Chef Joymalya Banerjee plans to put Bengali cuisine on the global food map

Jul 02, 2017, 12:30 IST | Chandrima Pal

A maverick chef-restaurateur in Calcutta has taken two of its biggest loves - the phuchka and the biryani - and shocked the living daylights off purists

From aubergine to fish and crab, the phuchka shells have a variety of fillings
From aubergine to fish and crab, the phuchka shells have a variety of fillings

A maverick chef-restaurateur in Calcutta has taken two of its biggest loves - the phuchka and the biryani - and shocked the living daylights off purists.

Chef Joymalya Banerjee, aka Joy, is piping in pureed wax gourd, aubergine, fish, crab, keema and prawns in the shells and serving them with nolen gur, and spicy honey lemon waters. The biryani has inspired his latest cocktail with baby potatoes cooked in biryani spices and soaked in alcohol. The vodka-based drink is served in terracotta tumblers, that look like the dhunuchi - used widely during during Durga Puja to dance to the beats of the dhaak. It is cheeky. Daring. But, chances are, once you have overcome your initial shock, you will be dancing to the chef's tune.

The idea behind this latest innovation came from his Street Food Festival fare, held last year. He put a twist to jhal muri by replacing the muri (bhel) with granola bars and tossed it up with Kosha Murgi (Bengali style semi-dry chicken). Another example of the audacity of his imagination tempered with a deep understanding of flavours and textures.

Bohemian, his functional looking restaurant in an old Ballygunj neighourhood in South Calcutta, has become a food destination simply by word of mouth. Curious tourists, globetrotters, NRIs and expatriates have the restaurant on their must-do list while locals drop by every evening. During festivals, the queue stretches for hours.

But, five years ago, when Bohemian first opened its doors, guests were gobsmacked. The menu was unlike anything they had seen - crabs baked with chilli pickles, cheese and kalmi greens and fish curry infused with radhuni, (a seed used in Bengali, Burmese and Thai cuisine known for its celery-like flavour and parsley-like aroma.). Some thought the chef-owner was trying to sell them paints - with words such as emulsion and reduction used to describe the dishes. Others wondered why he had taken familiar ingredients and done very unfamiliar things to them.

Chef Joy says he wanted to change the way Bengali cuisine was perceived the world over and at home. "Tradition is not something to cling on to. But develop. People laughed at us then, they still laugh at the kind of things we do," he says about the average Bengali who is averse to change. But they keep coming back - hoping to be surprised, shocked and discover something new again.

"Everything about Bohemian is about a leap of faith," says Joy. And it began when he realised, that cooking came naturally to him. "It is like breathing," he shrugs. Which is why he refuses to call this his "profession," and reiterates that the restaurant is not just a business but a passion, and an extension of his personality. "I have been a non conformist. I never followed the rules," says the Grateful Dead fan, who has a "chauffeur driven bike" because it is the "most practical mode of transport in the city."

Eight years with the Oh! Calcutta chain of restaurants, made Joy realise that much as he loved his roots, he wanted to look ahead. "The easiest thing for me to have done was launch another Oh! Calcutta, but I studiously avoided it," he says. His eclectic menu today is toplined with dishes such as pork in banana leaf, paanch phoron (Bengali five spice) chicken skewers, bhekti rolls with pomegranate and mustard and chicken wraps with nolen gur and darjeeling chillies.

While Joy uses classic and contemporary techniques, he believes in working with the quintessence of the ingredients. For instance, he is now developing a dessert simply called Paan. "Most people use the flavour of paan masala for paan-inspired dishes. But I am trying to use the pungency of the betel leaf."

"I have turned down offers to take Bohemian to New Delhi and Paris. I have never worked with investors. I know any expansion plan has to be financially viable. I would rather lend my brand name to a new concept than create another Bohemian, where I may not have control over every aspect," he says, adding, "I was told that at some point, you either run out of capital or creativity. But I would like to prove them wrong."

Next, chef Joy is launching a range of gourmet dog biscuits online. "I have a lot of plans. I am here for the long haul," he smiles. Two woofs of approval to that.

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