious but also extremely varied.” Working on a cookbook was the last thing on her mind when she set off for Kolkata, and yet, the food managed to inspire her to do just that. “The cooks agreed to share their recipes with me, and welcomed me into the kitchen. I spent more and more time with them, observing how they cooked, and noting down the recipes.”

As a volunteer at Future Hope, much of her time was spent helping the children improve their English, both written and conversational. Once she got the cooks to agree to share the recipes they have learned from mothers and grandmothers and allow her to observe them cook, Kochan had to start helping out in the kitchen too. She would mostly contribute by shelling peas or boiling eggs – jobs that don’t require knife skills, for she was too afraid to use the boti, a small sickle that others used to cut vegetables. The only other cutting equipment, a solitary knife, was kept curiously out of reach. Sometimes over the weekends and in the evenings, Kochan would teach the children how to cook. Owing to a shortage of ovens at the school, she taught them a no-bake recipe for chocolate biscuit crumb balls. This recipe – a favourite of the children’s – makes it to the book and is one of the few that Kochan has included from her own repertoire.

Her contribution to a potluck is now usually a dish from the book – “My friends expect it. Everyone loves the papri with the ajwain seed and I often serve them to friends as a snack with the absolutely delicious tomato and coriander chutney.”

Paying it forward

But the book isn’t just a collection of recipes or how-tos – it comes alive with the anecdotes Kochan fills her opening essay with. She talks of her time in Kolkata and at Future Hope – the people she has met, school picnics, visits to the city’s clubs, the quirks of the city’s food scene and the kitchen at the organisation. She punctuates recipes with tidbits such as one about the much-loved houseparent Basudev and his exploits growing oyster mushrooms at the Boys’ Home in Ballygunge.

Kochan also talks about her encounters with the “tiny, declining” Jewish community in Kolkata and includes a recipe of Aloo Makallah, a Bengali Jewish style of cooking potatoes. “As I am Jewish, it was interesting to visit the three renovated synagogues, the cemetery and the Jewish Girls School,” she said. “It was fascinating to discover that I personally had quite a few connections to the community.” From a Bengali Jewish friend, Flower, she learns the importance of the shape the vegetable is cut in. This is what determines the way in which it ought to be cooked.

That sharp smell of mustard oil as it sputters away on a heated pan is perhaps what Kochan identifies most with Kolkata, mainly because cooking on the streets is such a common phenomenon. But there are other memories of the vastly different life she led there. “From the moment I woke in my landlady’s home, where the sounds of a morning yoga session disturbed my sleep and a servant was banging on my door to clean the floor, to the walk to school past open-air showering, street vendors, urinating men, the street barber, the street café… there was always something happening on Kolkata’s streets – sometimes a demonstration, sometimes a religious procession, an overflowing wedding party and always lots of dogs.”

Her aim with the cookbook was to raise funds for the Future Hope organisation, which it has. “But, I also wanted to record the recipes for posterity and to put them into a book so that I could share them with other Indian cooking enthusiasts, of which there are many in the UK.”

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