December 2, 2023


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Book Excerpt: A Taste of Time – A Food History of Calcutta by Mohona Kanjilal

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An exclusive excerpt from Taste of Time – A Food History of Calcutta by Mohona Kanjilal, (Speaking Tiger Books, April 2021) an immaculately researched historical and cultural account of Calcutta’s rich gastronomical affair spanning centuries

The Founding of Calcutta

In the early seventeenth century, when the British East India Company began making inroads into India, Bengal was under the stable political leadership of the Mughals, though the Portuguese had already established themselves in trade in the port city of Chittagong (Chattogram) and the Dutch were involved in trading activities in the province. Bengal was a very wealthy region and when absorbed into the Mughal Empire in 1576, it was regarded as its wealthiest province. Then a globally prominent trading region, Bengal was regarded by the Europeans as the ‘richest country’ to trade with and was renowned for its textile (particularly cotton, muslin and silk) manufacturing industry. Unfortunately, it is its enormous wealth that turned out to be Bengal’s Achilles heel as it attracted the avarice of many ruling powers. One of these players, Britain, was responsible for draining and bleeding this rich region of its wealth.

When the British reached the Subah (province) of Bengal, they began their trading operations in Baleshwar (Balasore) and Hariharpur (both in present-day Odisha). They developed excellent trade relations with the powerful Sheth and Basak merchant families in Sutanuti, a flourishing village on the banks of the Hooghly, which was already quite important in the textile trade. A relatively unimportant village nearby, lying between Sutanuti and Gobindapur, was then known as Kalikata. The three villages eventually merged to form what would be known throughout the world as the city of Calcutta (in Bengali—and officially, since 2001—Kolkata).

The most widely accepted etymological explanation of the city’s name comes from its association with the goddess Kali. Many linguistic variations suggest the goddess’s close association with the city, such as Kali-kota (the home or abode of Kali), the Sanskrit Kali-kshetra, (the field or terrain of Kali) and Kali-ghatta (a north Indian distortion of Kalighat, a nearby settlement, which means the riverbank of Kali).

Credit for founding the city of Calcutta has historically been a taste of time to Job Charnock, an agent of the British East India Company, who had great faith in the commercial potential of the area. Charnock was born in England around 1630 and came to India in 1655–56. Within two years, he had become a junior member of the Council of Cossimbazar, a commercial town which is today a part of West Bengal’s Murshidabad district. Cossimbazar used to be a very prosperous town and a great trading centre in the Subah of Bengal. From Cossimbazar, Charnock was sent to Patna, where he was put in charge of the Company’s factory. In 1680, he took charge of the Cossimbazar factory and in 1686, became the Company’s agent for all of Bengal.

During Charnock’s tenure in India, hostilities between the British and the silk weavers and traders of the Murshidabad area had resulted in the closing down of many British factories in Bengal. Charnock was forced to shift base to Hooghly. But there, too, he faced the ire of Subahdar Shaista Khan, the Mughal Governor of the Subah of Bengal, and had to retreat to the trading village of Sutanuti—his first time staying at the site that would become an important part of the future city of Calcutta. It was during this period that he became convinced of the superior location and advantages of the flourishing textile village. He was convinced that Sutanuti would be the best place to establish the Company’s headquarters in Bengal because of its strong military and commercial potential. His stubborn pursuit of this idea ultimately won over the reluctant council of the British East India Company in Madras. In March 1690, they procured permission from Emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi to re-establish a factory in Bengal for trading. The agent set sail for Sutanuti from Madras.

Charnock landed near Nimtala Ghat in Sutanuti on 24 August 1690, and is believed to have hoisted the British flag on the banks of the Hooghly. Calcutta’s official birthday was thus considered to be 24 August 1690 for more than three hundred years.

In 2003, based on the findings of an expert committee of five eminent historians, the Calcutta High Court ruled that the city of Calcutta originated through a general process of rural settlement, clusters of which became part of the Company’s trading factory in the last decade of the seventeenth century, and grew into a town in the eighteenth century. Historians have also pointed out that references have been made to a certain ‘Kalikatah’ in some of India’s important writings, such as Bipradas Pipilai’s Manasa Vijaya, which was written in 1495 and refers to a place called Kalikatah and Abu’l-Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari, which was written in Persian in 1596, and also refers to a place by the same name. Moreover, one simple founder could not have created the city. In addition to Charnock, people who contributed to the long process of the city’s formation, included his son-in-law, Charles Eyre; John Goldsborough, an administrator with the British East India Company; Lakshmikanta Majumdar, who developed the land in the area; the Sheths and the Basaks, who traded with the British from the three villages; and the Sabarna Roy Choudhurys, one of the oldest zamindari families of Calcutta settled in Barisha (historically, one of the oldest boroughs in the city), who sold the villages to the British. Finally, the court ruled that Calcutta cannot have an official birthday—hence giving the ruling on the sobriquet ‘Calcutta Birthday Case’.

Regardless of his claim in history, it is indisputable that Job Charnock considered Sutanuti and its neighbouring areas to be an ideal site for the British East India Company’s headquarters in India. He recognized that the area provided enough space to accommodate strong fortifications and a rapidly expanding trade centre. Its proximity to the sea made a commercially viable harbour possible. The site was also ideal from a defence point of view as it was protected by the Hooghly on one side and salt marshes and wetlands on the other. It was also well-connected to northern India by plenty of rivers, navigable canals and trunk roads.

Excerpted with permission from Taste of Time – A Food History of Calcutta by Mohona Kanjilal, (Speaking Tiger Books, April 2021).

About the Book

Calcutta, once the nucleus of the Raj, was at the heart of a thriving economy and unparalleled administration. Over the centuries, this teeming, cosmopolitan metropolis has become home to people from various communities who have lent its food and culture their distinctive tastes and culinary rituals. The heady romance of palates and flavours in the ‘Royal Capital’ has fostered diversity in food and culture all the while adhering to the city’s Bengali roots.

A Taste of Time is an insightful journey through the ever-changing landscape of Calcutta’s food and cultural milieu, from its decades-old cutlet, jhal muri,and puchka stalls to its iconic continental restaurants like Firpo’s and Flurys; from its oldest tea shop, Favourite Cabin, set up in 1924, to the 21st-century fine-dining restaurant “threesixtythree” . Mohona Kanjilal, through her immaculate research, deftly captures the stories behind the city’s endearing culture of‘bikel chaar-ter cha’ (tea at 4 p.m.); its renowned bakeries like Nahoum’s; and the invention of rasogollas and samosas (or shingara). Diving into Calcutta’s dazzling history, she explores how the food habits of early European settlers, Jewish, Armenian, Chinese, Parsi and other expats, and the city’s next-door neighbours like Darjeeling and Odisha, have made the culinary fabric of Calcutta immensely rich and layered.

This delightful and comprehensive history of food in Calcutta, peppered with mouth-watering nuggets, recipes and intriguing accounts of some revolutionary personalities of Bengal will appeal to the mind and tastebuds alike.

About the Author

Mohona Kanjilal was born in Kolkata and spent most of her childhood in Bengaluru. She began her career in Kolkata as a freelance journalist. It was during her stint with the newspapers that she got bitten by the writing bug and ventured into full-time writing. A Taste of Time is her third book and first work of non-fiction. Prior to this book, she has authored two short-story collections. She is an alumnus of Loreto College, Kolkata.

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