A long long time ago:
My most thrilling childhood memory is taking in new cities, cultures and cuisines on a seemingly unending voyage past Africa to Europe aboard a merchant navy vessel captained by my father. My understanding of European cuisines deepened late teens while I studied at IHM Bombay. And while swimming in a sea of darnes, juliennes and brunoises; classical French dishes; Larousse Gastronomique and Escoffier, I fell in love with French food, with its precise processes, profusion of flavours and minimalistic elegance.
History tells us:
While we all know about the British, many are unaware of the French influence on our country. The French reached India is 1668 and eventually set up establishments including Pondichéry, Karikal and Yanaon on the Coromandel Coast, Mahé on the Malabar Coast and Chandernagor in Bengal.
From being flag bearers of literature, art, culture, philosophy and cinema to being irrepressibly vociferous in opinions and debate whether it be politics or sports, France and Bengal are similar in many ways.
I share excerpts from the article, Why Bengal Is To India, What France Is To The World, written by noted historian, Ramachandra Guha and published in The Telegraph on 5th September 2015.
- The great historian Jules Michelet once wrote of the French: ‘We gossip, we quarrel, we expend our energy in words; we use strong language, and fly into great rages over the smallest of subjects’. This is a characterization that fits the Bengalis too.
- The more adversarial the ideas, the better. Thus, as a Parisian scholar remarked in the late 19th century, ‘we are French, therefore we are born to oppose. We love opposition not for its results, but despite its results: we love it for its own sake. Our mood is combative, and we always need an enemy to fight, a fortress to capture. We like to launch the assault, not so as to enjoy the spoils of victory, but for the pleasure of charging up the ladder’.
Once more, the Bengalis can recognize themselves in these remarks. Opposition comes naturally to the Bengalis.
The affinity between our people is well described in a story about legendary French filmmaker Louis Malle’s encounter with a traffic policeman in Calcutta. It is said that the policeman called him Louis Da and discussed French cinema with him at length while a semi riotous mob was held at bay. The same policeman apparently obliged with a police charge so Malle could shoot the required scenes for his documentary Phantom India.
Distinct similarities between our food cultures include…
…judicious use of ingredients with minimal wastage. Like the French, Bengalis also use every part of a vegetable, a fact many outside Bengal are unaware of. The same is done with fish. ‘Waste not want not’ was always the rule at our home, be it raw ingredients or cooked food.
…meals served and eaten course wise, starting with simple items and going into more complex dishes. People who have studied food will know of the classical French menu, traversing 17 courses between hors d’oeuvre and boisson. And all Bengalis above a certain age would have experienced course wise meal service staring with bhatey (mashed vegetables boiled with the staple rice), going into chokka and chhenchki, dalna, jhol, jhal (a variety of dry and gravy items) and ending with mishti and paan (dessert and betel leaf stuffed with a variety of ingredients that aid in digestion) at weddings and celebrations if not in daily meals.
Named after the pungent, evocative condiment used liberally in French and Bengali cuisines, Mustard in Sangolda, North Goa has been creating waves since its inception in 2015. Professionals turned foodpreneurs Punam Singh and Shilpa Sharma together with Chefs Pritha Sen and Gregory Bazire have created a unique menu with dishes from France and Bengal. Their food is not fusion but an attempt to cull out forgotten recipes and showcase the rich history and flavours from these two regions.
And now, after 3 successful years, they have decided to expand their venture by opening a second restaurant in Mumbai.
Invited to a tasting session at the not-yet-opened Mustard at Atria Mall, Worli, I get there on a cool monsoon evening.
Located at the ground level of the mall, Mustard offers a lovely, bistro like frontage to passersby on Annie Besant Road. The interiors are charming with pastel colours and lightweight wood and cane furniture. An expansive bar counter stands at the left of the entrance; an alcove with comfortable sofas and chaise chairs is ahead on the right followed by the semi open kitchen; tables are placed at intervals allowing more than adequate space for movement and arched ceiling height windows dominate the far end. Mustard is full of little things that shout out good taste. From the painting of a lady draped in a real Dhakai saree at entrance, the ceramic collage of ‘machher biye’ (fish wedding – a Bengali folk tale), elegant cabinet full of homemade breads and various types of mustards (for sale) – everything is custom made for this restaurant.
