I have had some memorable meals on the road; meals I will never forget.
Couscous at an outdoor cafe in Fes with Katherine and our guide Mohammed. Fresh shrimp the size of small lobsters served with cold beer and homemade taro chips in Pinar Del Rio with Sarah and company. Daily meals cooked by my host mother, Cecile, in Archachon, France, regional delights fried and baked and topped with creme fraiche every noon with nary a thought to calories or cholesterol. Almost anywhere I have gone, there has been good food in surprising places or with surprising company. India has been no exception.
In Kolkata we were invited for lunch in the home of Ruby Palchoudhuri, the Director of the Crafts Council of West Bengal. I first discovered the organization on the internet when I was putting my grant proposal together and researching where I might be able to connect with the Patua. The mission of the council is to help the craftspeople, folk artists and artisans of West Bengal gain recognition for their crafts and work. This is no small task. For example, the council has facilitated literacy classes in the small village of Naya where we visited the Patua. They have brought the scroll painters to the United States, Hawaii and Australia to demonstrate their crafts and even helped one scroll painter, Rani Chitrakar, produce a children's book.
Ruby and I standing outside her house in Kolkata.
But I digress. We learned about most of the council's work sitting comfortably in Ruby's living room in Kolkata, surrounded by beautiful paintings done by noted Bengali artists (she later arranged for us to meet with the Bengali artist Paritosh Sen, noted for bringing modernism to India). Our conversation with Ruby, the driving force behind the crafts council, was one of our first indications of the deep pride that Bengalis have in their culture. This is perhaps the quality that we most fell in love with during our stay in Kolkata. In fact, throughout India we have found that while Indians are very curious about Americans, they are intensely proud of their country, their religion and their culture. And, as the way to the heart is the stomache, the way we have best come to appreciate this culture is through the food.
Whatever neurotic fears about eating the local food we might have harbored to this point in our journey dissipated in Ruby's elegant, curved dining room over the delicious fried bitter leaves, each about the size of the palm of your hand, that she served us as an appetizer. This was followed by hot rice and dal (a kind of lentil stew), okra and fragrantly seasoned bherar mangsho (goat). As our trip progressed we found that some of these are typical not only of Bengali cuisine, but are also common in the neighboring state of Orissa. Other popular local items include bitter gourd and fish; Bengalis and Orissans love their fish.
The meal ended with tea, a sweet yogurt custard in a small terra cotta bowl (terra cotta bowls are kind of like disposable dishes here) and what I think was shôndesh, little balls of chhena (unripened cheese) mixed with wheat flour and sugar, fried and soaked in honey or sugar. They resemble doughnut holes, but are moist and dripping with syrup.
Ruby was a grand host, urbane and witty and very much connected to Kolkata, the city that is her home. After lunch she sent us packing with her driver and a guide to visit the Gurusaday Museum, which showcases Bengal's arts and crafts and houses a large patachitra scroll collection. She arranged for us to spend time with the director and have a personal tour of the collection. Having learned that Chris is a painter, she then had us delivered to the CIMA gallery, Kolkata's premier gallery of modern art. By the end of our trip I came to see Ruby as Kolkata's hostess, someone wise enough to see the city's flaws but enough in love to overlook them.
She shared that when she had the chance to meet former French President Francois Mitterand she told him, all Kolkata can offer you is her soul, and, by the end of our visit, I felt she'd offered the same to us.
Again, we are off, Erin, I promise my next entry will begin with a full detailing of the desserts and food we've eaten on the way. True to form, we've eaten a lot. I'm about five entries behind, but today we're off to Rajasthan where we hear there are plenty of internet cafes and a cooking class to look forward to.