Yesterday, 15th April, was Poila Boishakh or the Bengali New Year.
As the saying goes, for Bengalis it is ‘Baro maashe tero parbon’ (13 festivals in twelve months) or an unending series of festivities – Durga Pujo, Kali Pujo, Saraswati Pujo, Dol (Holi), Christmas & Gregorian New Year(!), Lokhhi Pujo and of course Bengali New Year.
Amazingly, while a number of these are Hindu religious festivals, the underlying theme is often that of food!
For people like me, who are part of the Bengali diaspora, this is often the biggest connect with our roots. Let me state my case just in case you thought I was exaggerating. I asked a few fellow Bengalis at work about their New Year plans. All of them answered with a vague, ‘don’t know, some good food probably’. Or, if you go to the Durga Puja at Bandra, you will see many many more people in the food stalls than at the puja where the deity is kept and the prayers happen.
Oh Calcutta, the Bengali restaurant at Tardeo, has been Kainaz's and my favoured haunt for Bengali New Year at Mumbai. It is the only good Bengali restaurant in South Mumbai. A number of Bengali eateries have opened in the suburbs of Andheri and Kandivli. But none in downtown or at Bandra where we stay.
In fact that's my only grouse against my beloved Bandra. No Bengali restaurants or Roll Shops. Why? Aren't we loyal to our biryani? Don't we wince when Ganguly wipes a tear in press conference after being dumped yet again? Don't we bleed when you prick a pin through us? You get the point.
Kainaz and I know the drill by now but here’s what to expect at the Oh Calcutta Poila Boisakh dinner
- Lots of people – remember it is the only big restaurant in South Mumbai right up to Bandra, and Bengali’s will go ONLY to Bengali restaurants on Bengali New year
- A long wait - Going on an empty stomach is not recommended. In our first year Kainaz and I even contemplated going to the nearby MacDonald for a bite while we waited. This year we were fortified ourselves with coffee and a lovely cookie based pudding at Costa Coffee before dinner
- Frayed tempers – Bengalis, unlike the Rajputs or Sikhs, are not famous for their martial instincts…but make us wait for our dinner and you will see a whole new face of the Bengali Bhadralok (gentleman)
- Buffet spread – they have a special buffet on the new year… around Rs 600 (12 USD) with a good range of Bengali dishes. This time they had kosha chicken, fish fry, mochar chop, kacha lonka mutton, rui in mustard curry, a prawn curry, luchi, rice, pulao, 5 types of mishti (sweets) and other stuff. So why did we give this a miss? They lay the buffet in a spare room which doesn’t have the nice ambience of the main restaurant. It is more like an attic. The waiting period was very long as most people head for this. I am not a big fan of buffets as you are spoilt for choices and can’t concentrate on your favourite things. The food often gets cold and congealed in the trays.
- A la carte – the regular menu is served in the main restaurant. This had a comparative less waiting period. We managed it in less than 30 minutes (went at 9.40 PM and got the table at 10.10 PM) which was a new world record and really impressed Kainaz. I guess years of loyalty to Oh Calcutta and a few blog posts worked in my favour. We had a Chitol (a much sought after fish for Bengalis) maacher kaalia and rice and luchi and kosha manghso. The food was up to their usual high standards despite the crowd and pressure. Damages to the two of us with a Pepsi and rasgulla came to the same as two buffet meals(Rs 1400/ 30 USD for two with no alcohol ). We got to have a lot of what we were particularly fond of. And in the main restaurant, where the setting is far more special and classy. And the food was brought hot to the table unlike in the buffet.
- Calm under fire – I think the staff managed it fairly well despite the petulant crowds. Perhaps those who waited longer might have a different take on this. My Pepsi was flat and there was no fizz when they got it to the table. They changed it when I pointed it out and got a bottle and opened it in front of me
- The crowd – we saw some very typical table groups. 1.Parents and their son who ate in complete silence (we are not a very demonstrative race in comparison to the hugging and kissing Parsis) 2. A mixed group of Bengali and non Bengali friends. The two Bengalis at the table animatedly took over the table, ordered for everyone, had violent debates on Bengali grammar (we are a literary race). Their non Bengali friends and everyone else let a sigh of relief when they stepped out for a smoke (show me a Bengali who doesn’t smoke or wear glasses and I will show you a tiger at Sunderbans) 3. A lot of people of like us who were eating with a blissful smile 4. And the odd Parsi (!) couple from the nearby Parsi neighbourhoods
Well, The Bengali New Year is over and we are back to the English calendar. Not that we need an excuse to eat.
As far as Oh Calcutta and nobo borsho? As they say, ‘aashchhe bochhor aabar hobe’ (once gain next year).
- they serve the New year buffet for lunch too. I reckon that the crowds are less
- notun jama or new clothes are key to a good Bengali New year