I meet Pritha Sen, who is a noted food historian, journalist, consultant and social activist besides being the chef and my host at Mustard. Despite a busy evening with many guests to look after, she spends a lot of time talking me through each Bengali dish in detail, explaining history, influences and tastes. I understand that her part of the menu is regional and not merely Bengali. The items are from Undivided Bengal which stretched across what is now multiple states and countries and tell stories of people with a shared heritage and culinary legacy, transcending political lines. It is an encapsulation of the history of the Bengal culinary trail which includes influences of all communities settled in the region over centuries, including Persians, Arabs, Turks, Marwaris, Sikhs and of course the tribes who were original inhabitants.
She introduces me to Punam Singh who to my delight is a fellow Taj alumna and who’s eye for aesthetics is reflected in the restaurant. When asked about the birth of Mustard, Punam tells me their client Freedom Tree had zeroed in on a property for their Goa store but could not use more than half the space for retail. Shilpa and Punam advised them to open a café which did not happen and the two ladies decided to use the beautiful space and take the plunge into food business. Punam professes her love for regional Indian cuisine and says she realised Goa had a lot of different kinds of food but nothing from the east, hence the decision to go the Bengal way. French was added to complement as well as neutralize since Bengali food can be an acquired taste for those not used to simplicity and subtlety in Indian restaurant style dishes.
Food starts arriving as I delve more into their stories and I divide my time between conversation and photographs while sampling. You will probably notice my fascination for their glassware.
I have listed the items in order of appearance. While I enjoyed the entire meal, items I loved most are marked with three stars ***
Note – I am served small portions of many items in order to taste as much as possible. Please do not judge actual portion sizes by the photographs.
- Banglar Ghorowa Niramish/Amish Thala – The Bengal Mezze Platter – the Bengali name literally means a homestyle, Bengali *vegetarian/non vegetarian plate. This platter is an assortment of four items served with Baqarkhani – a crispy baked roti from the Nawabi era of Bengal and Til Badamer Jhuri – a dry crumbly, condiment with white sesame and peanuts
- ***Palong sager bhorta – steamed spinach blended with fried garlic – aromatic garlic adds just the right flavour to this very simple spinach blend. The deep, rich green of is a result of minimal/optimum cooking.
- Begun pora – charcoal roasted brinjal mashed with onions, chillies and mustard oil – smoky and pungent, this is an old favourite from Bengal that tickles the palate. I like the punch it packs even though I am not really a brinjal lover.
- ***Chingri machh bhatey – minced prawns with mustard – melt in the mouth and I cannot stop eating despite being warned of the number of courses on offer
- Machher matha diye lal kumror chhanchra – red pumpkin mash cooked with fish head – this is a wonderful mix with the sweetness of pumpkin cutting through the spiciness of the overall dish.
In keeping with Bengali traditions, the first course is simple and light and requires minimal prepping and cooking time. I taste each dish by itself but ideally these would be eaten with steamed rice.
*Please note that the Mezze Platter comes in separate vegetarian and non vegetarian formats. The mixed platter you see was for me to taste a bit of both.
- Tartine à la Provençale – red pepper, egg plant, artichoke, zucchini and goat cheese with pesto on olive oil toasted rosemary foccacia – this traditional dish from Provence, characterized by the use of olive oil and garlic is so light that it is more hors d’oeuvre than sandwich.
- Salad Niçoise – the classic, fresh salad needs no description. It is interesting to note that having originated in Nice it has been adapted in various forms, leading to many disagreements between traditionalists and innovators.
