by Jacob Jarvis
“This is the best biryani you will ever have.” “This is the best chai you will ever have.” “This is the best gravy you will ever have.” In Kolkata, it’s clear that the Bengali’s adore their food.
Normally when people boast about something so much, you feel let down when you have it. But every time I took a first bite of any of the region’s signature dishes, all their high praise was proven right. Each first mouthful gave me that warming, comforting, satisfying feeling that only truly exquisite culinary delights can.
Practically on arrival I was handed a plate of naru, a coconut-based sweet, which is crunchy on the outside and softer in the middle. It crumbles then melts in the mouth slowly, filling it with a succulent sugary sensation, with a unique hint of savoury after taste. After this I was taken for my first chai experience, a creamy drink flavoured with a selection of Eastern spices. If you’ve never had the pleasure of sipping on a cup of this warming concoction, imagine the best hot chocolate you’ve ever had – there’s the consistency. Utterly milky and soothing, it caresses your mouth as you sip away. The taste is something altogether different though, it’s incredibly sweet, without being sickly, with a vast array of undertones within it. Cardamon is the main flavour, which leaves a rich taste in your mouth, leaving you longing for cup after cup.
For my first meal I was taken to famous restaurant Arsalan, where I was to try my first authentic Bengal biryani. Back in England I’d eaten this wholesome rice meal before, but found it usually to be dry and unfulfilling. The dish I put in front of me was altogether more appetising. A unique mix of seasonings meant that every spoonful tasted slightly different, which pushed me to go on shovelling the vast portion into my mouth, as I anxiously awaited the next flavour. Here in Kolkata the portions are mammoth, but the quality of the food gives you no option but to finish it – no matter how full you are.
The next day, at lunch time, my Bengali friend’s grandmother made us the biggest lunch I’ve ever had, with mounds of perfectly steamed rice and a variety of vegetarian and meat items. Alongside this in the home-cooked platter of delights there were prawns as big as my fist, delicately cooked fish, so flavoursome it needed only the slightest pinch of salt and pepper for seasoning, paneer with an almost Italian flavour, as it was mixed with tomatoes, peppers, and onions, alongside a selection of curried gravies to pour over my plate.
Each item had its own completely unique taste and texture, though they all seemed to complement each other perfectly. By my third plateful I knew very well I was full, as I said earlier, though, food here doesn’t let you stop eating it that easily.