Having lived in Madras for two years I, like all Bengalis here, have made my peace with the fact that one cannot get the kind of fish we have grown up with in Calcutta. The fish-market in Calcutta is nothing short of a sensory epic. The dark narrow lanes with raised platforms, on which the fish-mongers sit. The warm oozing blood of fresh-water carps that were swimming in the water seconds ago – now with one ruthless movement of his hands along the ominous bnoti the man cuts open and out come gushing the blood, the guts and if one is lucky, the roe. The prawns beckon with their arthropodous promises beside the hilsas that shine like silver, their listless eyes bloodshot and clear under the bright incandescent bulbs. In Calcutta Fish is to be revered.
While it is possible to procure fish in Madras, it is never of the quality that will satisfy a Calcuttan. Most shopkeepers here lack the expertise required to store and handle fish, delicate as they are, and it becomes very telling since the lower demands call for longer periods of storage. Having been disappointed several times, and considering how much one needs to travel to get barely decent fish here, I had long given up the Piscean pursuits. Most of the fish I had here were either as fish-fillet fries at Parfait 3, or the spicy fried fish on the beach. But that is mostly sea-fish. That brings us to Bay Leaf.
Poila Boishakh is never a good time to be stuck in Madras and Bengalis will go to considerable lengths to recreate at least the culinary hemisphere of Noboborsho. It never makes up for the ‘SALE season’, the mad rush of Gariahat where everything from bed sheets to lingerie is being hawked at a discount. It never makes up for the beautiful Kalboishakhis and the rain soaked evenings. But, oh well. So, we took the precaution of reserving seats for dinner at Bay Leaf and even while making the call were amazed at the typical refinement of language and diction by the lady who picked up the call – a stark contrast to ‘Solunga saar‘ you hear at most places here.
Run by a Bengali family, Bay Leaf makes authentic and delicious Bengali food. The food ranges from cabin or cafe-style food like Kobiraji Cutlet, Cutlet, Fish fries to home food like Koraishutir Kochuri (a light deep-fried flat bread with mashed pea stuffing), Chholar Dal (a dal made from split Bengal gram with a garnish of raisins and fried coconut slices), Dhokar Dalna (a lentil cake laced with asafoetida in a rich sauce), Machh bhaape (white fish fillets smeared in mustard paste and yoghurt, and steamed or pan roasted in a banana leaf pouch), Kosha Mangsho (a rich goat-meat curry) among others.
We arrived at half past seven in the evening. We started by ordering a bhetki kobiraji (bhetki fillet batter fried with a meshwork of angel hair like batter cocooning it) (Rs. 135) and koraishutir kochuri (Rs.60 for a plate of three) with chholar dal (Rs. 90). The kobiraji was delicately spiced, fluffy and not greasy for a dish that is deep fried. The portion is big enough for two people to share unless the kobiraji is all you are planning to eat. The koraishutir kochuris come at three a plate, which discounting the ridiculous portion (three? Come on), were light and fit for angels – a perfect delivery system for the reasonably good chholar dal.
For the main course we had a peas pulao (Rs. 85) with doi potol (pointed gourd in a sweet yoghurt sauce) (Rs. 140), mutton kosha (Rs. 485), daab chingri (prawns baked inside a tender coconut in a creamy sauce) (Rs. 475) and parshey shorshe (Parshey fish in a mustard sauce) (Rs. 130). It was not a Bengali style pulao but not bad. The doi potol was fairly good and once again there were three potols to a plate. The mutton kosha was delicious, the sauce richly spiced with garam masala and that beautiful heat of ginger, green chillies and pepper typical of the dish. The daab chingri was really chingri malaikari put into a tender coconut and baked – which tasted perfectly nice like chingri malaikari should, the sauce creamy and mildly sweet but because the prawns were probably cooked neither in the sauce nor inside the coconut. The parshey shorshe was tasty with two medium-sized parsheys in a pungent mustard sauce.
We ended the meal with a kheer malpoa (Rs. 70) (sweet pancake stuffed with kheer) with three (again) malpoas per plate.
I will refrain from comparing Bay Leaf to the food in Calcutta because having lived in Madras for two years I can imagine what a task it must be to put together a Bengali meal here. Even if I were to do that, Bay Leaf would make the owners proud. The portions are slightly small for the price and awkward due to their fixation with three. But they serve an authentic Bengali meal and on a day like yesterday when I am missing Calcutta and all its charms, I am nothing but grateful to the owners for making something like Bay Leaf possible.