• Friday, December 02, 2022

Interview with Mohona Kanjilal, Author of "A Taste Of Time: A Food History of Calcutta"

on Nov 02, 2022
A Taste Of Time

Mohona Kanjilal was born in Kolkata and spent most of her childhood in Bengaluru. She began her career in Kolkata as a freelance journalist. It was during her stint with the newspapers that she got bitten by the writing bug and ventured into full-time writing. A Taste of Time is her third book and first work of non-fiction. Prior to this book, she authored two short-story collections. She is an alumnus of Loreto College, Kolkata.

Frontlist: Your book weaves scholarly accounts of historians and food writers with the everyday fables you hear from normal people living life. What inspired you to do so?

Mohona: This book has been a journey for me. I started out with a rough idea, a bare outline. In the course of my exploration, I came across myriad nuggets of information, including both scholarly accounts and everyday fables, which vividly brought alive Kolkata’s food history. I stitched these together into a comprehensive whole. I wanted this book to have depth as well as be an enjoyable read – almost like history narrated in the form of storytelling. 

Frontlist: Food history and the evolution of the city showcased in this book is a jackpot for historians, but is it a similar delight for new readers?

Mohona: I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be. As an author, and especially as a chronicler as in this case, my job is to put forth the truth. And the truth is that as the city of Kolkata evolved, so did its culinary story. The British not only formed the city of Kolkata (then known as Calcutta), but they also developed it and made it the capital of Bengal and then of British India. As a result, Kolkata became a thriving center of trade and commerce and came to be known as the second city of the British Empire. This induced many communities from outside the country as well as from within to leave their homelands and settle down in Kolkata with the intention of securing better livelihoods for themselves. There were also communities that arrived in the city in order to escape religious persecution carried out against them in their homelands. So, Kolkata became a cosmopolitan melting pot of Europeans, Armenians, Jews, Parsis, Chinese, Sindhis, Marwaris, Punjabis, South Indians, Biharis, Oriyas, and Gujaratis. The Anglo-Indians, of course, were also there. When these communities settled down in the city, they brought along with them their different cultures and lifestyle habits, which included their unique culinary cultures, leading to strong influences in the local culinary scene and giving rise to Kolkata’s cosmopolitan food culture. Today, Kolkatans are great foodies and the food industry in the city is undoubtedly one of its most flourishing. And the great part is that the people of Kolkata have an open mind when it comes to food and is not afraid of experimenting. The reason behind this is that they have been exposed, for centuries, to cosmopolitan food culture. This made it essential to put forth in this book the story of the evolution of the city, which is strongly linked to the stories of the various communities that made it their home, as well as its food history because the two are not independent of each other.

Frontlist: Talking about so many delicious foods and their history, which one remains your personal favorite?

Mohona: There are many but if I have to pick out one, I will definitely single out the contribution that the British made towards the introduction of tea in the country. Today, Bengalis are passionate tea drinkers and we owe that to the British. Tea cultivation had been the domain of China for a long time and it was Chinese tea that was imported to Britain and other European countries. The British also imported other exotic Chinese goods like porcelain and silk. In contrast, China was not interested in buying anything from the island nation and accepted only silver in trade. But, by the late eighteenth century, Britain was unable to afford this silver because of the Anglo-Dutch Wars, leading to its severe shortage and creating a chronic trade imbalance with China. So, the British thought of an alternative strategy of counter-trading opium against Chinese tea. Opium was used by the Chinese not only for medicinal purposes but also as a recreational drug. The British began growing opium in India, largely, in Bengal. They exported this opium to China and with the profits earned bought Chinese tea. But opium addiction became so severe in China that the ruling Qing Dynasty declared its trade to be illegal in the country. The British reacted by smuggling opium into China through small traders, many of whom were Parsis. This antagonized the Chinese authorities. To cut a long story short, a series of events followed which ultimately led to the Opium Wars, in which the Qing Dynasty suffered a humiliating defeat. Although the outcome of the war was in favor of the British, they now wanted to avoid future disturbances in the tea market. This time the plan was to grow tea under the British flag. Their quest led them to Assam where an indigenous variety of tea grew wild in its jungles, thus, beginning the journey of the popular beverage known today as Assam Tea. The British not only introduced tea cultivation in Assam (the tea produced was initially meant for European consumption and export), but also focused their energies on a place closer to home, which was Darjeeling, and what came about as a result of this was an exclusive variety of beverage, renowned throughout the world today as Darjeeling Tea or rather the ‘Champagne of Teas’. The evolution of the tea industry in India, which began in the east, and what followed thereafter, by which I mean how the British went on to popularize tea drinking among the masses, is a subject covered in this book that I enjoyed working on a lot. 

Frontlist: You’ve talked about the influence of foreign cultures that impacted the evolution of Bengali food. What would you say to the food puritans who refuse to change the recipes even a little today?

Mohona: I would like to tell them to open their minds a bit. Bengali food puritans will be taken by surprise when they come to know that many of the recipes, which they erroneously assume have always been a part of traditional Bengali cuisine, have actually evolved out of foreign influences. For example, sweets like rasogolla, rasomalai, and sandesh, which are hugely popular even among non-Bengalis today, would not have existed if the Portuguese had not taught us the technique of making chhana (as Bengalis call chhena or caesin). The traditional sweets of Bengal were given the generic name of monda-mithai and no matter how good they were, it was difficult for these sweets to match up to the quality and refinement of the later chhana-based ones. Patoler dolma, a stuffed pointed gourd gravy dish that Bengalis eat with steamed rice or pulao, is an adaptation of the Armenian dish dolma. The latter is a dry dish made with grapevine leaves and eaten with yoghurt (mixed with garlic powder). When the Armenians made Kolkata their home, they found it difficult to find grape leaves over here. So, they adjusted by stuffing patol (pointed gourd) and cabbage leaves with the seasoned minced meat mixture instead. Bengalis found this appealing and learned the technique. Patoler dolma is a celebratory dish in Bengali cuisine today. Contrary to popular belief, the potato-filled fried pastry called ‘samosa’ (or ‘shingara’ in Bengali), is not indigenous to Indian cuisine but has its roots in the Middle-Eastern, meat-filled ‘sambusak’. Samosa was non-existent in the culinary story of our country before the Muslims established their rule over here. Even when it comes to some of the ingredients used in Bengali cooking, there have been foreign influences. For example, posto or poppy seeds is a prized ingredient used in many Bengali dishes. But this ingredient was discovered accidentally by the farmer’s wife in the poppy fields of Bengal. The British took away the opium produced and smuggled it into China, leaving behind the dry and tiny white poppy seeds in the fields as waste. The impoverished farmer’s wife, in her desperate attempt to feed her family, made a paste of these seeds and realized, much to her delight, that it went very well with a frugal meal of fermented cooked rice called panta bhaat. Thus, began the journey of posto in Bengal’s culinary art. So, whether food puritans like it or not, change is inevitable with time and the evolution of society. 

Frontlist: Would you be covering the culinary history of any other city or period anytime soon? If yes, then please tell us about your top choices.

Mohana: As an author, I like to explore different topics each time. So, my next book is going to be on some other subject. 

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