Last night, I ventured into, what was for me, uncharted territory, along with my Bengali fiancée, Mehwaesh. We attended a lovely dinner party entitled "A Night On Chowringhee Lane", with the intention of enjoying a bit of Calcutta's cuisine in London. Not having visited Calcutta before, Mehwaesh educated me with a bit of background, explaining that a diverse variety of street food can be savoured along the little lanes that go off Chowringhee in Calcutta, citing examples (which I only list here for the benefit of those with prior knowledge) such as "the chaat-wallah next to Lighthouse Cinema, kabab and paratha shops, phuchka wallah stands, authentic Mughlai food and biryani at Aminia and chilled dahi vadas on one of the side exits of New Market".
This was no ordinary dinner party, though. To start with, we didn't know the host, nor did we know who our fellow diners would be! What we attended last night can only best be described as a supper club - a growing London trend, neither restaurant nor dinner party, but both at once; ordinary people opening up their homes to paying strangers, and chefs who relish independence and informality of cooking for people at home. Through a contact on Twitter, Mehwaesh found out about "A Night On Chowringhee Lane" online, and immediately fired me an email with details and excitement. Hesitantly, I accepted and booked our places on the website, and then sat back, thinking to myself: "Never done this before - dinner party at a complete stranger's house! This could go one of two ways...."
All that trepidation, with which I walked up the steps to the Old Brompton Road building for our supper club, vanished instantly when we were greeted by our supper club host, Asma Khan's warm, smiling face as she welcomed us into her home. The evening grew only better as we got to know this wonderfully talented, inspiring and immensely friendly lady.
|Asma Khan (in blue)|
Asma runs a satisfyingly authentic Indian catering company, Darjeeling Express, building on her Nawabi/Mughal traditions to offer real meals with taste and history. But when I first saw her last night, her striking face suggested that there was more to her than just that. As the evening progressed, I learnt that we we both have legal backgrounds too! What I admired most about Asma last night was that she demonstrated with such pride some great Bengali food. Asma grew up in India and worked for many years in her mother's catering business in Calcutta. Indeed, many of the dishes she cooks are family recipes. It was apparent that Calcutta, with its confluence of many cultures, has had an immense impact on Asma's cooking. You see, the food she cooked with such fervour last night reflected the flavours and tastes of not just the Bengal, but also embodied a heady mix of Mughlai and North Indian tones with Bihari, Rajasthani, Burmese, Chinese, Nepali and British influences. Her vibrant character is evidence of the fact that she loves new people tasting and enjoying her food, and it is very clear that that gives her immense satisfaction.
|Asma in action|
With a dedicated vegetarian menu, I was spoilt for choice. After our Nimboo pani welcome drink, we were served with starters, which included Nepali vegetarian Momos (steamed vegetable dumplings that are, I am told, very popular in Calcutta), kala chanaa masala, parathas (flaky and flat bread). Then came the phuchkas (Gujarati equivalent: pani puris) and that's when everyone got excited simple because Bengalis love their phuchkas, tiny hollow wafer cups filled with spiced potatoes, black chickpeas and a pungent tamarind sauce. These were followed by baigani pakoras (aubergine pakoras) and samosas filled with mashed potatoes and peas. After all of this, we struggled to do justice to the main course - a soft and creamy paneer korma, a saffron-infused vegetable pulao (rice dish), mirchi ka salaan (green chillies with onion, ground coconut and peanuts) and dahi vada (lentil fritters in spiced yoghurt). By the time we hit desserts, we were stuffed; although the bhappa doi (steamed Bengali yoghurt) with fruit went down like a treat! To round it all off, Asma served us with cups of a light Darjeeling tea, which somehow did away with all fears of any impending morning after-effects!
Last night, we dined with, among others, a couple of scientists, a BBC food magazine writer, an author of a popular Indian cooking book (who, herself, had a masala-filled persona), and a few Calcutta-ites. Enthralling conversation in an intricately decorated South Kensington living room infused with memories of the Mughal Empire, all against an apt auditory background of mellow Bollywood tunes composed by some of the Bengal's best musicians. It was surreal, different, novel, and yes, definitely fun! And best of all - I didn't feel patronised for being a vegetarian!