- ***Pisalardiere – Onion Tart – savoury puff tart with loads of onions, confit bell pepper and olives – the sweetness of onions, spice of bell pepper and tartness of olive form a perfect topping for the crusty base.
- ***Taka-Luchi Alur Dom – this cocktail sized luchi takes it’s name from an ‘ek taka’ – one rupee coin and is served skewered around alu dum. Like most Bengalis, I love alu (potato) and this one with a tempering of asafoetida is beyond delicious.
- ***Oeuf Pochés à la Dijonnaise – Poached eggs with Mustard – the humble poached egg gets a complete makeover at Mustard. A little meal by itself with a rich bread base, egg, sautéed onion rings and salad, this is so good that I am almost tempted to forgo the mains!
- Murgir Shaynka Tikia – Braised Chicken Patties – chicken is not something that was cooked in Bengali kitchens of yore but this pan roasted patty is a nice little snack item.
- Crumble des Legumes – Vegetable Crumble – fresh seasonal vegetables with olive oil and herbs, baked like a crumble with parmesan and pesto dressing. The vegetarian food in mustard is really about vegetables and they truly sparkle in this dish. In an era when most vegetarian mains have either paneer or mashed/deep fried vegetables, this crumble is like a breath of fresh air.
- ***Husseini Curry – also known as Husseini Kalia, this is recorded as a celebrated dish under the Nawabs of Dhaka and possibly named after a much loved Nawab of Bengal who founded the Hussein Shahi dynasty. The curry consists of skewered mutton cubes, pearl onions and ginger slices in a gravy. The mutton is so tender that I barely need to chew, with ginger adding a sharp tang and pearl onions an interesting textural variance.
The gravy is velvety and I am informed that it is the result of slow cooking in mutton stock. All cooks have been trained in methods of slow cooking and nothing is a quick fix in the kitchen. They also do their own butchery since cuts of meat have to be perfect – another first this.
The Husseini Curry is served with *Dalpuri, Chholar Dal and Tomato Chutney – chholar dal is a traditional Bengali dal cooked with coconut. It has a slight sweetish aftertaste which Mustard has modified to suit all palates. The chutney is sweet and tangy. But what I really really want to focus on is the dalpuri! Dal is lentil and puri is a fried Indian bread, so it is a no brainer that dalpuri is traditionally a (deep) fried bread with a stuffing of lentils. Pritha Sen’s genius has turned this into healthy, griddle roasted, almost gossamer thin pieces of deliciousness. She says it is the way her mother always made it. I start off refusing to touch them because I am happy focussing on the meat, break off a little piece and stop only when I realise I have polished off 3 of the 4 that were on my plate!
- Aam Doi – Steamed Mango Yoghurt – fresh mango flavoured steamed curd – Bengali meals are incomplete without doi so I have to do justice to this one. Mango is the current seasonal choice and will be replaced by other fruits later in the year. And sometimes you might get Bhapa Doi – plain steamed curd which is a classic, slightly richer than fruit curd though.
- Daaber Mithai – Bengali cottage cheese steamed with fresh tender coconut – this is a dessert which looks like but is not quite a sandesh. Soft cottage cheese is overlaid with the delicate flavour of tender coconut, a boon for those who want dessert but cannot handle anything very sweet.
In my mind I have labelled Pritha Sen a Food Archaeologist i.e. a person capable of excavating her way into the furthest recesses of food history in order to find forgotten recipes. Knowledgeable and articulate, she is one of the best storytellers I have encountered in the food world.
I am delighted to experience Bengal – the land of my birth and France the land of romance and dreams, coming together through food, my eternal love. Told that the final menu has 56 dishes, I know each one will take you into a journey of culinary discovery. The best part of the meal at Mustard is the feeling of being replete but not stuffed and that itself is a great reason to head there for a meal. My soul is definitely contented with the চমত্কার আহার (amazing food).
**MCT verdict: It is a treat to discover untold food stories of France and Undivided Bengal through Mustard’s creations.**