This time I was lucky enough to be in the company of a Bengali—Anurima, though brought up in north India, is in some ways, a typical Bengali (the sort for whom one could well say, "you can take a Bengali out of Bengal, but you can’t take Bengal out of the Bengali"). You get the idea. She knows exactly where to go for Kolkata’s best Bengali food, and when she discovers I’m a sucker for the cuisine too, she quickly makes plans to take me to Bhojohori Manna for lunch.
Bhojohori Manna has eight outlets across Kolkata, and is run by a group of friends. The size of the eateries differs: the first one our driver takes us to is a small hole-in-the-wall where the waiters are busy packing takeaway orders. We’re told we’ll have to share a table with some other people. Neither of us is keen on the idea, so Anurima makes some enquiries, and gets the driver to take us to nearby Hindustan Road, where there’s a larger Bhojohori Manna.
This one’s a larger, two-level restaurant, tastefully decorated on the inside: the far wall is daubed with terracotta red, with traditional wall paintings of stick figures, birds, fish and trees on it in white. Small replicas of traditional musical instruments hang on the wall, and all along the large street-facing windows are tiny terracotta lanterns. Very cute! The floor is tiled with a dark terracotta-like finish, and soft Bengali music from old films plays in the background.
A waiter quickly guides us to a table for two, and we’re just settling down, opening the menus and sipping water, when an indignant man turns up, saying this is the table he’s been waiting for. It turns out the man is right; the waiter’s messed up and we need to vacate the table. From somewhere in the lower half of the restaurant, a strikingly beautiful young woman emerges to apologise to us. There are no tables available right now, she says (yes, we can see that too), but if we’ll wait, they’ll accommodate us as soon as one gets free.
We have very little choice (we’ve set our hearts on eating here), so we stand about near the cashier’s desk, watching families, businessmen, and groups of gossipy housewives tuck into what smells like heaven. By the time we finally get a table, over 15 minutes have gone by, and we’re ravenous. Fortunately, both Anurima and I are pretty clear about what we want to eat, so we set about ordering: moong-masoor dal; steamed rice; shukto; chingri malai curry; mochar paturi; and jumbo ilish. It takes a further 10 minutes or so for the food to arrive; meanwhile, we sit and stare at the dinner plates, each with a large circle of clean, still-wet banana leaf on it—something like a doily. In Bengal, food was traditionally served on a banana leaf: it’s still a common practice at feasts.
The food, when it comes, is nothing short of superb. The rice is fluffy and light. The moong-masoor dal—a dish of lentils—is so delicately flavoured, it needs to be eaten just with rice in order for it to be fully savoured. The same goes for the shukto, usually described as a combination of ‘mixed bitter vegetables’. Although bitterness is considered an important part of Bengali food (it’s supposed to cleanse the palate), I’m not part of the bitter brigade, and approach the shukto with trepidation. This is a melange of everything from bitter gourd and ridge gourd to potatoes and aubergines—and it’s very, very good, with only the mildest hint of bitterness, so elusive that I can barely discern it.
The other vegetarian dish we’ve ordered is mochar paturi. Mocha, for the uninitiated, is banana flower: the purplish-maroon giant bud-like appendage that houses dozens of tiny creamy-yellow buds that eventually become bananas. It is these tiny buds—painstakingly broken, cleaned and chopped—that go into making any mocha dish. The mochar paturi consists of mocha cooked with a sharp paste of coarsely ground mustard seeds. One spoonful of it, and I’m hooked. I’ve had mocha before, but never so good.
The chingri malai curry is a prawn curry: a very large prawn, shell and head and all, cooked in a rich red gravy made primarily of coconut milk. One huge prawn between the two of us is a bit of a problem, but we finally manage to divide it in two.
And then there’s the pièce de resistance, the dish about which just most Bengalis will wax lyrical: the ilish. ilish is the Bengali word for hilsa, very highly prized in Bengal and considered the ultimate in flavour when it comes to fish. The ilish at Bhojohori Manna—tender and succulent—has been cooked in a gravy of coconut milk and mustard seeds. I don’t remember having had hilsa before, but this is heavenly.
To come to a Bengali restaurant and not order dessert amounts to sacrilege, so we order a sweet each—Anurima an aam doi (sweetened yoghurt blended with mango pulp) and I, a notun gurer ice cream. Notun gur is, literally, ‘new jaggery’, a delicious brown palm sugar that is available only through autumn and winter, and is used to impart a distinctive sweetness to Bengali sweets. The ice cream is a bit of a disappointment: it’s not frozen, just a cold, creamy custard that’s lightly sweetened with notun gur, and with a dollop of liquid notun gur on top. Not bad, but not as sublime as the rest of our meal.
I’ve had plenty of Bengali food in my life—both in restaurants as well as home-cooked. None has been as absolutely perfect as that at Bhojohori Manna. The food here is delicious, the freshness and the simplicity of each dish very apparent: most dishes are light and flavoursome, low on spices and oil. The menu offers a wide range of popular Bengali dishes (including set meals). Note that portion sizes are generally quite small: we ordered four main dishes, plus rice and lentils, but weren’t full to the brim by the end of it.
Other than the fact that you might need to wait a bit (they’re very popular) and that the service can lag a bit at times, this is a great place. The owner-manager (the young woman we met earlier) is friendly and helpful—she later tells us that Bhojohori Manna have opened an outlet in Bangalore, with another planned either in Mumbai or Delhi in the near future. And the food’s very affordable: our meal costs us Rs 600, inclusive of a substantial tip.
I’m already hoping they open a Bhojohori Manna in Delhi soon!
New Delhi, India
November 2, 2009
From journal India on the Fly: On Book Tour