Shobhon haate’r sondesh-pantoya
Maach-maangshe-r polao ityadio
Jobe dekha dey shebamadhurje-choa
Tokhon she hoy ki onirbochiniyo
In her book Thakurbarir Ranna, Purnima Thakur lyrically describes the essence of a good meal. She says in the preface, a sweet like the sandesh or a fish curry is unbeatable only when it is prepared with utmost love and care.
The late author and culinarian, however, whines about how changing times have affected modern food habits. This was in 1985 when she compiled over 250 recipes from a notebook of handwritten recipes passed down by Rabindranath Tagore’s favourite niece, Indira Devi. The purpose was to share the simple joys of cooking food, maintaining that time, patience and love are crucial to a winning dish.
One of Bengal’s most respected connoisseurs
‘Thakur’ (anglicised to Tagore) and ‘bari’ meaning house refers to the Tagore household of Jorashanko, which today is the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata. The family was known for its penchant for fine things in life. Not just art, music and literature, the Tagores were food connoisseurs too. They were one of Bengal’s most respected families in the 19th century.
The family’s men and women had travelled the world and attended high teas and balls hosted by foreign nobility. The Tagore kitchen was thus a melting pot where recipes were borrowed from diverse cultures and recreated to please members including the bard. Over the years he has therefore generated enough curiosity in the matters of food. ‘Maach o mishti’ (fish and sweets) were his favourite, the reason why the poet’s wife Mrinalini Devi whipped up luxurious feasts frequently.
Globetrotting poet and gastronome
"The globetrotter would collect menu cards from highbrow buffets he attended across England, Spain and Turkey, and introduced delicacies like salmon in Hollandaise sauce, English pies or Hindustani Turkish kebab in his kitchen,” says Purnendu Bose, who owns Iti, a Bengali restaurant in Navi Mumbai. “His gastronomic vagaries made sociable the most unappetising foods—diced raw vegetables with a sparse seasoning of lime, bitter neem juice, and even raw eggs!” he adds.
A quick glance of Thakurbarir Ranna’s recipe index is proof that the family indeed loved experimenting with peculiar flavours. For instance, vegetables like pointed gourd and jackfruit were cooked with green mango (aam o echorer torkari), beetroots were boiled and blended into a paste with poppy seeds and green chillies (beet baata). Eggplants were made into a sweet chutney with tamarind, sugar and mango ginger (beguner chutney) and fritters were made with leftover rice (bhaater chop).
Tagore's home, a melting pot of culinary cultures
The Tagore kitchen was brimming with ideas and innovation. It found a new meaning with recipes like niramish dimer dalna or vegetarian egg curry where the insides of potatoes were scooped out and stuffed with mashed lentils to resemble eggs and then cooked in a gravy.
Adman and actor Sumanto Chattopadhyay has fond memories of visiting his great aunt Purnima Thakur in Shantiniketan and the delicacies she cooked from family-inherited recipes.
The fact that the Tagores were curious as well as excited about cuisines outside their home state is obvious. They carried back recipes from their trips to various places such as Gujarati papad curry, south Indian sambar powder and rasam, Mysore pak, Maharashtrian batata poha and puran poli and Punjabi palak paneer. Recipes of Irish stew, mutton vindaloo, baked fish, meat pies and roasts, Filipino chicken curry and meat noodles from the cookbook further establish their love for international food. A certain recipe titled ‘Egg sauce’ will bemuse you only to realise it is mayonnaise!
Bose, who has been running Iti for the past six years, is doing his bit to showcase the food culture and traditions of the Thakurbari kitchen to Mumbaikars by hosting a special feast around Rabindranath Tagore’s birth anniversary. “Bengalis, irrespective of their geographical locations, feel nostalgic about home-cooked food and are at the same time indulgent in experimental cuisine too. The food prepared in Thakurbari kitchen had all aspects of traditional as well as experimental cooking,” says Bose. The menu keeps changing every weekend with a variety of innovative fish, meat and vegetarian dishes including popular Bengali sweets.
Niramish Dimer Dalna Recipe (Vegetarian Egg Curry)
- 1 kg of potatoes
- 250 gms yellow chana dal
- A paste of ginger, onions, green chilli, turmeric, garam masala (as per your judgement)
- A bit of sugar
- Salt as per taste
- Oil to cook
- Ghee for garnish
- Peel the potatoes and cut them in halves.
- Scoop them out from the centre.
- Soak the dal overnight and grind it into a paste along with sugar and salt.
- Stuff this dal into the potatoes. It will resemble yolks.
- Shallow fry them lightly and keep them aside.
- Heat oil in a kadhai and saute the blended masala.
- Pour some water and let it come to a boil.
- Add the stuffed potatoes.
- Season with salt and sugar.
- Garnish with dry garam masala and ghee.