What would you expect in a Chennai restaurant? Local delicacies such as the dosa, sambar, kulambu, and saltwater fish on a banana leaf, right?
Wrong, if it was self-taught cook Joyadrita Ragavendran Chatterjee’s offerings you were looking at.
In that case, your menu might well comprise signature Bengali cuisine that the true-blue Bengali would drool over: Shukto — a unique mixed-vegetable stew; luchi — a deep-fried flatbread, something like the North Indian puri but made of flour; cholar dal — a lentil preparation; macher jhol — the Bengali’s eternal favourite fish curry: and mishti doi — everyone’s eternal favourite milk-based dessert from Bengal.
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‘Chennai is opening up’
“Chennai is slowly opening up to different cultures and cuisines,” says Chatterjee, a Bengali who moved to the city four years ago and has been running a Bengali food weekend takeaway service from her home kitchen ever since.
“Young and old Chennaities are especially warming up to Bengali cuisine,” she says.
Bearing testimony to Chatterjee’s assertion that Bengali cuisine is finding favour in this southern metropolis is the burgeoning fan following on her Instagram page, and their effusive praise of her cooking.
“Had the yummiest meal today,” declares one follower on the page that is replete with photos of typically Bengali dishes and desserts.
“Proper Bengali cuisine run by this amazing home chef@foodofjoyflavoursofbengal.”
Chatterjee runs a weekend takeaway business from her home, offering only authentic Bengali dishes, using ingredients typically associated with Bengali cooking.
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How it started
It all began in June 2019 when Chatterjee hosted 13 tables along with “Cook and Dine” experiences — where you assist the chef in making the dishes, and later enjoy the meal together — at her Chennai home in collaboration with Authenticook, a platform promoting home chefs to showcase their native cuisines.
Chatterjee had relocated from Mumbai earlier that year because her Tamil husband got a better job offer in the city, forcing her to leave her job as a communications coach.
But soon after moving to Chennai, Authenticook happened, where she cooked for travellers and locals at her home.
Chatterjee comes from a family of foodies and took on cooking at a young age and embarking on a professional culinary journey seemed to be the natural choice after her Authenticook experience.
Helping her take a leap of faith into an unknown territory were people working in Chennai’s food industry.
For instance, food evangelist Yogita Uchil and Chef Shri Bala — a chef-turned-entrepreneur, producing homemade boutique masalas under her brand ShriBala — introduced her to other industry experts.
“That same year, Chef Regi Mathew of Tranquil Kitchen Studio helped me source ingredients to curate a Bengali meal during Durga Pujo and introduced me to Chennaites,” she recalls.
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Food of JOY: Flavours of Bengal
From then on, Chatterjee began whipping up authentic Bengali meals for locals. Alongside, she began documenting her entrepreneurial journey on her Instagram page, Food of JOY: Flavours of Bengal.
Chatterjee says both her Instagram handle and her weekend takeaways have been a success right from the start.
There have been enquiries from different timelines for their family and friends in Chennai, she says; some wanted to surprise their friends, some wanted comforting food for their ailing family and friends while some wanted to make their special days even better.
“I have fulfilled all their requirements,” she says proudly.
“Besides that, I have successfully completed six hotel and restaurant collaborations with brands like Novotel, Hyatt Regency, Hilton etc.
When East meets South
But no matter where she plies her trade, Chatterjee is quite strict about ensuring one thing: that her dishes have flavours and taste similar to what these would have back in her native Kolkata.
For instance, Bengali fish dishes are often flavoured with mustard seeds and mustard oil, giving them a slightly pungent but distinctive flavour.
In Chennai, on the other hand, fish is traditionally fried or grilled in coconut oil.
To Chatterjee’s credit, her biggest validation comes from South Indian patrons who had never tried the mustard oil flavour in foods but embraced her offerings wholeheartedly.
Chatterjee chooses her raw materials carefully. Local vendors supply the fish typically used in the various macher jhol preparations: catla, rohu, bhetki and shrimp.
The items that she gets “mandatorily” from Kolkata are what she calls “typical ingredients” that give Bengali cuisine its distinctive flavours.
These include a fragrant lime commonly grown in Bengal and locally known as “godhoraj lebu”; even its leaves are used in cooking; “bori” or sun-dried dumplings of lentil paste, and the sweet-smelling, flavourful and short-grained Gobindo Bhog rice that is especially used in Bengali rice dishes like khichdi or pulao.
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Delivering authentic Bengali flavours
Her insistence on delivering authentic Bengali flavours seems to have clicked with her patrons, going by their rave reviews on her Instagram page.
But Chatterjee herself is quite modest about her growing fan base.
“Though I’ve been in the culinary world for over three years now, I had no prior experience or knowledge of the same,” she says humbly.
“I feel I’ve barely managed to touch the tip of the iceberg as a whole lot of studies and experiments lie ahead of me.”
Chatterjee grew up in Kolkata and lived with an extended joint family. Her home, which has housed four generations, was always bustling with activity, most of which circled food.
Chatterjee remembers her paternal grandmother and mother sitting down along with other female members of the family to plan the menu of the day; she would sit next to them with her toy kitchen set and emulate them.
“This is where my rudimentary interest in the kitchen began,” she says.
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Cuisine of undivided Bengal
Chatterjee’s fare reflects the cuisine of the undivided Bengal. While her father’s roots were in West Bengal, her mother’s were in erstwhile East Bengal, or today’s Bangladesh.
“My growing up years have been a beautiful amalgamation of both cultures, as they say, ‘the best of both the worlds’,” Chatterjee says.
Some of her grandmother’s and mother’s dishes that Chatterjee loves to recreate are aloo poshto — potatoes cooked in a poppy seeds gravy; enchorer dalna — raw jackfruit curry; bhaat er bora — fritters made of leftover rice; mochar ghonto — banana flower curry, and the evergreen macher jhol.
Of her future plans, Chatterjee says she wants to write a cookbook with a major focus on the food that came out of her grandmother and mother’s hearth.
“The book will also talk about food experiments and failures which most people don’t talk about,” she says.
“And I intend to add personalised illustrations that depict my childhood memories around food quite poignantly.”